The Supremes (from left, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross) with Harvey Fuqua of the artist development team at Motown’s Detroit recording studio, 1965 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
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Motown: The Sound of Young America, by Adam White with Barney Ales, Thames & Hudson, RRP£39.95, 400 pages

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, RRP$32.50, 464 pages

After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye, by Jan Gaye with David Ritz, Amistad, RRP£19.99/$25.99, 304 pages

In its prime the largest black-owned business in the US, with hundreds of hit records and a roster of stars including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, Motown is one of the most celebrated labels in the history of recorded music. But even today, 55 years after its first number one, the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr Postman”, the question of its legacy is unresolved.

No other record company has inspired so much contradictory commentary. Motown is held up as an emblem of black capitalism but has also been dogged by disputed allegations that it cheated its black acts. It is simultaneously lauded as a symbol of its home city Detroit and condemned for betraying it by relocating to Los Angeles in 1972.

Its ambition to make black pop music for all audiences — “whites, blacks, Jews, gentiles, cops and robbers”, in its founder Berry Gordy’s words — tallied with civil rights protests against segregation in the 1960s. However, Motown has also been criticised for diluting black culture and pandering to the mainstream.

The official narrative, promoted by the irrepressible Gordy, is the heroic tale of a visionary artist-entrepreneur, a songwriter with musical and business smarts who forms the “Motown family” and broadcasts the “sound of young America” across the nation. In his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved, he portrays himself as a benevolent patriarch (“the rumors about my cheating the artists always bothered me the most”) who backs talent over accountancy (“it’s what’s in the grooves that counts”). This is also the message of Motown: The Musical, which Gordy, now 86, wrote and co-produced. It opened in the US in 2013 and transferred to London last month.

Berry Gordy in the control room of Studio A at Hitsville. Courtesy of the EMI Archive Trust and Universal Music Group

In reality, “Chairman Gordy” was an authoritarian boss who refused to let the Recording Industry Association of America audit sales, locked the doors to Motown’s weekly quality control meetings so latecomers could not get in and sought to exert total control over his stable of artists. But his attempt to have the final word on Motown’s history is like King Canute ordering back the tide. Other interpretations cannot be halted, as shown by the latest wave of publications dealing with his celebrated label.

Motown: The Sound of Young America is a handsome photograph book with a substantial textual accompaniment, drawing on reminiscences by Barney Ales, Gordy’s right-hand man. After the Dance is an account of Jan Gaye’s tumultuous marriage to Marvin Gaye, the brilliant but erratic soulman whose success kept Motown going in the 1970s. Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by the Washington Post journalist David Maraniss, places early 1960s Motown in the larger context of the city of its birth, the “Motor Town” from which it took its name.

Detroit, the US’s fourth-largest music market, was fertile ground for Gordy’s venture. It had a black middle class, the product of the “Great Migration” of southerners to the city, among them Gordy’s parents in 1922. On arriving, his father opened a grocery store named after Booker T Washington, the 19th-century theorist of black economic advancement.

The label began as Tamla Records in 1959, adopting the name Motown the following year. It was initially bankrolled by an $800 loan from Gordy’s parents and eight siblings. With a characteristic eye for the bottom line, they charged him 6 per cent interest on it.

Gordy was a failed boxer turned songwriter — he co-wrote Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” in 1957 — who had briefly worked on the assembly line at a Ford car plant. He applied a factory-like ethos to his new venture. The studio was housed in a converted residential house with the sign “Hitsville USA” outside. It was open 22 hours a day, shutting only between eight and 10am for cleaning. Everything was done in-house, from talent-scouting to distribution.

Motown worked its staff hard. In 1968 the sales force was expected to place 10 songs in the top 100 singles chart each week. “If you had nine, you were a failure,” an employee recalls in Motown: The Sound of Young America. Musicians received similar treatment. In 1960, Smokey Robinson’s group The Miracles were ordered to the studio at 3am by a sleepless Gordy in order to recut their song “Shop Around”. It worked: the resulting hit became Motown’s first million-selling record.

The Miracles light up the night during a show in the early 1960s

Gordy had an astute eye for talent. An etiquette adviser, Maxine Powell, was hired to improve singers’ deportment. The tap dancer Charles “Cholly” Atkins drilled them in “kick, turn, smile” choreography. Motown’s house band, the Funk Brothers, was made up of gifted jazz-trained musicians. Its song production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland ranks among the best in pop history, authors of classics such as the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” and the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”.

Motown’s focus on productivity and chart success was relentless — “the mad demands of money-hungry Motown”, as Marvin Gaye is quoted complaining in After the Dance. It was channelled into the “Motown Sound”, an expertly tailored pop formula driven by a strong backbeat and repetitive harmonic modulations. Yet the company was prepared to change with the times.

Gordy’s reaction to Gaye’s 1971 single “What’s Going On”, a masterpiece of social comment, was to bark at his consigliere Barney Ales: “How could you release that record? It’s the worst I ever heard.” But he did not prevent it from being released, and acknowledged his error after the single was a hit.

