Motown in Love

Lyrics from the Golden Era

Half a Mile From Heaven: The Love Songs of Motown

Detroit in the 1960s was an unlikely stage for a production that featured some of the most inspirational love songs ever written. It may seem equally unlikely that most of those songs were written by young black men. Default notions of romance are an awkward overlay to the reality of this city of steel and sweat, Joe Louis and Jimmy Hoffa. Rough? Tanks that rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines and onto Europe’s beaches as liberators returned home twenty years later to quell urban rebellion. But there was no simple way to quiet the musical movement that was surging in the basements and on the street corners of Detroit’s black neighborhoods.

The city vibrated. Every block had a band, it seemed, and on summer nights young men harmonized under the streetlights. Mixed in with homegrown versions of hits by Ben E. King and the Moonglows were original songs penned by the neighborhood tunesmith. Sunday morning you had to arrive early to get a seat at church. Overcome with the spirit, preachers resorted to singing their sermons. At New Bethel Baptist Church you didn’t mind standing for two hours if you could hear the Franklin sisters—Aretha, Carolyn, and Erma- sing “How I Got Over.”

But there was a new sound. As word spread through the neighbor- hood, teenagers scrambled, high-top shoes and bicycles, to the parking lot of the Bi-Lo Supermarket where on a makeshift stage twelve-year-old Stevie Wonder performed “Fingertips.” Before long, record store clerks were inundated with customers describing, and sometimes attempting to sing, a few bars of the sound they heard on their transistor radios.

These were the 1960s, and poverty, segregation, Vietnam, and nuclear gamesmanship convened in a funnel cloud that threatened to rip through the American fabric. But with the innocence of a first kiss, the poets of Motown conjured up a black Camelot and took America “up the ladder to the roof” for a view of heaven. From rooftops to blue-lit basements they danced, black and white, fast and slow, as young men testified that they would “find that girl if [they] had to hitch hike ’round the world,” and women replied, “ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to you.” Boys in the ’hood—long typecast as the least productive, most destructive element of society—wrote knowingly and elegantly of life and love. The young women dazzled with a mix of soul and social graces, grace they maintained even when on Southern highways gunshots were directed at the Motown tour bus.

The thought of white teenagers falling under the spell of black music mobilized the guardians of white culture. Everyone knew the invisible perimeter that insulated white America would soon be irreparably breached. The usual operatives took measures to thwart it. Music was on the front lines of the battle. In retrospect, the lastgasp efforts at interdiction seem comical. A now infamous poster that circulated throughout the South warned white parents not to allow their children to listen to Negro music, lest they end up with one on the dance floor or otherwise.

As great as Motown’s records were, the company’s executives knew the power of live performance. The Motown Revue featured almost the entire roster of artists and a live stage band. The artists were confronted for the first time with overt segregation when the caravan rolled into Southern towns. Neighborhoods in Detroit were neatly divided along racial lines, but in the South the lines were often drawn with firearms. What was taken for granted in Northern cities could be a perilous undertaking in the South. Bobby Rogers of the Miracles recalls that a gas station owner confronted him with a gun after he used a white restroom. White and black teenagers were typically assigned to opposite sides of auditoriums in Southern venues. But on many occasions the police were powerless to enforce the separation as the teenagers, in their own version of a freedom march, just stepped to the beat.

In the mid-1950s television sponsors squirmed at the thought of having their products associated with Nat “King” Cole’s variety show; in the absence of commercial support, the show quickly vanished from the air. But by the early 1960s, families gathered on Sunday evenings to watch Ed Sullivan introduce the latest Motown sensation. Disc jockeys thought nothing of sandwiching a Rolling Stones track between hits by Martha and the Vandellas and the Four Tops. The seeds of this social revolution were scattered on the winds of radio and television airwaves. While activists preached and lawyers agitated, Motown crept into white homes, Southern and suburban, through Radio Free America. Once the Marvin Gaye poster went up, there was no turning back. White girls swooned over Marvin as had their mothers for Frank Sinatra. Even in the heartland, white boys earnestly attempted Motown dance routines and, for a moment, imagined that they were black.

