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  1. #1

    Motown And Politics: From Dancing To Marching In The Street

    https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stori...-and-politics/

    The relationship between Motown and politics runs deep. At the heart of it was great music and a commitment to changing the world.

    All decades are a period of change, but some change more than others. Motown’s peak era came during the 60s, when even this record company, with a firm eye on the balance sheet, would have been obliged to acknowledge the transitions taking place in a society obsessed with youth. The 60s’ youth revolution was vitally important, and if you were trying to sell music to the kids, you had to be aware of it or be totally, like, square. Motown and politics were slow to acknowledge each other, but when they did the results were explosive.
    While no record label worked harder for success than Motown – a political story in itself – company boss Berry Gordy knew that the label’s music had to at least partially represent the young idea just as keenly as it delivered great grooves. After all, its motto, for a while at least, was “The Sound Of Young America”. To that end, this record company, associated almost purely with dancing and fun, placed some emphasis on message music and a certain brand of politics. But it trod carefully, spending much of the 60s couching its radical tendencies in commercial surroundings.

    Take ‘Dancing In The Street’, for example. Long since declared an anthem of rebellion and street protest, there was little sign of Martha & The Vandellas imparting this message when the kids were dancing the jerk and the block to it in 1964. Yet time and an association with a particular era can make such connections apparent, and a song can take on a meaning beyond that which its writer originally intended. As Motown and politics began to suss each other out, Motown’s protest songs didn’t always need to be explicit – but sometimes they were.
    Facing issues head on

    There was plenty to protest about in 60s America. Segregation, the Vietnam War, police violence, lack of equal opportunity, etc. Vietnam certainly tempted Motown into numerous songs about missing your man sent far away by the draft, such as The Supremes’ ‘You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)’ (1967) and Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Jimmy Mack’ (1967). The first example doesn’t mention the ultimate sacrifice, but its funereal tone suggests it. The second is about being tempted to stray while your true love is elsewhere – an elsewhere that goes unspecified, but listen to that marching beat: you can guess where Mr Missing is.
    But Motown also faced the Vietnam issue head on: The Valadiers’ ‘Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)’ (1961), and Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and ‘Stop The War Now’ (both 1970) spelt it out, though the artists took a very different approach across 10 years. The Valadiers’ record was mournful, with a jokey talkover; Starr’s songs were harsh, funky and furious. A gentler example of the way Motown and politics coalesced around Vietnam came courtesy of The Supremes’ glorious 1970 smash ‘Stoned Love’, which spoke of ending war between nations thanks to understanding and love. Far darker – and horribly real – Tom Clay’s ‘The Victors’ (1971) was a roll call of lost soldiers and their (frighteningly young) ages, soberly read over a sombre version of ‘The Last Post’.

    Clay’s record was a single. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t chart. It’s B-side, ‘Tom Clay’s What The World Needs Now Is Love’, finds him asking a child about various social evils over a version of the Bacharach-David song in the title, and receiving innocent answers. Then a soundtrack of news reports of various brutal outrages in the US, including the assassination of President Kennedy, takes over as the music changes to ‘Abraham, Martin And John’. This song, written by Dick Holler and a hit for Dion in his folk period, marked a key point in the career of Marvin Gaye: his 1969 cover unlocked a positive direction for the singer. He had previously tried everything from show tunes to R&B belters, and was best known as a love man through his late 60s records with Tammi Terrell. But he was now seeking a musical style that reflected his disquiet at the state of the world.
    There’s too many of us dying

    Within two years Marvin would release What’s Going On, regarded by many as the ultimate soul protest album. However, it seemed that Gaye’s audience, more accustomed to him as a romantic singer, was only willing to accept so much protest material from him: his explicitly political 1972 single ‘You’re The Man’ didn’t make the same impact, and the singer returned to intimacy in 1974 with Let’s Get It On, an album that initially sold better than What’s Going On. Marvin may have spearheaded the relationship between Motown and politics in the wider sense, but his later work would see him turn to personal politics, with Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime proving unflinchingly honest examinations of his state of mind.

  2. #2
    Other Tamla talents made a transition to political hits from love lyrics and back again with comparative ease. The Temptations were a case in point, with a run of songs that saw Motown and politics collide over issues as varied as drug-fuelled escapism (‘Psychedelic Shack’, 1970), global chaos (‘Ball Of Confusion’, 1970) and family breakdown (‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’, 1973) through songs written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. ‘Message From A Black Man’ (1969) was even more direct, though it’s noteworthy that Motown didn’t release it as a single, instead issuing a version by The Spinners, an act that was not a top priority for the label. ‘Law Of the Land’, another protest song, took a similar path: The Temptations’ version was not issued as a US single; instead, The Undisputed Truth charted with it. (The Temptations famously complained that they weren’t really into this material, seeing themselves as deliverers of love lyrics, and were happy to return to them on 1971’s ‘Just My Imagination’. ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ caused particular consternation, with some members of the group fretting that their families might take offence.)
    Songs about domestic difficulties were a recurring theme in Motown from 1968 onwards. Bobby Taylor And The Vancouvers’ heart-rending ‘Does Your Mama Know About Me’ had all the hallmarks of a love song, except the lyrics were asking whether a relationship crossing racial divides would be accepted – and Taylor, the song suggested, had been burnt like this before. It made sense that The Vancouvers performed and wrote it: they were a band of diverse cultural origins. Even Diana Ross And The Supremes were not immune to singing about controversial family issues, with ‘Love Child’ covering single motherhood. It was deliberately composed to bring Motown’s star act up to date with ’68.