Gaye, a high-flown but ill-disciplined mystic with an escalating drug habit, remained at the label despite chances to leave. So did another brilliant original, Stevie Wonder, who negotiated a lucrative new contract before releasing Music of My Mind in 1972, a free-flowing repudiation of the Motown sound. “That’s what happens when you build people, [when] you pull out the potential in them,” a rueful Gordy commented. “You have to be prepared for their independence.”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles turn the tables during a photoshoot. Courtesy of the EMI Archive Trust and Universal Music Group

“Motown was a family, right from the beginning,” he wrote in his memoir. Critics have dismissed that sort of talk as sentimental claptrap obscuring oppressive working conditions and contractual ruthlessness. In such a view, Gordy’s paternalistic catchphrase to his acts, “I’ll take care of you”, actually meant the opposite. The fruits of their work would take care of him, handsomely.

But Motown’s family atmosphere was authentic. Eddie Holland, who had a series of royalties disputes with the label, described Gordy as his “father figure”. Martha Reeves, leader of the Vandellas, who sued to annul her contract after Motown’s move to LA, wrote in her 1994 book Dancing in the Street that: “Whenever Motown was called ‘a family operation,’ the reference to family was accurate. [Berry Gordy’s parents], ‘Mom’ and ‘Pops’ Gordy, as we lovingly called them, treated us all as their own.”

Several stars were literally children. “Little” Stevie Wonder, as he used to be billed, released his first album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, at the age of 11. When the offices moved to a 10-storey Detroit tower in 1968, a staffer quoted in Motown: The Sound of Young America recalls seeing a 9-year-old Michael Jackson, signed to the label with his fraternal group the Jackson 5, happily shuttling up and down in the lift (“To me, he was just a normal little kid”).

Family members held key posts in the organisation. Marriages cemented the links. Before meeting Jan, Marvin Gaye was married to Gordy’s sister Anna, a formidable presence in After the Dance. Another sister, Loucye, was married to session musician Ron Wakefield. The process continued into the next generation when Gordy’s daughter Hazel married Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5.

Although rarely discussed as such, Motown was a textbook example of what is known as “family capitalism”. The old-fashioned view among economic historians was that family firms declined in importance in the US during the late 19th century, superseded by a new class of professional managers that took over running companies in response to their growing size and complexity. Family ownership of businesses ceased to be linked to their daily control.

A more nuanced interpretation suggests that family businesses were not overtaken by “managerialism” but adapted to it. This could be seen just across town at the Ford Motor Company, one of the subjects of Maraniss’s book. Henry Ford II, the founder’s grandson, took Ford public in 1956 but remained its leader. In 1969, about 10 per cent of the shares were owned by Ford family members — but the share category gave them 39 per cent control. It was a promising model for Motown to follow.

Gordy believed in modern managerial techniques. “When it came to managing a complex operation growing at the rate Motown was, I could see my personal methods weren’t geared for that,” he admitted. “So I tried to set up a management hierarchy to do it for me — like other big companies.”

Barney Ales, source for much of Motown: The Sound of Young America, was one of the company’s corps of white employees. They were required for Motown to function in a white-controlled world of distribution agents and radio stations. When Gordy went to the Nashville plant that made Motown’s records, he slept in the factory. No white-run hotel would accept him as a guest.

In 1967, when Motown was the biggest black-owned business in the US, its revenues were almost $30m. That year, Ford’s revenues were $10.5bn. Gordy could have attempted a Henry Ford II-style gambit, taking his company public while retaining control. But he chose not to. “Once you go public, you have to open up all your books,” he explained.

Detroit nightclub in 1964: Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, Motown songwriter-producer Ivy Jo Hunter, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, with Dan Turner on sax and James Jamerson on bass

Distrust was understandable in an entrepreneur locked out by his race from mainstream business culture. Although Gordy was pragmatist enough to repeat the mantra “Pay your taxes” to his acts — Marvin Gaye’s failure to heed the advice was costly — he was not so credulous as to trust the world of white business in which he operated. Motown’s Memphis rival, Stax Records, provided a cautionary tale. Its back catalogue was swallowed up by its distributor, Atlantic Records, in 1967, amid allegations of legal chicanery.

Gordy kept both control and ownership over Motown — but at a cost. In the long run, the company succumbed to the dysfunctional aspects of family capitalism. There was no clear line of succession (“Berry loved pitting people against each other,” Ales remembers). The strategy drifted when Gordy became distracted in the early 1970s by Hollywood, where he tried to make his former lover Diana Ross a film star.

In 1988, with Motown’s glory days far behind it, he sold up for $61m to the entertainment conglomerate, MCA Records. In his memoir, Gordy refers optimistically to “the MCA family”. But five years later, as he was writing those words, Motown was being sold on to another conglomerate, PolyGram. It was an undignified fate for a company that ranks as one of the great successes in the history of black American business, but also one of its most tantalising failures.

Behind the scenes at the Motown Center, February 1970. Courtesy of Barney Ales

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

Photographs: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos; courtesy of the EMI Archive Trust and Universal Music Group; courtesy of Barney Ales

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