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ASSEMBLING HITS AT MOTOWN

OVERVIEW

ESSENTIAL QUESTION

How did Motown Records in Detroit operate during


the 1960s?

OVERVIEW

The Motown Record Corporation was one of the


most successful record labels of the 1960s and one
of the most influential black owned and operated
companies in the world. During this decade, golden
years for the organization, Motown’s roster included
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes,
Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Marvin
Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson Five. The
hits came one after another: By the early 1970s,
Motown had over 100 Top 40 hits to its credit.

For all of its success, the company had humble beginnings. Berry Gordy Jr., who had previously
owned a record shop and pursued a career as a songwriter, borrowed $800 from his family in 1959
to set up shop in a house located at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit. He loosely modeled the
Motown operation on the most prosperous business model he saw around him — the assembly lines
at the many automotive plants in the region. (In fact, Gordy himself had worked in a Ford assembly
plant during the 1950s.) Instead of assembling cars, though, he put together hit records.
Gordy adopted the idea of making development a team effort, and, as on an assembly line, each
member of the team was given a specialized task to perform. He cultivated a group of experts who,
working together, could take unrefined young singers and turn them into hit-makers ready to perform
and promote the Motown product: records. The Motown staff included songwriters, arrangers, and
producers. As much of the work as possible was done in-house.

Motown’s artists were also polished and choreographed by the label’s “Artist Development”
department, a process that included training in singing, dancing, speaking, and even etiquette.
The artists who signed with Motown had raw talent, but in many cases, they were inexperienced
performers — sometimes they were young people from the city’s housing projects who had previously
encountered few opportunities for professional training. Gordy also insisted on a high level of quality
control, and was known for assembling focus groups to test every product.

In this lesson, students will learn about behind-the-scenes operations at Motown Records — and a
few of the company’s most important contributors — through a “café conversation.”

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OBJECTIVES

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

1. KNOW (KNOWLEDGE): 2. BE ABLE TO (SKILLS):


• The model that defined production at Motown • Interpret a range of media, including songs,
Records, and how it was influenced by factory images, and text to develop and demonstrate an
assembly lines understanding of a period of time.

• The cultural and economic conditions in Detroit, • Common Core: Students will develop speaking
Michigan, and surrounding areas in the 1960s and listening skills by engaging in a simulation
in class, a “Cafe Conversation” (CCSS Speaking
• The contributions of Motown to the popular music and Listening 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 4;
of the 1960s CCSS Speaking and Listening 6)

ACTIVITIES

MOTIVATIONAL ACTIVITY:

1. Play the video of the Motown group the Temptations singing “My Girl” and discuss:

• What do you notice about the way the group’s act is staged? How are they dressed? How do they move? Does
their performance seem planned out or spontaneous?

• What kinds of things would the group have to rehearse in order to prepare a performance such as this one?
What might be difficult or challenging for the group?

• Do you imagine that the Temptations had help preparing their performance? If so, who do you think might
have assisted them?

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PROCEDURE: • Cholly Atkins handout

• Smokey Robinson handout


1. Show students the photo of Motown’s
“Hitsville, U.S.A.” studio. Explain to • Maurice King handout
students that the Motown Recording
Corporation was founded in this house • What was this individual’s primary role at Motown
Records?
in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959 by Berry
Gordy Jr. It would go on to become one • How did this person approach his or her
of the largest and best known record responsibilities at Motown? What attitudes,
companies owned and operated by an sayings, or philosophies did he or she have?
African American, and it helped many
• How do you think this person helped Berry Gordy
black musicians start successful careers. to achieve the company’s mission of “making
The company produced many Top 40 hits music for the whole world”?
in the 1960s.
4. Next, divide students into groups of
five, with each student representing their
assigned persona: Berry Gordy, Maxine
Powell, Cholly Atkins, Smokey Robinson,
or Maurice King. (Note: depending on the
size of the class, students may alternate
observing and playing roles.)
2. Watch the video of Smokey Robinson — a
Motown singer, songwriter and producer 5. Have students briefly introduce their
who worked with Gordy — talking about the persona to the rest of their group.
company’s first day of operations. Briefly
review the video: 6. Explain to students that they should imagine
• What does Robinson say about Gordy’s mission that it is the mid-1960s, and Motown has
for the record label? To whom was he trying to just signed a new group, a hypothetical trio
appeal? What do you think the challenges were
for African-American artists who wanted to
of young women who grew up in the Detroit
appeal to white listeners in the late 1950s and projects. Ask the group to discuss how they
early 1960s? (Remind the class that Motown will help this group to create and promote hit
was founded as the Civil Rights movement was records. Some things that they might touch
taking hold, and only a few years prior to the
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) on in discussion:
• According to Robinson, what has made the • How should the group appear on stage? What
music of Motown so lasting? clothes should they wear, and how should they
move?
3. Distribute the biography handouts and
• What kind of training might they need to
ask students to study them. As an option, deal with the press and public appearances
students may also conduct research to learn (interviews, television appearances, etc.)?
more about their assigned persona. (This • What challenges might these artists face, and
could be done as homework before class.) how can these difficulties be overcome? For
They should be able to answer the following example, as African-American artists who
questions: wanted to appeal to white as well as black
audiences, what would they need to consider?
• Berry Gordy handout • What musical skills will this group need to have?
What steps will be involved in making a record,
• Maxine Powell handout and who will oversee this?

