By JOHN MARTIN
Former performers, executives and choreographers recently joined at the Library in what became an enthusiastic celebration of the little studio dubbed "Hitsville USA," whose unique sound defined an era in African American music, helped to break the race barrier on radio and left its stamp on pop culture at large.
"The Motown Sound: A Symposium" was held Nov. 20 in the Coolidge Auditorium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Motown Records and to inaugurate a collaboration with former Motown artists and begin an in-depth exploration of African American-based popular music.
The symposium was funded by the James H. Billington Fund. Established in 1994 by Abraham and Julienne Krasnoff in honor of the current Librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington, the fund supports scholarly use of and access to the Library's collections through special staff projects and resident fellowships.
In January 1998, the Library received $1 million from the early termination of a 10-year Charitable Remainder Trust that was created in 1994 by the Krasnoffs. The gift has been added to the Billington Trust Fund.
The panel assembled for the event included Bobby Rogers, an original member of the Miracles; Claudette Robinson, the group's female vocalist and former wife of legendary Motown singer-songwriter Bill "Smokey" Robinson; Esther Gordy Edwards, who is the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy and who managed the studios' legal department and, later, supervised its growing portfolio of artistic talent; and Cholly Atkins, a veteran choreographer and showman who crossed generational and musical lines to create the smooth "vocal choreography" that became a trademark of Motown performing groups. As they answered audience questions and recounted anecdotes, the panelists provided a living history of Motown's sensational success. The studio's sound and performers dominated the pop music scene from the late 1950s until the beginning of the "disco" period in the mid-1970s. During its peak, Motown's roster boasted such supergroups as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Four Tops and the Temptations.
Although it was billed as a "symposium" the event's casual atmosphere had the flavor of a family reunion, perhaps because so many of Motown's executives and performers grew up within blocks of one another in post-World War II Detroit. In 1956, Bobby Rogers was a Detroit teenager whose hobby was singing doo-wop harmonies with his friends in the park. His first group, the Matadors, acquired the stuff of greatness when joined by Smokey Robinson, who was continually adding to his school notebook full of songs and ideas. When Rogers's cousin left the group to join the Army, the vacancy was filled by Bobby's cousin Claudette Rogers (later Claudette Robinson), whose vocal ability and sex appeal added to the group's cachet. As Mr. Rogers recounts, "Claudette definitely ‘had the goods' — and free rehearsal space in her basement." With the addition of Smokey and Claudette, the Miracles were born.
Paradoxically, the Miracles flopped in their first audition before Jackie Wilson, a pioneer in the Detroit music scene whose record labels had already produced several hits. That encounter, however, attracted the interest of Berry Gordy Jr., the songwriter who had penned all of Wilson's hits. When asked who furnished their material, Mr. Rogers and the rest told Gordy about Smokey's notebook. Impressed, Gordy began an artistic collaboration with Robinson that laid the foundation for Motown and sustained a streak of successes that would span two decades.
The "Motown Sound" was born in 1958 with the release of the Robinson-Gordy hit "Got a Job." Understanding the roots of Motown's success, Gordy never ceased combing the Detroit neighborhoods in search of fresh talent. His ability to find and create music that young people wanted to hear gave rise to Motown's slogan, "The Sound of Young America."
Rooted in the music of youth, Motown nevertheless owes much of its patented style to the work and influence of an artist from an older generation. Cholly Atkins served as staff choreographer from 1965 until 1971. Already 52 when he joined the studio, Mr. Atkins was a jazz dance artist, rhythm tap dancer and professional showman who, through a long career, had shared the stage with the Louis Armstrong Band and the Cab Calloway Revue. Mr. Atkins is credited with creating what he called "choreographed visualizations," the intricate and thematically coordinated pantomimes that came to define Motown performers. Striving for "a happy marriage between the music and its setting," Mr. Atkins brought polish and sophistication to the live performances of Motown groups. He was also charged with remaking the image of Motown's female artists, draping them in the sexy elegance epitomized by groups such as the Supremes.
Atkins recounted that "early on, the female groups like the Supremes, Marvelettes and the Vandellas did exactly the same choreography as the men, and when you had a mixed group like the Miracles and Gladys Knight and the Pips, Claudette and Gladys did their steps just like the guys. I changed that and had the girls do their steps slightly altered from those of the guys to make their moves more feminine."
The program was organized and moderated by Norman Middleton of the Library's Music Division. As a youngster who worked in his family's Bradenton, Fla., restaurant and hoarded dimes to feed the jukebox, Mr. Middleton noticed that all his favorite songs came from the Motown Record Corp. Two things stand out about all Motown music, said Mr. Middleton. First, every song produced on the Motown label had a distinctly recognizable sound. Second, the artists tied into the social fabric, voicing a hopeful, positive message that reflected the aspirations of the civil rights era. But that message of hope carried the "Motown Sound" beyond its black origins, as it established itself with mainstream audiences, and concerts by Motown groups saw the unprecedented spectacle of racially mixed fans joining each other on the dance floor. Motown's movement from music of the fringe to music of the masses was confirmed with the first appearance of the Supremes on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.
The Motown symposium was cybercast, or broadcast by computer, as it occurred. Several thousand Internet users listened to the music and discussion and sent questions to the panelists by e-mail. The panelists responded first to queries from the live audience, then stayed on after the event to answer questions from cyberspace.
It was the third cybercast from the Library under a pilot agreement with broadcast.com. The first cybercast was Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Oct. 8 (see LC Information Bulletin, November 1998) lecture opening the 1998-1999 literary series. The second was a Nov. 4 "Books and Beyond" program by the Center for the Book with author William Styron and his biographer James L. West III (see LC Information Bulletin, December 1998). The latter two programs are archived and may still be accessed in both audio and video forms on the Library's Web site, www.loc.gov (click on "Cybercasts from the Library"). The Motown symposium was broadcast live for a one-time presentation.
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the Copyright Office.