Magazine September 9, 2019, Issue

Motown

Singing legend Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, pose at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, Calif., October 11, 2001. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

A sign in the window of its modest headquarters offered a big boast: “The Sound of Young America.” The only thing the slogan lacked was a proper amount of ambition. In the 1960s, Motown Records became the sound of all America, producing hit after hit on Detroit’s musical assembly line — and creating some of the finest pop songs ever written.

Founder Berry Gordy Jr. barely could play an instrument, but he possessed a genius for knowing what both black and white Americans wanted to hear on their radios. Half a century later, dozens of Motown hits remain standards: “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and recorded by the Temptations, with its simple and infectious guitar riff; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with a soaring chorus by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, both doomed to early deaths (he at 44 from a gunshot, she at 24 from a brain tumor); “Where Did Our Love Go?” — originally penned by Motown songwriters for the Marvelettes, who rejected it, and then snatched up by the Supremes, who made it their first smash as they went on to become arguably America’s most commercially successful vocal group.

Forget all of the recent Woodstock nostalgia: The Motown sound dominated a decade. In 1966, reports Gerald Posner in his history of the recording company, 75 percent of Motown’s releases charted (when the industry standard was 10 percent). One week in 1968, Motown accounted for half of the top ten, as ranked by Billboard. Supporting the performers who became household names were the Funk Brothers, a baker’s dozen of mostly anonymous session musicians who collectively “played on more number-one hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined.” That’s the claim of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 2002 documentary on their little-known accomplishment.

Much has been made of Motown’s role in improving race relations through the act of making and selling songs. Yet it’s also a story of American enterprise — and at one point, the record label was the largest black-owned company in the country. Gordy was passionate about the music, but he also grew up in a family that ran a small business and admired Booker T. Washington, who believed that black advancement depended on hard work and economic achievement rather than white pity. As it happens, Gordy’s first hit song was “Money (That’s What I Want),” with Barrett Strong on vocals (and later covered by the Beatles). The love of money may not be humanity’s worthiest desire, but, like the traditional love songs that were always Motown’s staple, it speaks to us all, no matter the color of our skin. And it’s easy to dance to.

Today it’s possible to hum “Money” as well as tunes by the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, and more in the room where these artists recorded for the ages, in the basement studio of Detroit’s Motown Museum.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

In This Issue

What We Love About America

U.S.

American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Elections

Bernie’s Huge Victory

Bernie had a massive night in Nevada, with a diverse nomination-winning-type coalition. According to the entrance poll, he won whites and Hispanics and did well among blacks. He won men and women. He won college graduates and did particularly well with non-college graduates. He won Democrats and independents. ... Read More
Elections

Bernie’s Huge Victory

Bernie had a massive night in Nevada, with a diverse nomination-winning-type coalition. According to the entrance poll, he won whites and Hispanics and did well among blacks. He won men and women. He won college graduates and did particularly well with non-college graduates. He won Democrats and independents. ... Read More
Elections

Bernie Sanders Is a Moral Monster

Bernie Sanders complains that some criticism of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is “unfair.” The Castro government lined up political dissidents and shot them. It tortured them. It weaponized the medical profession to torture and deform its critics. Its campaign of murder was extraordinary, its ... Read More
Elections

Bernie Sanders Is a Moral Monster

Bernie Sanders complains that some criticism of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is “unfair.” The Castro government lined up political dissidents and shot them. It tortured them. It weaponized the medical profession to torture and deform its critics. Its campaign of murder was extraordinary, its ... Read More
U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More
U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More

Escape from Wuhan

The onset of the crisis in Wuhan startled me like a jump scare in a horror movie. You’ve seen the kind I mean. The audience is led to believe that the monster, psycho killer—or what have you—pursuing the intended victim is still distant. Then whatever it is stands up from behind, leaps out in front, bursts ... Read More

Escape from Wuhan

The onset of the crisis in Wuhan startled me like a jump scare in a horror movie. You’ve seen the kind I mean. The audience is led to believe that the monster, psycho killer—or what have you—pursuing the intended victim is still distant. Then whatever it is stands up from behind, leaps out in front, bursts ... Read More

Elon Musk’s Plan to Settle Mars

He who follows Freedom, let him leave his homeland, and risk his life. — Adam Mickiewicz, Polish poet, 1832 Last week my wife Hope and I traveled to Boca Chica, Texas, to meet with Elon Musk. While we talked inside the SpaceX onsite headquarters, a mariachi band played outside, providing entertainment for ... Read More

Elon Musk’s Plan to Settle Mars

He who follows Freedom, let him leave his homeland, and risk his life. — Adam Mickiewicz, Polish poet, 1832 Last week my wife Hope and I traveled to Boca Chica, Texas, to meet with Elon Musk. While we talked inside the SpaceX onsite headquarters, a mariachi band played outside, providing entertainment for ... Read More