Over the past two days, some fans of Motown and Marvin Gaye have sent along emails insisting that Berry Gordy Jr., Motown's founder, was rewriting history. Their contention is that Mr. Gordy had blocked What's Going On in 1970 and 1971 and that he had heated arguments with Gaye over its release. Of course, we will never truly know what actually took place between them, since there are no documents, emails or video. For years Mr. Gordy has been vilified for being a whole range of things. Maybe some of those things are true. Maybe not. I have no idea.
Here's what I do know: What's Going On, one of the most important albums of the singer-songwriter era, did get released by Motown as a single and as an album, and relatively quickly. And Motown's stringent quality-control standards were applied to both, compelling the original mix to be built up and made more robust with greater strings, horns and a choir as well as tighter editing.
None of that would have been possible without Mr. Gordy's approval. It's easy to demonize Mr. Gordy. But he could have just as easily doomed the single and album to the can. Or he could have allowed them to go out half-baked to ensure failure. Instead, both were given enormous care and became smash hits. As a result, some of the credit for the album that so many have come to love must go to Mr. Gordy as the head of Motown. No Mr. Gordy, no Motown and no What's Going On.
In Part 3 of the outtakes of my interview with Mr. Gordy for the Wall Street Journal (go here), the Motown founder picks up our conversation from yesterday about What's Going On and Marvin Gaye:
Marc Myers: From a business standpoint, what did you do to support What’s Going On?
Berry Gordy Jr.: We had a strong sales team. They went all out on it. I owned the publishing as well, so I could make them fight for the song and album as well. We had a network that was practically international as we grew, to promote all of our stuff. My job was to build the people and judge the product.
MM: Was Marvin hard to control?
BG: I had trouble with Marvin trying to get him to pay his taxes. Anyone can be a star but you’ve got to pay your taxes [laughs]. Marvin was a guy who would disagree for the sake of disagreeing. Part of that genius was doing things that were counter to what was accepted. He’d say, “I don’t want to pay taxes because someone told me that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about having to pay taxes.” I’d say, “Marvin, you’re going to go to jail if you don’t pay your taxes.” I was always the voice saying, “No Marvin, don’t listen to these people.” To his credit, his mind was open all the time.
MM: Where did Marvin Gaye’s social consciousness come from?
BG: It was always in Marvin. He had questions about everything. He was always burning inside and he wasn’t a trusting soul.
MM: Did Motown give him a sense of grounding?
BG: Even though he loved and respected me, and was thrilled to be part of the Gordy family, Marvin was always looking for family and love. And that’s why Motown was important to him. It was a community where he could belong to something, with long-lasting friendships. An extension of that was the Gordy family. He had all of that. He was my brother-in-law.
MM: After What’s Going On, suddenly Stevie Wonder has socio-political concept albums as well.
BG: Motown producers and artists were free to reflect who they were and the world and their place in the world. I would explain to them that many people have the same problems we do. What we have to do is express in poetic and musical terms what these people are feeling that they themselves can’t express. Smokey of course is one of the great ones who did that. Marvin then created Whats Going On. [Pictured from left: Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye]
MM: There’s no question mark at end of the song and album title. Was that on purpose?
BG: Oh that’s interesting. I didn’t grab that. We mortals can’t get into the all the stuff Marvin was thinking [laughs]. Marvin was a lovable character. Everyone loved Marvin. He was just a unique being. He was like those great classical people in our history, like Mozart.
MM: You must have heard What’s Going On and said to yourself, “We have other artists here who can do these big projects as well.”
BG: I wasn’t that smart at the time [laughs]. I’d like to take credit for that but I can’t. We had a free society at Motown. The artists figured out what they wanted to do with the producers. As far as Marvin was concerned, the musicians around him always fell into his groove.
MM: You had a system.
BG: I taught the people who worked for me to think. People ask me all the time, “If you were in the business today, what would you do? Everything has changed.” I say, “Well, basically the only thing that has changed is the delivery systems. We haven’t changed. Artistic integrity hasn’t changed. Truth hasn’t changed. Character hasn’t changed. Give me some great content and you’ll have a hit.”
MM: Was success hard for Marvin?
BG: I think so, but success is hard for most artists. Before success, it’s easy. You’re anticipating success. During success it’s easy. You’re enjoying it. It’s after success that you have to worry.
BG: How you made your success is what’s going to keep you happy after success is achieved. True happiness is possible only when you’re really proud of yourself and how you made your success. So I never worried about artists before and during. Those things take care of themselves. It’s after that I worried about them. That’s why I’m still a kid today. That’s why Smokey and I are two of the happiest people around. That’s what happens when you do your success right.
MM: As a songwriter yourself, did you help Marvin with his music writing?