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SUMMARY ACTIVITY:

Show students the video about assembly line production at an automotive plant, noting
that the Detroit area was home to many such factories, including those operated by Ford.
Inform the class that before he opened Motown Records, Berry Gordy worked on a Ford
assembly line. If necessary, remind students that on an assembly line, each worker has
a specialized task that they perform in succession as the item — such as a car — is
built and inspected. Discuss:
• How is Gordy’s way of running Motown similar to a factory production line — what about this approach may
have inspired him? (Think about production as well as promotion.)

• What advantages could this approach provide to a record company? What did the team of experts at
Motown achieve that may have been more difficult for any single individual to accomplish?

• How is producing a hit record different from producing an item like an automobile? Is it really possible to
create a “factory” for producing good music? Why or why not?

WRITING PROMPT:

Imagine that you are a young singer coming to work for Motown for the first time. Write
a journal entry describing what it was like to work with Berry Gordy, Maxine Powell,
Cholly Atkins, Smokey Robinson, and/or Maurice King. What did they help you with?
What did they teach you to do?

EXTENSIONS:

1. Have students conduct research on the history of Detroit. Topics could include:
• Racial tensions and rioting during the civil rights era

• The development and decline of the automotive industry

• Housing conditions for the working poor in the postwar period, and the development of housing projects
such as the Brewster-Douglass complex.

2. Have students read the article “Berry Gordy: Motown Musician,” a more detailed
biography of Gordy. Ask them to use the information in the article to create a timeline of
Gordy’s early life and career.

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S TA N D A R D S

COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and
Informational Text

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical
inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support
conclusions drawn from the text.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English
Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

Writing 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using


effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of


conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and
expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Speaking and Listening 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such
that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and
style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Speaking and Listening 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative


tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

SOCIAL STUDIES – NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR THE SOCIAL STUDIES (NCSS)

Theme 1: Culture

Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments

Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR MUSIC EDUCATION

Core Music Standard: Responding

Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the
response.

Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or

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performers’ expressive intent.

Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis,


interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to
deepen understanding.

RESOURCES

VIDEO RESOURCES HANDOUTS


• The Temptations – My Girl (1965) • Handout: Berry Gordy
• Jam Handy Corporation for Chevrolet American • Handout: Cholly Atkins
Harvest (1955) • Handout: Maurice King
• Smokey Robinson – The Birth of Motown (2006) • Handout: Maxine Powell
• Handout: Smokey Robinson
FEATURED PEOPLE
• Berry Gordy
• Smokey Robinson
• The Supremes
• The Temptations

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Berry Gordy Jr.

Biography:

Berry Gordy Jr. was born on November 28, 1929, in


Detroit, Michigan. He was the great-grandson of a
slave woman. His father owned several small
businesses in Detroit, his mother helped run a
company that sold insurance policies to black
customers during a time when it could be difficult
for them to get insurance.

Gordy had many different jobs as a young man. He


worked for his father. He was a professional boxer.
He served in the army during the Korean War, and
then came home to Detroit and opened a record
shop where he sold Jazz records. When the shop
failed, he took a job at an auto manufacturer,
working on an assembly line. Eventually, he began
pursuing a career as a songwriter.

Gordy was not making much money from his musical work, although he did have some early
success. In 1959, he decided to go into business for himself. He borrowed $800 to start his own
record label. (He was not the first Gordy to do this — his sister Anna already owned a record
company.) Operations were based in a house located at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, which
Gordy dubbed “Hitsville, U.S.A.” When he incorporated his company in 1960, he called it Motown
Record Corporation, a name that paid tribute to the city of Detroit, which was known as “Motor Town”
for its importance to the auto manufacturing industry. Soon, Motown was one of the most successful
record labels in the country, producing more than a hundred Top 40 hits in the span of a decade.

