The recent departure of Sylvia Rhone, from her position as President of Motown, received much attention, in part, because Erykah Badu’s cryptic tweet “Motown folded.” The subsequent obituaries and premature obituaries for the label, seemed odd, if only because Motown has for decades existed as little more than a shell of the company that Berry Gordy founded in 1959, living off the fumes of one of the most impressive back catalogues in all of American pop music—managed by Universal Music. Motown, for all intents “died” when it was sold to MCA in 1988, though Gordy wisely kept control of the Jobete Publishing company, which has proven more lucrative that the label ever was.
Instead the emotional reaction that many had to the potential “death” of Motown, speaks volumes, not only about the role of Soul music in the lives of many Americans, but also the cultural meanings that were assigned to record labels like Motown, Stax and later Philadelphia International Records (PIR), whose songs served as the soundtrack to Civil Rights struggles and post-Civil Rights era ambition.
Berry Gordy had a hustler’s instinct that was emblematic of the immediate years after post-World War II in American culture. The American hustle was to sell the good life to as many buyers as possible. The expansion of advertising culture, as evidenced in Mad Men’s throwback glance at the 1960s, went hand-in-hand with the institutionalization of corporate popular culture. Gordy learned his hustle from every other self-made business “man” of the 1950s, including record execs like Ahmet Ertugen, Jerry Wexler, and Don Robey (a loose inspiration for The Five Heart Beats’ “Big Red”).
Gordy may have loved music—he wrote hits for Jackie Wilson before founding Motown—but he was clear that Motown was, above all, a business. Gordy’s genius was linking that hustling ethos to the assembly-line production he witnessed first hand working in Detroit’s automobile factories. In creating Motown, Gordy was also establishing a brand; he called it “The Sound of Young America” and was intent that young Americans—particularly, young White Americans would enjoy leisurely summer trips to the beach listening to Motown artists such as the Temptations, The Four Tops, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and most famously the Supremes.
With attention to detail, which included etiquette classes for artists, highly choreographed stage performances and a structured recording environment that even included an elaborate quality control process, Motown earned a reputation for hit records that were polished and crisp.