The specter that this music might incite race mixing was rivaled only by the fear of images of black romance. The myth ran deep that among blacks love was characterized more by physical urges than by the complex universe of emotion that transcends motor response. Thomas Jefferson could have been a Hollywood studio executive when he dismissed sentiment among blacks as “less felt and sooner forgotten.” If you didn’t see Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, or Paris Blues, you might have missed Hollywood’s entire pre-Motown output of film portrayals of black romance. In the age before videotape, DVDs, and cable, most people, black and white, had never seen affection expressed between blacks in film or on television. While major studios ignored black love affairs, the Motown songwriters understood the poetry of Everyman. These songs explored romance’s jagged landscape—infatuation, discovery, love’s grip, love lost. They told of brokenhearted men and wrote of women who know “how sweet it is.”

A sign over the door of the house on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard read Hitsville USA, a slick slogan worthy of the other major presence a half mile down the boulevard, General Motors. Motown’s eagerness to market its own assembly line obscured for some what really went on inside that house. Close observers watched the parade of odd-shaped instrument cases that concealed everything from bongos to bassoons and the procession of young men with skinny ties,cropped hair, and satchels stuffed with staff paper. They were the ones who knew the secret language of song. It was a production line but one that dispensed magic. Names such as Ivy Jo Hunter, Sylvia Moy, Hank Cosby, and Clarence Paul were scarcely noticed by a public in love with the flourish of sequined stars. The songwriters, invisible architects of the Motown sound, assembled the substance of everyday into songs that were at once sophisticated and earthy, personal and universal. In many ways, it was the Great American Songbook of the second half of the century.

Fans may have believed that Diana Ross wrote “You Can’t Hurry Love.” She was convincing. The truth is, before a song reached the artist a songwriter or two had labored over the turn of a phrase, reshaping it until its internal rhythm and contours fit the music like counterpoint.

Not long after the spark of an idea had blossomed into a song, it was thrust into the glare of the Hitsville proving ground. Each song had to run the gauntlet of rival songwriters, producers, and the man who started it all: Mr. Gordy, who himself had written a string of hits. Berry Gordy instinctively knew that great music is built from the song up. Songs were placed on trial and any facet, from the euphonics of the words to chord structure, was fair game. Morris Broadnax who, with a teenage Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul, wrote the masterwork “Until You Come Back to Me,” recalls that “new songs were worked on between Tuesday and Thursday, and on Friday all the songwriters presented their best material to the staff. There was so much great music that you hoped that yours was one of the few chosen on Monday.” Collaboration and competition sharpened the writing. Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, Strong and Whitfield, and Stevie Wonder would arrive on Fridays and place their latest in the hands of musicians James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Robert White, and Earl Van Dyke—the Funk Brothers. Cutting sessions jazz musicians’ venerable device for raising the creative bar found a home in the basement of Hitsville. It was hand-to-hand musical combat and whoever was left standing made a record.

Love has long been a staple in the American song tradition. Black songwriters have always created the template for jazz and blues, and W. C. Handy and Duke Ellington knew their way around a love song. But beginning in the 1930s, black artists often looked to Jewish songwriters for a seemingly endless string of pop hits. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin lined the pages of the American songbook with interpretations by the great black singers. The combination was potent. Imagine American song in the absence of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek” duet or Sarah Vaughan’s “April in Paris.”   This brilliant symbiosis continued in the late ’50s and early ’60s as black popular artists turned to writers such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin for songs like “Stand by Me” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”   But Motown from the musicians and singers to the producers and songwriters was a community project. While everyone was invited to the party, this music was a product of the tough public housing projects and Detroit’s strong black middle class neighborhoods of neatly cropped lawns, family dinners, and traditions that went back generations. The accumulated musical knowledge of neighborhood masters was summoned. The call went out to poets, arrangers, practitioners of jazz and gospel, and the classically trained to form what writer and producer Clay McMurray describes as a Noah’s Ark of talent. The studio was said to have been open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In the 1960s the times they were a-changin’. Songwriters drew their inspiration from issues of the day. Artists believed in the power of music, that they could change the world with a song. The ’60s manifesto assured us that “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome” could end the war and make the walls of segregation “come tumblin’ down.” Singer-songwriters chronicled the unfolding social drama, and when they spoke of love it was in the most personal way. Detached, formulaic love songs now seemed anemic, as Bob Dylan and the Beatles redefined the subject matter of popular music. For a love song to grab hold of this generation something different was required.

The Motown writers responded with songs that transformed the prosaic into the poetic. The girl down the block became a goddess, and the path to her heart, an epic journey. From “Bernadette”:

And when I speak of you, I see envy in other men’s eyes,

and I’m well aware of what’s on their minds.

They pretend to be my friend, when all the time

They long to persuade you from my side.

They’d give the world and all they own

For just one moment we have known.

The Motown roster of artists was packed with female vocalists. Men wrote for Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and every other woman on the label. Sylvia Moy’s early compositions—“I Was Made to Love Her,” “It Takes Two,” “My Cherie Amour” did much to establish a standard of idealized romance. To write effectively for female vocalists, the male songwriters were forced to immerse themselves in a woman’s point of view. Women wait for, agonize over, and celebrate love when it finally arrives. The male songwriters rejected Pavlovian swagger; like Marco Polo bearing gifts from a strange land, they delivered to the male vocalists the textures of romance. Gone was the supposed indifference to the joy and pain of love. These writers discovered love as a force of nature, a celestial presence around which pride, reputation, and the grab bag of male defense mechanisms simply orbited. But this was no weak, victim-of-love routine. The men sang songs infused with unmistakable ardor and palpable virility and with the sort of strength that flows from the yin and yang of love. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” laments, “I know you want to leave me,” and then stiffens, “but I refuse to let you go.” Marvin implored, “Let’s get it on,” but assured “I won’t push you, baby.” When the men expressed overblown confidence, it was as a foil for the failure to win the love of a woman. “Can’t Get Next to You”: “I can live forever if I so desire . . . I can make the grayest sky blue . . . But I can’t get next to you.”

These were strong men who understood the power of love and women’s power in love. Grown men dropped to their knees on stage and wished it would rain. It was this willingness to pierce the façade of male invulnerability that endeared Motown to anyone who had a heart. Smokey: “So, take a good look at my face. / You’ll see my smile looks out of place. / If you look closer, it’s easy to trace / The tracks of my tears.” When it happened, love was strong, supportive, and reciprocal. Lyricist Nick Ashford, as sung by Marvin Gaye to Tammi Terrell: “Like an eagle protects his nest, / for you I’ll do my best, / Stand by you like a tree, / And dare anybody to try and move me.”

The best of Motown navigates the narrow passage between sophisticated linguistic expression and popular tastes, one obscure metaphor too many, and the audience vanishes. Popular music, by definition, speaks the common tongue. But an overdose of cliché guarantees a song will not survive beyond the moment. Like Billy Strayhorn and Lorenz Hart, the writers of Motown knew that a well timed intelligent phrase was the soul of cool. It was sexy as hell. It played both in the housing projects and in Peoria: “I did you wrong. / My heart went out to play. / But in the game I lost you. / What a price to pay.”

This was soul music, sensual and sweet and unafraid to display its affection publicly. Much of it may have been created in the midst of the bare-knuckles brawl that was, and is, urban life, but the music transcended bitterness in favor of life-affirming dignity.  Barrett Strong, who cowrote,  among others, “Just My Imagination” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” cites “real life” as his inspiration: “Most of us came from homes where there was a sense of family and optimism.” There was always the whispering sage. Mama said, “You can’t hurry love” and “You better shop around.” The songs were girded by an African American ethic of grace in romance: Beauty’s only skin deep, wait patiently for the real thing.

