hide caption...but also for the Temptations, which consisted of David Ruffin (clockwise from lower left), Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, and Otis Williams. "'My Girl' was definitely a Temps song," Robinson says. "It was definitely a David Ruffin song."
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... My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you.
— "The Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Listen)
It's been more than 40 years since the songs of Motown first hit the airwaves and made radios come alive. They're now so ingrained in our musical consciousness that we take them for granted.
The lyrics of many of Motown's best-loved love songs are collected in a new book called — what else? — Motown in Love. The book argues that Motown was a step in the evolution of the American popular song, a tradition reaching back to songwriters like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
Berry Gordy — a songwriter and former boxer — founded the Motown family of labels in 1959 with $800. Smokey Robinson was a charter member, writing hit tunes for his own group the Miracles, as well as other Motown artists.
Robinson remembers the day Motown began. "There were five people there: Berry Gordy said that day, 'We are not going to make black music. We are going to make music for everybody. We are going to make music that has great stories and great beats. We are going to write great songs.'"
By 1965, Motown had been nicknamed Hitsville and Gordy had built a music-producing empire that's often compared to the assembly lines of the automobile industry. Herb Jordan, a music producer and editor of Motown in Love, sees it differently.
"It was really this creative enclave, a salon, if you will, where brilliant musicians from many different traditions — from jazz, from gospel — convened, passed on musical knowledge and a love for a lyric and for a great song. The motivation of the book is to really get people to understand that behind these fantastic performances by The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, there were a group of songwriters who were masters at their craft. The songwriters labored over the lyrics. They labored over the phrasing."
The lyrics of Motown are more than just words to feel-good songs for the Big Chill generation. But can they be considered American standards — like the best Tin Pan Alley tunes?
According to Jordan, that's exactly what Motown songwriters grew up listening to. "Every household in black America had Ella Fitzgerald records, Duke Ellington records, Sarah Vaughn records. They were playing the music of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. So most people of that era grew up with those songs — they grew up with the great American songbook."
For black America, the 1960s were a decade filled with social protest and raw emotion — especially in cities like Detroit. And yet this urban center produced uplifting songs of love.
"At Motown, 95 percent of the songs were written by young, black men," Jordan says. "They wrote for the male and female artists, and brought to it a sense of vulnerability any English professor would be proud of. Coming out of Detroit, one of harshest environments you could imagine, they elected to write love songs."
"Love is my favorite subject to write about," Robinson says. "You see, love is the only thing that's there that I can think of that will be everlasting, and I want to write everlasting songs."
Forty years after they first rolled off the assembly line, the love songs of Motown sound fresh and still run reliably, with lyrics that balance literary elegance and a hip, street vernacular.
One could say the same thing about the most enduring and loved songs by songwriters like Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Jerome Kern, or Johnny Mercer. By this measure alone, it's clear that Motown has written its own chapter in the Great American Songbook.
Ashley Kahn is the author of the book The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.
hide captionDiana Ross and the Supremes (Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard), work with songwriters Lamont Dozier (from left), Edward Holland and Brian Holland.
Courtesy Motown Records Archives
Diana Ross and the Supremes (Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard), work with songwriters Lamont Dozier (from left), Edward Holland and Brian Holland.
Courtesy Motown Records Archives
"I call them the silent architects of Motown. Very often the public has no idea who wrote the song." — Herb Jordan, music producer and editor of the book Motown in Love
In its heyday, Motown was a music-producing empire that is still often compared to the assembly lines of the automobile industry. Herb Jordan sees it a little differently: "It was really this creative enclave, a salon, if you will, where the brilliant musicians from many different traditions — from jazz, from gospel — convened and passed on musical knowledge and a love for a lyric and for a great song. Berry Gordy recognized the value of a great song. Songs were chosen in a trial by fire and it was very competitive between songwriters."
Smokey Robinson was a charter member of the Motown "salon," and recalls the competitive spirit, and how it fell into a weekly ritual.
"We not only looked at everybody outside of Motown as our competition, but we looked at each other as competition, you know what I mean? Nobody was not competition in our eyesight. And we had better come with a great song, because when it came to Monday morning meetings, your song was either shot down, or given the thumbs up."
Not surprisingly, as Robinson notes, "the writers and the producers wrote songs that were pinpointed or designated for a said artist — like 'My Girl' was definitely a Temps song. It was definitely a David Ruffin [of the Temptations] song. Very few of the songwriters wrote a song and then said, 'Let me see who this song would be good for.'"
Robinson was one of a number of great songwriters that defined the Motown legacy: a group that also includes lesser-known individuals like Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, Marilyn McLeod. Four songwriters or songwriting teams that benefited from the creative pressure-cooker Gordy created in the'60s, and received the thumbs up to have Motown groups record their material, are celebrated below.
hide captionSmokey Robinson (left) and Motown founder Berry Gordy in 2005.
While still in high school, William "Smokey" Robinson met Berry Gordy, impressing the Motown founder with his enthusiasm and songs drawn from a book of handwritten lyrics he carried with him. His songs — most written for his own group the Miracles, but many for The Temptations and The Marvelettes — were distinguished by a literariness and love for wordplay. (And how many Top 10 hits referenced an Italian opera, as he did with Pagliacci in "Tears of a Clown"?) By the '70s, as esteemed a songwriter as Bob Dylan hailed Robinson: "America's greatest poet."
Not for nothing did Gordy decide to title one of Motown's best-selling albums The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland. He was proud of, and happy to give titular billing to the songwriting/production trio that created the Supremes sound (and later The Four Tops.) By the late '60s, brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, plus Lamont Dozier, would rebel against Motown's familial business arrangements and start their own label. For many, none more accurately or sympathetically caught the female viewpoint (think the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love") or male heartbreak (the Four Tops' "Seven Rooms of Gloom") than H-D-H.
Ashford & Simpson
hide captionNickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson on stage in London, circa 1984.
Husband-and-wife songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson came together in 1964, created their first hit for Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned") in 1966, and became the team behind Motown's most successful male-female duo: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They were among the first non-Detroiters to become part of the Motown family, and later pursued their own recording careers — on Motown and other labels. Their best work is characterized by jazzy harmonies and sophisticated, rhythmic shifts that build to a gospel-like fervor. (Small surprise, since the two met making music in a Baptist church.)
No other songwriting/production team represents the maturing of Motown — from sunny pop songs to more socially aware and streetwise tunes — more than Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Their productions balanced lush strings with hard-hitting R&B and even rock (like The Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack"), and they took Motown to the top of the charts with tunes ranging in mood from romantic and ethereal ("Just My Imagination"), to raw and raucous ("Ball of Confusion") — even threatening, in the case of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine".