Why Was Berry Gordy Significant in the Development of the American Soul Music Genre?

Why Was Berry Gordy Significant in the Development of the American Soul Music Genre?

Why was Berry Gordy significant in the development of the American Soul music genre? The aim of this essay is to analyse what significance Berry Gordy, the founder of the Tamla record label, had to the American Soul music genre. To accurately analyse this it is important to research and understand how Gordy ran Tamla and why he started the label. All the decisions he made involving Tamla would have an affect on the American Soul music industry because of the huge popularity of Gordy’s music.

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Gordy created Tamla in 1959 with a mission statement stating that he aimed to become ‘The sound of young America’ (Ward, 1998. p 161). This is a statement that had great intention; it was music for both black and white people to enjoy, and for many a symbol of the end of segregation. Furthermore, in this statement Gordy opened the soul music genre to all of America, though he did target young people. He may have done this because he had seen the success of country artists such as Johnny Cash with young people throughout America and hoped to imitate this.

However, Gordy hoped to be successful with the soul music style that he had started to write in 1957 and 1959, ‘co-writing such hits as Reete Petite, To be Loved and I’ll be satisfied for Jackie Wilson, You’ve got what it takes for Marv Johnson and Money for Barrett Strong. ’ (Bowman, para 1) In 1961 Gordy then created a record label named Motown, a subsidiary of Tamla, which would perform the soul music that Gordy hoped to sell to America. As well as setting up Motown Gordy set up other subsidiaries such as Miracle, Mel-O-Dy, VIP, and Divinity. Ward (1998, p. 60) states that ‘this strategy was primarily designed to protect against the possible failure of individual labels. ’ (Ward, 1998) This meant that for example if Divinity collapsed Motown could continue unaffected by the collapse. Furthermore, when the labels made a profit, they could support the other labels that were financially struggling. This led to Motown being able to grow quickly and produce a lot of music unaffected by collapses of other labels owned by Gordy. Moreover, Gordy was successful in making his company instantly recognisable by the consistent style and sound of his songs.

In order to create the Motown style Gordy ‘personally trained all of Motown’s early writers and producers’. (Bowman, 2009, para. 2) These song writers consistently wrote in Gordy’s soul style and this led to Motown producing one, very popular, style of soul. This was so successful that if any of the subsidiary labels created soul songs, they were ‘commonly referred to as Motown. ‘(Bowman, 2009) In addition, Motown had in house musicians, ‘The Funk Brothers’, who would play on every recording.

This gave songs the same sounds and feel, as the same equipment and players were being used. With the combination of in house song writers and musicians ‘he [Gordy] developed the Motown sound’ (Bowman, 2009) which can be argued to define the sound of soul because of its popularity. However, in 1957, a recording studio named Satellite Records which later changed to Stax was recording and writing soul music. ‘Stax developed an identifiable sound through the use of a house band [the MGs]’ (Bowman, 2010, para 2) and the MGs ‘performed on most of the Stax recordings of the 1960s’.

The style of soul written when Stax had just been created was slow, and the tembre of the music was soft, drums and bass were prominent instruments and the vocal style was very passionate and emotional. This style is known as Memphis Soul. Examples of this genre are represented in Carla Thomas, and William Bell. As Gordy wrote soul in 1957-59 it is very likely he would have known of Stax Records and therefore taken qualities that he liked about the music they produced, such as the house band, the soulful vocals and prominent bass and drums.

Gordy then implemented and used these techniques and characteristics when he created Motown in 1961. However, Gordy did increase the tempo of the songs, which made the Motown soul style good to dance to, added more instrumentation such as electric guitars, and lyrically tried to relate every song to the whole of America. The changes Gordy made in the soul went on to influence songwriting on other labels, such as Atlantic, which had bought Stax in 1961. An example of this is Aretha Franklin, she was signed to Atlantic Records in 1967 and the recordings produced have the characteristics of Motown records.

These characteristics include steady walking speed tempo, four on the floor drums, and a loud dominant bass. This made Franklins music, much like Motown soul, good to dance to. Gordy continued with his ambition to create ‘the sound of young America’ and dominate the market. This however was made difficult by other white owned record companies finding young soul talent to which ‘Gordy would shrewdly use race, so often an impediment to black economic advance, as one of the tools of his entrepreneurial ambitions. (Ward, 1998. p 260) Black people such as Arthur Luther King were, throughout the 1960s, fighting for equality and to stop segregation in modern culture. However, Gordy was using race for his own benefit as well as abusing his place in society to create maximum profit with his business. Though these actions may be considered wrong in morality, they allowed Gordy to use the artists he needed to make Motown a success. This in turn increased the popularity of soul music in America throughout the 1960s.

The business of Motown was handled with an attitude to make maximum profit and this resulted in unhappiness of some staff, such as James Jamerson who said, “There is sometimes a tear because I see how I was treated and cheated. ” (Ward, 1998. p 262. ) An example of mistreatment from Gordy is ITMI, his artist management company, routinely taking, ‘a cut of the weekly salaries paid to all the corporation’s creative staff, whether they had been productive that week or not. (Ward, 1998, p 261) This made many staff feel despondent, but as well as this ‘the most successful staff writers and producers had to submit their work to a weekly quality control meeting, and faced the threat of having their latest creations summarily rejected. ’ (Larkin, 2009, para. 3) The combination of the above combined with arguments about pay, led to Holland/Dozier/Holland, Motowns ‘premier writing/production team’ (Larkin, 2009) leaving the company in 1967. Collectively this is an example of Gordy’s single mindedness to create soul that everyone in America would buy.

He ran his company with the aim to create great quality music, that was cheap and accessible to America, but this resulted in Gordy maintaining ‘a vice like grip on Motown affairs’ (Larking, 2009) and the unhappiness of his employees. Furthermore, Motown gave its artists ‘8 per cent of 90 per cent of the wholesale price of albums and singles. ’ (Ward, 1998) This is much lower than the modern day figure of 10-14% from 100% of the wholesale price. In addition, Motown artists had to pay off their recording and live expenses with ‘any future royalties’(Ward, 1998), though this is similar to the modern artist.

Therefore the Motown company structure is similar to the modern record company. Though the amounts of royalties given to the artist were very low, this gave more money to Gordy which allowed Motown to release more music. Ward (1998. p 260) states, ‘Gordy’s extraordinary business acumen and ingenuity, and the single-mindedness, many would later claim ruthlessness’ but if Gordy was to achieve the target he set in his mission statement to become ‘The sound of young America’ the attitude he had towards his business, explained above, was essential.

Though what Gordy had created with Motown was not original, but an evolution of what Stax records had achieved, the soul music genre would not have been as popular if Motown had not existed. Gordy had created a business that was big enough to release music to the whole of America, and moreover expanded the soul genre so it would appeal to commercial America. Sources. Bowman, R. , “Gordy, Berry. ” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrived 23rd December 2009, http://www. oxfordmusiconline. om/subscriber/article/grove/music/45924 Bowman, R. , “Stax. ” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrived 11th January 2010, http://www. oxfordmusiconline. com/subscriber/article/grove/music/49764 Larkin, Colin. , “Motown Records. ” Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed. Ed.. Oxford Music Online. Retrived 13th January 2010, ;http://www. oxfordmusiconline. com/subscriber/article/epm/38919; Ward, B. , 1998, Just My Soul Responding, London, GBR: Routledge PAGE 161, 259


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