Motown: Not the Same Old Songs A new 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.

Motown: Not the Same Old Songs

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An un-credited star of the movie “Dreamgirls” is Motown Records. Even though the singing group in the film is fictional, “Dreamgirls” recreates the era when the music of Motown dominated the pop charts.

(Soundbite of song “It's the Same Old Song”)

MONTAGNE: Motown first made radios come alive in the early 1960s. The songs are now so engrained in our consciousness it's easy to take them for granted.

(Soundbite of song “It's the Same Old Song”)

THE FOUR TOPS (Singing Group): (Singing) We used to dance to the music. We used to dance to the music. Make romance through the music...

MONTAGNE: A new book called “Motown in Love” argues that the record label played a major role in the evolution of the American popular song, a tradition reaching back to composers like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.

Journalist Ashley Kahn spoke with the book's editor and with Motown star Smokey Robinson.

(Soundbite of song “Tracks of My Tears”)

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES (Singing Group): (Singing) People say I'm the life of the party ‘cause I tell a joke or two...

ASHLEY KAHN: My first trip to Motown took place in 1979 when I made a discovery in the apartment I was subletting. The guy before me had left behind a four-LP collection: Motown's Greatest Hits.

(Soundbite of song “Tracks of My Tears”)

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) If you look closer it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears...

KAHN: I remember I was surprised by how many songs I already knew and amazed how well-written each one was. I remember one in particular by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles with a lyric that made the words dance.

(Soundbite of song “Tracks of My Tears”)

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you...

KAHN: Berry Gordy, a songwriter and a former boxer, founded the Motown family of labels in 1959 with $800. Smokey Robinson was there at the beginning, writing hit tunes for his own group, The Miracles, as well as other Motown artists.

Mr. ROBINSON: The very first day of Motown, there were five people there. And Berry said that day, we are not going to make black music. We're going to make music for everybody. We're going to make music that has great stories and great beats. We're going to write great songs.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Male: From Hitsville USA, the home of the world famous Detroit sound...

(Soundbite of song “Please, Mr. Postman”)

THE MARVELETTES (Singing Group): (Singing) Wait! Whoa, yes, wait a minute Mr. Postman...

KAHN: By 1965, Motown had earned the nickname Hitsville and Gordy was running a musical empire.

Mr. HERB JORDAN (Editor, “Motown in Love”): Behind these fantastic performances by The Temptations, The Four Tops, there were a group of songwriters who were masters at their craft.

KAHN: Herb Jordan is a music producer and is editor of “Motown in Love,” a new book that collects the lyrics of more than 100 great Motown songs.

Mr. JORDAN: They labored over the lyrics. They labored over the phrasing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRIAN HOLLAND (Songwriter): (Singing) I've got to see that you understand. Got my heart (unintelligible).

KAHN: Here's a rare glimpse into the making of a Motown classic from 1966. This is the songwriter Brian Holland. He's working his way through the rhythmic feel of an instrumental track so that he can write the words to match it.

Mr. HOLLAND: (Singing) Whoo! I've got (unintelligible) baby. Whoo! (Unintelligible)...

KAHN: And here's what Holland came up with for The Four Tops.

(Soundbite of song “Standing in the Shadows of Love”)

THE FOUR TOPS (Singing Group): (Singing) I'm standing in the shadows of love. I'm getting ready for the heartache to come...

KAHN: Motown lyrics are more than just the 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 Herb Jordan, that's exactly what Motown songwriters grew up listening to.

Mr. JORDAN: Every household in black America had Ella Fitzgerald records, Duke Ellington records, Sarah Vaughn records.

(Soundbite of song “Nice Work If You Can Get It”)

Ms. SARAH VAUGHAN (Singer): (Singing) Holding hands at midnight, ‘neath a starry sky...

Mr. JORDAN: They were playing the music of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, so most people of that era grew up with those songs.

(Soundbite of song “Nice Work If You Can Get It”)

Ms. VAUGHAN: (Singing) It's nice work if you can get it, and you can get it. Won't you tell me how.

KAHN: Smokey Robinson.

Mr. ROBINSON: I grew up listening to Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra and, you know, the whole sha-bang, and that's the music that I heard.

(Soundbite of song “Love Child”)

KAHN: For black America, the ‘60s 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. Again, Herb Jordan.

Mr. JORDAN: At Motown, 95 percent of the songs were written by young black men. They wrote for the male artist and they wrote for the female artist.

(Soundbite of “Love Child”)

THE SUPREMES (Singing Group): (Singing) This love we're contemplating is worth the pain of waiting. We'll only end up hating the child we may be creating. Love child...

Mr. JORDAN: They brought to it a sense of vulnerability. When you read the words now, any English teacher will be proud of what these young men out of the Detroit ghetto created.

Just as the desert shows a thirsting man a green oasis where there's only sand.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible) it's just a mirage.

Mr. JORDAN: Coming out of Detroit and out of one of the, you know, harshest environments you could imagine, they elected to write love songs.

(Soundbite of song “My Girl”)

THE TEMPTATIONS (Singing Group): (Singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day...

KAHN: Again, Smokey Robinson.

Mr. ROBINSON: Love is my favorite subject to write about. Love is the only subject that I can think of that I think will be everlasting, and I want to write everlasting songs.

(Soundbite of song “My Girl”)

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) My girl, my girl, my girl. Talking about my girl. My girl...

KAHN: 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-wise sensibility.

(Soundbite of song “I Hear a Symphony”)

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony...

KAHN: One could say the same thing about the most enduring and loved songs by songwriters like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Jerome Kern or Johnny Mercer. By this measure alone, it's clear that Motown did indeed write their own chapter in the great American songbook.

(Soundbite of song “I Hear a Symphony”)

The SUPREMES: (Singing) Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony...

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION and he's author of the “The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.”

The book “Motown in Love” has just been released and you can learn about some of the labels and other great songwriters at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song “I Hear a Symphony”)

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby, baby. Don't let this moment end. Keep standing close to me.

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