BG: Marvin was a genius. I didn’t help Marvin with his music. Now Smokey, on the other hand, I taught him early on and he became one of the greats. He was always a great poet. You put the poet with the music along with the structures that I taught him, and the result was fantasic.
MM: So with What’s Going On, was Berry Gordy just a bystander?
BG: Possibly I said something to him. I don’t recall. I used to go into all of the rooms at Motown while things were going on to give my advice. Marvin would be in one. But I don’t want to take anything away from Marvin as a brilliant genius. The same goes for Stevie [Wonder]. I merely created the environment that allowed these people to be who they were. I wanted to give them an environment in which they could create.
MM: But how did you keep petty in-fighting from creeping in at Motown?
BG: Through my philosophies that we’d say in our quality control meetings. No company politics, the best record wins and we have to get the listener in the first 20 seconds. Remember, I was a creative person at the top of the company who had come up through the ranks of the record business. [Pictured: Funk Brothers studio band]
MM: So you had both the songwriting and business aspects.
BG: When I started out, I was writing songs. When I didn’t like the way they were being produced, I produced them myself. When I didn’t get paid from the publishing side, I began to publish my songs. When I had to send records out to be manufactured, I decided to manufacture them myself. The product was the thing.
MM: So the quality of a record spoke for itself.
BG: In our meetings, it was all about the product and how good it was. Then because I managed the artists as well originally, I had to look out for them and do things like make them pay their taxes. Marvin was always tough on that. He was a genius who had an answer for everything.
MM: So you had been in their shoes?
BG: I was involved in all aspects because I was a songwriter and was in competition with them. But I would lose out if their votes won out in meetings. That’s the way it was.
MM: Is the business different today?
BG: Today money people run the companies versus creative people. If your bottom line is good, it doesn’t matter how the product sounds. At Motown, I was the head of the company but I was a creative person. Our goal was to get hit music and hit records and keep our reputation up and protect the artists.
MM: And how did this work on What’s Going On?
BG: I thought I was protecting Marvin by telling him to stick with what worked commercially. I was resistant to the idea at first because a protest record like Marvin’s, for us—there were so many other protest things out there and they didn’t connect with the marketplace. When we released albums of Dr. King’s speeches, there were other groups out there like the Black Power movement that said white people were devils. I chose to embrace Dr. King and release his speeches because I felt they were in more line with my thinking.
MM: How so?
BG: To unite, not divide. It’s music for all people—white, black, blue green, cops and the robbers. They all love Motown music. Motown music was for everybody. Everyone has emotions. Write what you feel.
MM: Wasn’t Marvin doing that?
BG: Yes, and that’s what he told me. Marvin had heard me say so often, “Don’t worry about whether people are going to like what you’re singing. What do you feel?” With What’s Going On, he said, “But BG, I’ve done that with this record and now you don’t like it” [laughs].
MM: What else did Gaye say along those lines?
BG: He said, “BG, you got me to do that and now you don’t like it.” As the weeks went on, I realized more and more that he was right. But I was right in trying to protect the careers of the artists. My reaction to What’s Going On was the same as if he said he wanted to run off with some starlet and have 10 kids. A good manager might say, “Maybe you want to hold that up for a few years. Nothing mean spirited, but maybe you should wait a bit.” My initial reaction was just career advice. And Marvin in the process taught me a value lesson.
MM: What was that lesson?
BG: Practice what you preach. I was always preaching, “Be yourself, always." I told Marvin to be himself when I started with him. I was a creative person, but I never had the time to write songs. I had given up my songwriting career to build the stars, the people at Motown. I was their conscience. With Marvin, my thing was into making sure he remained real, a human being. My word to him was very, very important. He never would defy me or dislike me. He always loved me.
MM: Why was Gaye signed to Tamla and not Motown?
BG: Tamla was my first label. I had many labels because radio stations had strict policies [after the Payola scandals] to make sure they weren’t playing one record more than others. One of the things they did was play records from different labels to keep the rotation. To get more music into that rotation, I created several labels so all of our output wouldn’t be restricted just to one label.
MM: Looking back on everything you’ve released at Motown, where does What’s Going On fit in?
BG: I think it ranks up there with the top records—not just at Motown but all record labels. It was revolutionary then and even more important now. Look what has happened since it was recorded. Looking back, we know now that Marvin was a visionary. He was fighting for things that were right and he did it in a melodic way. He couldn’t do a bad album.
JazzWax tracks: Universal/Motown just released What's Going On: 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, which features two remastered CDs and a vinyl LP of Gaye's original mix, known as the "Detroit Mix." There are 16 previously unreleased tracks.
You'll find this new set at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Inner City Blues, from What's Going On (1971). Listen to the heartbeat intro and drama created. This is tremendous music...