America was enchanted. The Supremes graced the cover of Time magazine. When the Motown tours went international, European teenagers, who had learned English by singing along with the records, enthusiastically delivered background vocals from the audience. Musical artists from every quarter spoke of Motown with admiration bordering on reverence. The Beatles, Laura Nyro, and James Taylor, master songwriters themselves, recorded Motown songs. Bob Dylan spoke of Smokey Robinson as “the greatest living American poet.” Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne compared the songs to the era’s engineering marvels produced in Detroit’s auto plants. Indeed, the best Motown songs are masterpieces of design. Like Oscar Hammerstein and Cole Porter, these songwriters could tell a story in Technicolor. You were given a private tour of the “seven rooms of gloom,” invited to “walk the land of broken dreams,” huddle “in the shadows of love,” or were shown “a green oasis where there’s only sand.” The songs were often Greek drama in miniature; you understood what a mess the singer was in, but you also knew he caused it. Hubris was inevitably followed by some humbling comeuppance. Men who thought they had a woman dangling on a string were beaten to the punch and dismissed. Hunters were captured by the game.

In the 1950s, three chords ruled pop music, but these writers served up a Crayola box of harmonic colors. Songs such as “For Once in My Life,” “Reflections,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” displayed a broad harmonic vocabulary without an air of pretension like the guy who can walk into a barbershop, use words like pedantic, and still be one of the fellas. Products of the Detroit public schools’ then legendary music program and neighborhood joints that still featured live jazz, the Motown songwriters knew song struc- ture from way back.  They could back cycle, dangle a plagal cadence, modulate, and flash a little chromaticism without breaking a sweat. When only two chords were needed to get the job done, they could weld C-sharp and F-sharp together so tightly they flowed with the inevitability of night into day. It sounded as if they were the first to discover a simple triad. The Motown songwriters instinctively understood the irreducible principle of writing anything: have something to say, say it, and stop. These writers delivered concise points of view, equal parts declarative and metaphorical: The average length of a Motown hit song between 1963 and 1968 is less than three minutes. The ghetto Zen masters set out the rules of love from the practical to the ethereal as if under the watchful eye of the haiku police. You were advised to ignore friends’ advice if love hung in the balance, reassured that pretty girls were a dime a dozen, and emboldened that with a true heart you could still win the girl even if you didn’t have a dime.

The musicians, not technically composers, contributed themes that became inseparable from the songs themselves. They echoed the lyrics with uncanny wordless precision. James Jamerson strung together bass lines of Morse code; you could hear Mama’s relentless “Love don’t come easy, / it’s a game of give and take. ” William “Benny” Benjamin introduced tunes with signature drum lines you couldn’t imagine the song without. Even the baritone saxophone, a Snuffleupagus of an instrument, sounded hip. These musicians could have gotten people up on the dance floor with a chorus of tubas.

Through the funk, innocence percolated to the surface with bird- like girl singers and the nimble percussion of pizzicato. There were finger snaps against a backdrop of symphony strings. This was music full with anticipation. The days had faded when bluesmen painted the Delta with hard times and hellhounds. These were the ’60s. There was talk of living where you wanted, getting jobs because you were qualified, and looking a white man in the eye without risking your life. Mr. Gordy owned the record company. Integration was one thing, freedom was another. When in 1964, Sam Cooke sang “Change Is Gonna Come” on the Tonight Show, it sounded like the words of a prophet.

As early as the mid 1950s, the nation’s vast educational resources had begun to trickle into previously neglected neighborhoods. Smokey Robinson traces his interest in language and composition to the Young Writers’ Club, an after-school workshop convened by Ms. Harris, a visionary elementary school teacher. By the 1960s, a belief and investment in the untapped resources of marginalized Americans was becoming an article of faith.

