One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture

One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture



The Pequod Review:

Gerald Early's One Nation Under a Groove traces the rise of Berry Gordy and Motown Records, with a focus on the cultural and historical factors that allowed an independent record label to basically emerge from nowhere and dominate American music for more than a decade. I especially liked the parts that explore why Detroit produced so many talented musicians: 

From Detroit alone, after World War II, came such talents as Yusef Lateef, Thad, Hank, and Elvin Jones, Della Reese, Little Willie John, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Jackie Wilson, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Aretha Franklin, Paul Chambers, Roland Hanna, Alice Coltrane, and Charles McPherson, as well as, of course, the talent that came out of Motown after 1959. Why did Detroit become such a hothouse of musical talent after the war? It is difficult to pinpoint a precise answer but part of it lies in the intense emphasis on musical education among Detroit blacks. It is a common myth that blacks learn about music in their churches and like all myths it has a considerable amount of truth. Yet black secular music education provides as much, if not more, training for blacks who seek a music career than churches do. For instance, Ralph Ellison, in writing about jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, describes music education in the black Oklahoma school he attended: “...harmony was taught from the ninth through the twelfth grades; there was an extensive and compulsory music-appreciation program, and...a concert band and orchestra and several vocal organizations.”

At the turn of the century, E. Azalia Hackley, a light-skinned black woman from Detroit who was trained as a soprano, adopted the musical education of black youth as her mission; she was called “Our National Voice Teacher” in the black press and was wont to stop for 15 minutes during her recitals and give her audiences lessons in musical appreciation and voice training. From Hackley’s instructorship to that of such storied black Detroit public-school music teachers as Ernest Rodgers, Orville Lawrence, and James Tatum, Detroit black youth have been reared in a vibrant musical atmosphere in their public schools. The annual E. Azalia Hackley Program featuring black composers and black classical performers started in 1943, and such noted black Detroit performers as Rogie Clark, Robert A. Harris, and Charles Coleman (also music critic for Detroit’s black newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle) have been featured in various years. Indeed, an aspect of black music education that is not as written about as it should be is how much blacks, in their schools, are exposed to classical European music, marching-band music, and pseudo-classical show tunes, and how much these forms of music have been traditionally enjoyed in the black community and not necessarily by the black bourgeoisie only. Blacks have often found some of these forms as attractive, as much a part of their cultural language—as they rightly should—as the musical forms that are more expressive of their own African-derived aesthetics and sensibilities, and this has influenced overall the shaping of their popular music.

Consider this fact about Motown: The three major early groups of the company—the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Miracles—were put together and rehearsed at their high schools. They were not church groups; in fact, the members did not attend the same church, and in various autobiographies there is little talk about the influence of the black church in their music. For instance, Smokey Robinson speaks about the influence of Sarah Vaughn, and Mary Wilson singles out the McGuire sisters, Doris Day, and Patti Page as her personal favorites when she was growing up (an indication, among other things, that the popular-culture broadcasting devices—radio and television—not only exposed white audiences to black music but, just as important, exposed black audiences to white music, and that black musical taste could be just as pedestrian as the white mainstream or that white mainstream tastes ought not to be routinely stereotyped and dismissed more so than black tastes are subject to be). Black music has been equally a product of secular and sacred forces and impulses. One finds this is true equally of Ray Charles, who became closely tied with the secularization of black gospel although he never learned his craft in a black church but rather at the school for the blind he attended and on gigs, and of Michael Jackson who, true to his Motown roots, also put a great deal of gospel fervor into his music but who had “music class and band in the Gary [Indiana] schools” where he grew up.

The book also explains how the early explosion of rock music and R&B in the 1950s was a decentralized and bottoms-up movement:

Most R and B was recorded for small independent labels, as was a good deal of early Rock and Roll, bebop and soul jazz. Specialty in Los Angeles, King/Federal in Cincinnati, National and Atlantic Records, both in New York, Sun Records in Memphis, Apollo Records in New York, Chess Records in Chicago, Modern Records and Imperial Records in Los Angeles, and Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey, are just a few of the companies that proliferated like mushrooms in the dark seeking local black music after World War II. As Arnold Shaw pointed out near the end of his book, The Rocking 50s, a comparison of the top pop songs of 1939 and 1959 found that in 1939, the Top Ten pop discs were made by only three companies—all located in New York—whereas in 1959, 39 companies produced Top Ten records and these were located in ten states. Popular music in America was truly becoming regionalized and more open. Moreover, the music that was most likely to attract adventuresome kids, the music that the majors had white artists covering, was the music of the small independent label.

This is a useful and unique telling of the Motown Records story.