Role at Motown Records:

Gordy was not only Motown’s founder, but also its leader from the beginning until 1988. He oversaw
all of the operations at the label, from music production to artist development to marketing. He knew
virtually everyone who worked for the company on a personal basis.

One of Gordy’s responsibilities was auditioning new musicians for the label. His ability to spot raw
talent was remarkable. He also wanted to ensure that the musicians he hired made a good
impression on the public. He insisted that all of the label’s musicians receive formal training in
singing, dancing, and even etiquette. Gordy himself was often present at recording sessions and
could be a tough critic.
Gordy held weekly “quality control” meetings — one of many ideas he borrowed from local auto
manufacturers — where members of the Motown staff would evaluate the records being produced by
the company before they were released. Any recording not meeting the company’s high standards
would be rejected. Gordy would ask his team questions like, “If you had money only to buy either this
record or a sandwich, which would you choose?”

Quotations:

“At the plant the cars started out as just a frame, pulled along conveyor belts until they emerged at
the end of the line — brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my
company, only with artists and songs and records.”

“Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage
not to be afraid to make mistakes.”

“I broke down my whole operation into three functions: create, make, sell. Create something, make
something and then sell it.”
Cholly Atkins

Biography:

Cholly Atkins was born Charles Sylvan Atkinson in 1913 in Pratt City,
Alabama, and raised in Buffalo, New York.

He started out in entertainment as a singer in Buffalo, but soon turned


to dancing. He went to Hollywood for a few years, where he was an
extra in films and a nightclub entertainer. He toured the Midwest in the
1930s, finally moving in 1939 to New York, where he performed in
Broadway shows. After serving in the military in the early 1940s, he
became well known as part of the dancing duo Coles and Atkins. The
duo toured with major artists of the day, including Jazz musicians
Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.

During the 1950s, the popularity of the type of variety theater Atkins
worked in had begun to decline. “Tap dancing began to fade out,” he
explained, and jobs were harder to come by. Atkins began providing
dance instruction to vocal groups. He coached some of the best-known
groups of the era, including the Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon and the
Teenagers, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

In 1965, the head of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr., hired Atkins to
help the company’s acts develop a more sophisticated style on stage.
Atkins held this position until 1971.

Role at Motown Records:

At Motown, Atkins was given the title “Choreographer-Director,” and he worked in the Artist
Development Department. He taught singers how to dance and created routines for them, a process
he called “vocal choreography.” Many of the Motown artists he worked with had little or no formal
training in dance, and he often had to worry as much about balancing the egos and personalities in a
group as he did about helping the individual members learn to keep their balance.

Atkins’ choreography style was distinctive. He trained groups to perform synchronized moves, which
were sometimes borrowed from tap dance or Jazz styles. His “vocal choreography” also sometimes
involved acting out the lyrics of the song. When the Supremes sang the phrase “stop in the name of
love,” for example, they held out their hands as if stopping traffic.
Quotations:

“In ‘vocal choreography,’ you had to give a lot of considerations to the fact that you were working with
singers, not dancers.”

“I would get a set of the lyrics and get the story line of what they were singing about. I made sure that
we did things that corresponded with musical tracks along with the lyrics.”

"Motown hired me as an artist developer. I wanted to make a harmonious marriage between the
singing and the dancing — the visual."
Maurice King

Biography:

Maurice King was born in 1911 in the Mississippi Delta. A talented


musician and a good student, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee,
where he studied music at what is now Tennessee State University.
He did not graduate, but he quickly began working full time as a
musician in the Nashville area. In the late 1930s, King followed his
wife and her family to Detroit, where he soon made a name for
himself playing saxophone in bands.

In the 1940s, King served for a time as the director of the


International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl Jazz band that
toured the country. When group disbanded in 1949, he settled back
home in Detroit.

His next gig was as the bandleader for the Flame Show Bar, which
would become one of the most important venues for black
entertainers during the 1950, hosting some of the most famous
Jazz musicians of the era. It was at the Flame Show Bar that King
first encountered Berry Gordy Jr., at the time a struggling
songwriter. In 1963, Gordy hired King to join Motown Records.

Role at Motown Records:

King was the music director for Motown. He worked with Motown acts on various aspects of their
performances. In many respects, he was a teacher who instructed the company’s singers in the
basics of music. King’s biggest role was teaching singers to sound their best, which included teaching
group members their individual parts. He described his tasks as follows: “I taught them how to
phrase. I arranged their music; I arranged songs for them. I taught them how to blend. I collaborated
with their choreographer, did a lot of their staging.”

King was also on hand to fix any problems that came up with the musical arrangements as they were
performed in the studio or in a live performance. When a lot of musicians were involved in a session,
he would act as the conductor.