Programs from Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts to Head Start recognized that by denying opportunity to these communities the nation had robbed itself of untold contributions in science, art, and culture. The concept of a Great Society gained currency. On the neighborhood level, the Detroit public schools taught music theory, composition, and performance as if they mattered. The pace of social change was accelerated in the 1960s. What had been incremental and generational now arrived in clusters. In January of 1963, as Motown began to dominate the pop charts, a sixteen-year-old André Watts, substituting for an ailing Glenn Gould, walked onto the stage at Lincoln Center and delivered, note perfect, Liszt’s E-flat Concerto. In 1964, as Motown’s grip on the charts tightened, a fresh-faced Cassius Clay thanked America to refer to him henceforth as Muhammad Ali. Berry Gordy brought composers, lyricists, singers, and musicians together with his own defiant gospel of optimism and a belief that with opportunity and a forum for expression there were no limits to what could be accomplished. Their music was part flower-pushing- through-cracks in the concrete and part root shattering it.

The fleeting age of innocence and hope gave way to summers of discontent, and in an act of collective self-immolation black neigh- borhoods from Watts to Detroit were consumed in flame. A series of events conspired to dismantle the delicate, cautiously entertained aspirations. The descent was punctuated by the assassination of the messengers of change: Malcolm X, John and Robert Kennedy, and Medgar Evers. With the election of Richard Nixon by a silent majority that dismissed social programs as the product of a bleeding heart, reality fell far short of the vision. Hope withered. But for a time the sense of optimism in music held fast. Then, on a spring morning in 1968, word came from Memphis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. The blues were back. As in the old Ellington hook, black America struggled to keep the song from going out of its heart. Within black songwriting the battle had begun between romance and rump shaking. Defeatism is anathema to art. After what happened to Martin, it seemed that only a fool could believe.

Within months of the King assassination, the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” stripped the veneer of hope and exposed a reality that could be tolerated only through a cloud of marijuana smoke.  This moment was more about raw reality than idealized love. From “Ball of Confusion” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Run Away Child (Running Wild),” the promise of a black Camelot settled into sullen defiance. When it came to love, male vulnerability was no longer an option. In “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” Stevie Wonder once bragged that he was the apple of his girl’s eye, even though the only shirt he owned was hangin’ on his back. Soon a caricature of masculinity would dominate black music. Why contemplate the way to a woman’s heart when you could dazzle her with your jewelry, a blocklong car, and a wad of cash? In the coming decades, music education was phased out of many of the public schools. Those with talent learned to use turntables to scratch out a new beat. Seduced by the illusion of props, a new generation of writers confused bluster with strength and manhood with an impenetrable heart. Smokey Robinson wrote of love for a woman as “a rosebud blooming in the warmth of the summer sun. ” But as the African American tradition of romance faded from the music, a woman was more likely to be reduced to her anatomical components.

Still, the legacy of discipline and creative inspiration that defined the early days of Motown is manifest on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and in a series of albums by Stevie Wonder culminating in Songs in the Key of Life. The teenage apostles of boy-girl love became standard-bearers of a spiritual, universal love. For them, soul music had evolved into music of the soul. Their lyrics have become sacred text: “War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate,” “Love’s in need of love today.” As did John Lennon with “Imagine” and John Coltrane with A Love Supreme, they looked beyond the personal and dreamed.

A Stevie Wonder lyric lamented that love had taken flight “and then a half a mile from heaven” dropped him back to this cold world. Motown’s songs of romance ascended with the promise of change and faded with the onset of cynicism. In the process, the music was itself transformative, inspiring a community defined not by geography, class, or race but by a sense of common experience. The gospel of change that ignited the love affair in black music may have diminished, but for an incandescent moment, Motown celebrated life and love. No one who hears it will ever forget.

Copyright 2006 Herb Jordan