    Songs in the key of life

    By the late 60s, the most amiable of Motown’s artists were practically obliged by the changing times to touch on matters they might have once regarded as too tricky to tackle. Even Gladys Knight And The Pips sang about the people coming together in the gospel-styled ‘Friendship Train’ (1969). Junior Walker And The All Stars recorded two versions of The Crusaders’ ‘Way Back Home’ in 1971; the vocal cut declared that black people were held back, before focusing on more positive aspects of life in the South.
    Of course, one of Motown’s biggest actors on the political stage was Stevie Wonder, whose career took a left turn when he looked to move away from Motown at the end of the 60s. The label wasn’t certain this former juvenile lead was ever going to mature into an adult star, and Stevie wasn’t sure that Motown were going to give him the artistic freedom he now craved. Luckily for us all, the problem was resolved, and Stevie began recording away from Motown’s in-house studio and producers but still releasing his music on the label he’d grown up with.
    Right away he had things to say about the state of the world, ensuring that Motown and politics would be inextricably entwined throughout the 70s. As early as 1970’s Where I’m Coming From, recorded under the usual Motown regime, Stevie wrote lyrics that spoke about the state of the world (ʻDo Yourself A Favor’ and ʻSunshine In Their Eyes’). ʻBig Brother’, on 1972’s Talking Book; ʻHe’s Misstra Know-It-All’ and ʻLiving For The City’ on Innervisions (1973); ʻYou Haven’t Done Nothin’’ on Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974); ʻVillage Ghetto Land’ and ʻPastime Paradise’ on Songs In The Key Of Life (1976) – all had explicit political content, and others took a more spiritual but critical view on the way the world was organised (or disorganised).
    Stevie’s combination of music and activism hit a peak when he threw his huge artistic muscle behind the campaign to recognise Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday with the joyous 1980 single ʻHappy Birthday’. Making the US public far more aware of the campaign, the song arguably proved to be the most potent example of the relationship between Motown and politics, helping to give the campaign a momentum that saw the holiday granted every January from 1986 onwards, after the largest petition in US history. Stevie’s was one of the six million signatures gathered.

    People… hold on

    In the 70s Motown realised that a pursuit of roots was taking place among African-Americans. While several songs emerged that reflected this (among them ‘Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)’, which was recorded by The Temptations and (again) The Undisputed Truth, and used a Swahili title for another of Norman Whitfield’s tales of global crisis), the label also launched the Black Forum imprint, which further strengthened the relationship between Motown and politics by focusing on spoken-word recordings by the poet Imami Amiri Baraka (It’s Nation Time) and activist and female Black Panther leader Elaine Brown, plus putting out the tapes of the Dr Martin Luther King speeches it held. It was a venture that lasted just four years, from 1970-73, but proved that Motown’s political commitment didn’t just come from its hit-making acts, but from the company itself.
    Back on the charts, however, Temptations’ escapee Eddie Kendricks was following in Marvin Gaye’s footsteps when he offered ‘My People… Hold On’, a powerful call for black unity set to heavyweight African drumming. Kendricks’ song came from the album People… Hold On (1972), which depicted the singer in a dicky bow and dinner suit, yet holding a spear while sat in a seat made of African tribal masks. With its echoes of Richard Pryor’s controversial debut album cover, the image looked contradictory at first glance, but the message was clear: you are still of African blood, no matter who you are today. Which is true, according to the findings of ethno-archaeologists.
    These are songs that continue to resonate today. All you have to do is look around to find yourself asking, once again, What’s going on? The relationship between Motown and politics runs deep: from the roots of humankind to protesting against wars, from freedom fighters to acclaimed preachers, the company knew it had a duty to try to help to free the people – and not just on the dancefloor.

  3. #3
    Great commentary. Thank you Jack020 for sharing it. I, like some others always knew that Motown was as much a movement as it was about music!

