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Motown Hits Were A Product Of Quality Control
Oh, we have a very swinging company
Working hard from day to day...
Our main purpose is to please the world
With songs the DJs love to play
Nowhere will you find more unity
than at Hitsville U.S.A
-- "The Motown Company Song," Smokey Robinson (1961)
It was called Hitsville U.S.A. for good reason
Within two years of its founding in 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr.'s Motown Records empire specialized in making hits -- 53 which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Pop/Hot 100 chart until Gordy, who started the company with an $800 loan from his family, sold it for $61 million in 1988.
Those and another 138 songs that hit No. 1 on various other charts, here and abroad, are celebrated in this week's release of "Motown: The Complete No. 1's," a 10-disc box set whose lavish package is designed to look like the building at 2648 West Grand Blvd. which housed Motown's famed Studio A, original corporate offices and, for a time, Gordy's apartment and is now the Motown Historical Museum.
The compendium is a testament to what Motown admirer Neil Diamond calls "a machine" that made Motown such a prolific hit-producing operation, particularly during the '60s and '70s. "Rats, roaches, soul, guts and love" is the equation Gordy cites as "the sound of young America," but the truth is that Motown turned hit-making into a science.
But even though the impresario cites his tenures with Lincoln Mercury and Guardian Service cookware as sources for the Motown model, original company A&R director William "Mickey" Stevenson rebuffs the notion of Motown as a "factory."
"It was not an assembly line process to come out with the best automobile -- or the best song," says Stevenson, who coordinated the efforts of Motown's songwriters, producers and artists. "It was a feeling of creating something that we felt could be different and unique.
"With that in mind it was the [i]art[/i] of doing it, the feeling of doing it."
But Gordy did appropriate one aspect of the manufacturing world that become a hallmark of Motown's operations and a key ingredient in the company's success -- Quality Control.
Each Friday, a selection of staffers from all of Motown's departments would gather in his office to listen to new recordings and decide which would be released. The tracks, recorded 24-7 in Studio A, were submitted to Billie Jean Brown, whose stern initial listen determined if they were of the right caliber to be part of what was essentially a musical gladiator's coliseum. Then a set of five or so finalists would be subject to the exacting ears of the Motown braintrust.
In his 1994 memoir "To Be Loved," Gordy writes that the Quality Control, or "product evaluation meetings," were "the lifeblood of our operation...Careers depended on the choices made those Friday mornings. Everybody wanted to be there...to protect their own instincts and to challenge each other and me."
Gordy had three rules for the meetings: that no producer could vote on his own record; that only Gordy himself could overrule a majority vote; and that anyone who was more than five minutes late would be locked out of the meeting -- although he conceded that he made an exception for Smokey Robinson, who had, after all, encouraged Gordy to start his own record company in the first place.
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in the Quality Control meetings was intense. "This was the one place where everyone was not only free to speak their minds, they were expected to," Gordy writes. "Everybody in the room was fair game, even the sales executives who were sometimes attacked for not promoting the product well enough."
Stevenson says that Gordy was the primary person to please, however. "Berry would listen to (the songs) all the way down, man," he says. "He'd turn his chair around and listen all the way through. And everyone would be on pins and needles, waiting to hear what he thought -- and what other people would have to say.
Motown songwriter Leon Ware says the competition made everyone involved that much sharper. "Berry...pitted talented people against each other," Ware notes. "The challenge was you didn't even bring your song in unless you were really sure about it, 'cause the people you were up against would walk in with some really brilliant work. What you did there had to be excellent."
Nevertheless, Eddie Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland team -- which wrote and produced 25 No. 1 pop and R&B hits for the Four Tops, the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and others -- claims that despite the environment was "also very relaxing and fun," filled with a creative kind of camaraderie. And the opinions, he says, weren't limited to just Motown employees.
"We would bring kids off the street," Holland says. "We would bring them in and say, 'Listen to this music? What do you guys think is best?' "
Once someone had a hit, meanwhile, they had a leg up at the Quality Control meetings. Stevenson, who's in the midst of writing a book titled "And the Hits Just Kept on Comin'," explains that, "say we went with (a song) by Holland-Dozier-Holland. They deal was they had the right to do the very next record -- but they better be good enough to hold it."
In HDH's case, they generally were. "Yeah, the rest of the producers and everything were a bit perturbed we were getting all the releases," notes Lamont Dozier.
But Stevenson says the benefit of the Quality Control process was that it not only produced hits but also a stockpile of potential future hits. "We'd end up with two great songs, sometimes three," he says. "We'd pick out the one to go out, and then we'd have other songs ready to go, so we...never ran out of (hits)."
And, despite the pressure to follow it up, there was nothing like having a hit of the moment at Motown.
"In Detroit, we used to go to the 20 Grand or other places people hung out and we were treated like celebrities," Dozier remembers. "A couple of times I tried to flex my muscles and look like Mr. Big or something -- 'Drinks on the house!'
"The next day when they sent me the bill, I was like, 'What in the world was I thinking?!' I was feeling my heart instead of my head."
But while "Motown: The Complete No. 1's" celebrates songs that reached that particular pinnacle, Eddie Holland contends that a hit was a hit, wherever it ended up on the charts.
"I just wanted to know, 'Was it a hit record?' "he explains. "If you could get a record in the Top 10, that's wonderful, really. That's a big hit. If it went gold, that was the ultimate.
"No. 1 was more of a prideful thing, I guess. It was always nice to think you had the most-loved record this week. But next week, somebody else would be No. 1, and the week after that somebody else...So you can't get too wrapped up in that No. 1 thing, at least I didn't. I just wanted the hit."
KNOW YOUR NO. 1's
Some fast facts about No. 1 hits at Motown:
* Number of No. 1 hits on the Billboard Pop/Hot 100 chart during the Berry Gordy era (1969-88): 53
* No. 1 hits on the Billboard R&B chart: 96
* No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country chart: Two -- "Devil in the Bottle" and "Tryin' to Beat the Morning Home," both by T.G. Sheppard, 1975.
* First No. 1 hits: "Shop Around," the Miracles (R&B, 1960); "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes (Pop, 1961).
* Longest run at No. 1: "Endless Love," Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, 1981, nine weeks.
* Longest run at No. 1 after Gordy sold the company: "I'll Make Love To You," Boyz II Men, 1994, 14 weeks.
* Most prolific No. 1 artist: Diana Ross, 18 (12 with the Supremes, six as a solo artist).
* Most prolific No. 1 writer/producer(s): Norman Whitfield and Stevie Wonder, tied with 18 each.
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