Motown artists remember King as tough and demanding, but effective. “He taught us the things that
would help us to stay out here,” recalled singer Gladys Knight.
Quotations:

“I tried to teach performers honesty, integrity, and sincerity in their approach to the business. If they
learned that, then they learned a lot.”

“I was working with some of [Berry Gordy's] acts already and he explained it might be a lot easier if I
joined his staff and worked regularly with all of the Motown acts. I liked the idea of an artist
development department, and being able to have control of the musical end of it was quite an exciting
aspect.”
Maxine Powell

Biography:

Maxine Powell was born Maxine Blair in 1915 in


Texarkana, Texas, and she was raised in Chicago
by her aunt, who taught etiquette classes.

Powell worked as an actress and model in her


youth, appearing with a company in Chicago
called the Negro Drama League. From there, she
went to school to become a manicurist and
cosmetologist. She was also a model.

In the 1940s, Powell moved to Detroit, where in


1951, she opened the Maxine Powell Finishing
and Modeling School. Her school acted as one of
the first agencies in the region for African-
American models. Among the school’s students
were members of the family of Berry Gordy Jr., Motown’s founder. It was Gwen Gordy who
encouraged her brother Berry to hire Powell in 1964 as part of Motown’s Artist Development
Department, a job Powell held until 1969.

Role at Motown Records:

Powell was Motown’s etiquette instructor. Her duties included running what has been called the
“Motown Finishing School” — she taught the label’s artists how to present themselves well. She
would often say that she was training singers to appear at the White House and Buckingham Palace.
Berry Gordy said of Powell: “She was tough, but when she got through with [the artists], they were
poised, professional and very thankful.”

Singers at Motown were typically required to take classes from Powell for up to two hours a day
whenever they were not on tour. During class, they would learn about topics ranging from table
manners to speaking skills to proper posture. Powell advised her pupils to take care in how they
looked and acted: she told Marvin Gaye that he shouldn’t close his eyes when he sang, and
cautioned Diana Ross not to make faces while she performed.

Powell took on some other responsibilities at Motown. She occasionally went on tour with the label’s
groups, acting as a chaperone. She also advised singers on matters of style, including wardrobe and
makeup.
Quotations:

“You are protruding the buttocks. Whenever you do a naughty step like the shake, add some class to
it. Instead of shaking and acting tough, you should roll your buttocks under and keep smiling all the
time.”

“Everybody walks, but I teach how to glide.”

“You're going to be trained to appear in No. 1 places around the country, and even before the king
and the queen.”

“I am a motivator and an image builder.”


Smokey Robinson

Biography:

William “Smokey” Robinson was born in 1940 in


Detroit, Michigan. His mother died when he was 10,
and he was raised by his older sister in a house with
eleven other children. He was musically inclined from
an early age and wrote his first song at the age of
six.

Robinson grew up hearing Jazz, Blues, and Gospel


music in his neighborhood. While still in high school,
he founded a singing group with some of his friends
known as the Matadors, and later the Miracles. He
wrote songs for the group, and they began playing in
venues around Detroit.

The Miracles began seeking a record deal. In 1957,


they had an audition in New York City for a company
called Brunswick Records. Brunswick turned them
down, but they were overheard by a fellow Detroit
resident by the name of Berry Gordy. Gordy was impressed with the group’s sound, and particularly
with the songs Robinson had written. Gordy mentored Robinson in songwriting and helped the
Miracles record and release their first records.

Role at Motown:

Robinson was one of the first singers to record for Motown. His early hits were with his group, the
Miracles — their record “Shop Around” was the first Motown record to sell a million copies.

Robinson was also an important figure behind the scenes at Motown — in fact, he helped convince
Gordy to start the label. He became vice president of the company, assisting with operations. Along
with Gordy, he played an important role in defining Motown’s characteristic sound.

Robinson’s skills as a songwriter and producer were in high demand at Motown. He wrote songs for
himself as well as for other singers on the label; a number of these became big hits. As a producer,
his duties included managing recording sessions and deciding which songwriters and musicians
would be involved in a project.
Quotations:

“I have so many songs that have been a songwriter’s dream because when I write a song I hope I’m
writing a song that will be re-recorded and sung forever.”

“I've always known there are no new words, there are no new notes, there are no new chords, so I've
gotta use those same old tools and make it come out differently. And it happens!”

"About ten of us took all the decisions on a collective basis. Berry had the final say, of course, but we
had a chance to make our contributions. It was all very informal, we knew all the secretaries and
studio staff by their first names.”

“The function of my office was originally designed for artist coordination. So if someone signs up with
Motown, I might pick songwriters and studio people to work with them.”