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by jack020 View Post

    Within two years Marvin would release What’s Going On, regarded by many as the ultimate soul protest album. However, it seemed that Gaye’s audience, more accustomed to him as a romantic singer, was only willing to accept so much protest material from him: his explicitly political 1972 single ‘You’re The Man’ didn’t make the same impact, and the singer returned to intimacy in 1974 with Let’s Get It On, an album that initially sold better than What’s Going On. Marvin may have spearheaded the relationship between Motown and politics in the wider sense, but his later work would see him turn to personal politics, with Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime proving unflinchingly honest examinations of his state of mind.
    There's some good observations in your post Jack020. However, I'd like to point out the main reason that Marvin Gaye's follow up to What's Going On, "You're The Man", didn't do as well as expected was because it wasn't as strong musically as anything on WGO (and not because his audience didn't want anymore protest songs from him).

  5. #5
    ^ I think Marvin was also not as motivated to do the same thing over and over again. Let's Get It On was far more explicit than anything he had done pre-WGO lmao

    I wish people stop ishing on his post-WGO career.

  6. #6
    It took Berry Gordy some time to come to the realization that protest songs and social commentary sells (without leaving a political stain on his company). Motown was created based on the "boy meets girl" formula and that's what drove the label to success with polished tracks, smooth vocals, and of course, great instrumentation courtesy of the Funk Brothers and associated musicians, along with a patented formula for mixing...Dancing In The Streets was hardly protest, although it did allow the label to expand away from the original boy-girl themes... The first real crack in the formula was Norman Whitfields late 60's work venturing into the psychedelic era with The Temptations, with some focus on social and cultural issues, but mostly a change in musical direction with fuzz tones, wah wah, and eerie sounding horns...still not what one would call "protest songs"... With a realization of youthful protest taking root across the nation, Edwin Starr cracked the mode with his recording of War (also covered by The Temptations), and broken wide open with Marvins Whats Going On project, initially rejected by Berry Gordy as too radical for the labels image. After Marvins stubborn insistence and Harry Balks lobbying for the project, Gordy green lighted it, believing it would not be a success. It did take some time for the album to reach the iconic level it ultimately did (much like the Beach Boys Pet Sounds), however, Motown as a label and Gordy as it's founder and leader was already busy planning the most significant departure from it's roots...the move to Los Angeles where the entire direction of the company changed and by that time...protest music was no longer the highly charged controversial phenomena it was when initially presented to Berry Gordy as the disco era began to take root...
    Last edited by StuBass1; 02-07-2019 at 06:58 PM.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by midnightman View Post
    ^ I think Marvin was also not as motivated to do the same thing over and over again. Let's Get It On was far more explicit than anything he had done pre-WGO lmao

    I wish people stop ishing on his post-WGO career.
    I didn't mean to 'dish' on Marvin Gaye's career post-What's Going On. In fact Marvin reached new peaks musically in the '70s with Let's Get it On, I Want You & "Got To Give It Up". It's just that IMHO "You're The Man" wasn't as memorable as "What's Going On" (and this caused it's so-so showing on the charts).

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Motown Eddie View Post
    I didn't mean to 'dish' on Marvin Gaye's career post-What's Going On. In fact Marvin reached new peaks musically in the '70s with Let's Get it On, I Want You & "Got To Give It Up". It's just that IMHO "You're The Man" wasn't as memorable as "What's Going On" (and this caused it's so-so showing on the charts).
    Nah I totally get what you were saying about "You're the Man". I agree. But I still think Marvin's heart wasn't totally in it (despite the fact, his voice on "The World Is Rated X" and "Piece of Clay" was so majestic).

  9. #9
    Good article, thanks for sharing!

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by jack020 View Post
    https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stori...-and-politics/





    Take ‘Dancing In The Street’, for example. Long since declared an anthem of rebellion and street protest, there was little sign of Martha & The Vandellas imparting this message when the kids were dancing the jerk and the block to it in 1964.
    An anthem of rebellion and street protest?
    Who has long since "declared" this?
    The songs point is actually quite the opposite. It's about people uniting in an upbeat, carefree , celebratory way.
    A street protest wanting their cause to be taken seriously would not be using this as an anthem. You might hear it in a gay day parade , but its being used there with the song's original intent - with its urging of having a good time (in the streets).
    (Although some watchdog committee may one day soon veto that , because of the songs discriminatory lyrics. lol!)
    Last edited by Boogiedown; 02-09-2019 at 02:26 PM.

  11. #11
    As to my understanding and according to Mickey Stevenson, the inspiration for DITS was derived from his seeing people playing and dancing in the street when the city would open up fire hydrants in the summertime for people to cool off (anyone remember that from back in the day?)… The song did get somewhat "hijacked" (or perhaps "borrowed") by Black Power advocates in the day as people like H Rap Brown began using the song for organizing purposes. Berry Gordy never would have allowed it's release if he thought it was being used for "Black militancy" as he was acutely aware of the commercial and financial ramifications it would have for his emerging label back in 1964. Martha, on a trip to the U.K. back then had a microphone shoved in her face and was asked if the song was a "Black Power" statement and she was horrified, also realizing the ramifications, and she stated that it was a "party" song...and not a political statement.
    Last edited by StuBass1; 02-09-2019 at 03:47 PM.

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