How we made Motown

Berry Gordy: ‘I didn’t like Stevie Wonder’s singing – but I loved his harmonica-playing’

Smokey Robinson, singer-songwriter

I was in a group called the Matadors and Jackie Wilson was my idol. When Jackie’s managers gave us an audition, I noticed this young man sitting in the corner listening. The managers rejected us, but he said: “Hey, man, I like a couple of your songs.” Then he told me he was Berry Gordy and I couldn’t believe it – he was the man who wrote Jackie Wilson’s hits. Berry listened to about 20 of my songs that day. Back then, I couldn’t really write, so he started to mentor me. First thing he said was a song had to be like a short story with the beginning, middle and end all tying in together.

On Motown’s first day [12 January 1959] there were five people there. He sat us down and said: “I’m gonna start my own record label and we’re not just gonna make black music. We’re gonna make music that everybody can enjoy. We’re always gonna have great beats and great stories and we’re always gonna make quality records.” We accomplished all of that.

Shop Around, by my band the Miracles, was the first million-seller. We started to bombard the record business with hit after hit and got established. In those days, people wouldn’t pay you if you didn’t have hits. Soon they were trying to pay us in advance to get our records.

Berry has a saying: “Competition breeds success.” And we were very, very, very competitive. However, we always helped each other if need be, there was a loving spirit. The studio wasn’t just our place of business, it was where we hung out. Any time you were in Detroit, that’s where you were, whether you were working or not.

You had to be tough, though. Berry doesn’t pull any punches. He’ll change something 1,000 times to make it right. That’s how he is. That’s how he taught us to be. Ratio-wise, I’m a firm believer that in every city, in every town, there are just as many talented people as we had in Detroit. The difference was that we had Berry Gordy, a music man at the helm with great ideas. He’s why Motown happened in Detroit.

The dream team … Berry Gordy (centre top of stairs) with the Supremes, the Motown house band (left), and his Holland-Dozier-Holland hit-makers in 1965.
The dream team … Berry Gordy (centre top of stairs) with the Supremes, the Motown house band (left), and his Holland-Dozier-Holland hitmakers in 1965. Photograph: Library of Congress

Berry Gordy, producer

I was a failure at everything I ever did until I was 29. That was when I met Smokey. I liked him and he liked me, and I said: “Go home and listen to the radio.” He came back to me and said there was a record called Get a Job by the Silhouettes. It was No 1. He said: “Every time I turn on the radio, I hear this record – so I wrote an answer to it.” My goodness, I was so impressed! There was no way it could miss. How clever was he?

I produced that song, Got a Job, independently. I hadn’t even thought about a label then. I just wanted to be in the record business. I took it to New York, where End Records put it out, and it was a hit. That was the beginning. I got a cheque for $3.19! Then Smokey said: “If this is all the money you’re going to make, you might as well start your own record company.” So I thought about it and did.

I had to borrow money from my family and I kept writing for Jackie Wilson. My uncle was a classical piano player and he’d given me lessons for a year, then kicked me out because song ideas would come into my head and I’d do them instead. I liked all music from classical to gospel and blues. I decided to put it all together and make Motown.

The artists didn’t have a lot in common. Each had a different talent. For example, Stevie Wonder was a harmonica player. I didn’t like his singing, but I loved his harmonica-playing. Many artists would come who I didn’t think had the right spirit for Motown because it was about love. Competition breeds champions but you can’t let the competition get in the way of love – and Smokey embodied that. He was the soul of Motown. He wrote the company song.

The new Motown musical is about the truth, about our love for each other, about our fights with each other. Artists left me for more money and I realised later that I might have done the same thing. They followed me down roads that didn’t exist, so I couldn’t hate them.

What made Motown special? Just better songs. The same thing I talked to Smokey about that day we first met.

• Motown the Musical is at Shaftesbury theatre, London, until 18 February 2017. Tickets at theguardianboxoffice.com or 0330-333 6906.

Contributor

Interviews by Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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