By: Dag Walker
Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in the remotest parts of the Rocky Mountains in the United States of America we had our musical traditions, old guys like Elmo from down the road who played fiddle at the weekend barn dance, Zeke on spoons and a tin bucket, Bobby Joe on washboard, and Betty Lou singing up a Country Western storm of heart-break and horses on the lone prairie. Yes, there was fancy music, stuff we never actually heard in those cold, high mountains of my home, Broadway musicals from New York City, movies from Hollywood, Somewhere, Los Angeles, the farthest reaches of America, which might as well have been on the moon.
For a young boy in the NorthWest, music was locals doing what locals there had done for the past 200 years or so, grinding out the same old tunes each Saturday evening so old folks could square dance on the hay-strewn dirt floor of Abe’s old cowshed.
Back in the day, it was illegal for whites to co-mingle with blacks. In fact, I never saw a black person for the first 20 years of my life. Nor had I met anyone from California, a place of dark rumor and whispers of strange goings-on, a place frightening and sinister. New York City, a reputation even worse. We were alone in our little place in the world. And then, it all changed.
Detroit, where cars came from, as mysterious to me as the appearance of babies, was known to us as Motor City back in the far-off days. Someone shortened it to Motown. It was from there in 1959 that a young man with a new family borrowed $800.00 from his family to start his own business, one that became nearly as big and influential as Ford and Chevrolet Motors. It was due to that man that though I had never seen a black person if I had, we two could have sat for hours talking about music.
Berry Gordy, born November 28, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan, was an American record executive, record producer, songwriter, film producer, and television producer. But, none of that meant much to us in the old days. Gordy made music. He made music for the world. With the money he borrowed from his family, he created the Motown record label, the highest-earning African-American business for decades, and the music that over-turned any segregation we might have lived in the mountains back home. Because of Berry Gordy, ten-year-old white kids living in the forested mountains without television were “Dancing in the streets.” Motown music. It shattered any barrier between the races, and it created a musical bridge that will last forever. This is the great legacy of Berry Gordy,
After doing time in the U.S. military, Gordy worked in a record store, was a successful featherweight boxer, and worked in an auto plant before he turned to produce records, founding what was to become Motown Record Corp. in 1960.
In my little town back about 60 years ago, we had a local radio station that played for 12 hours per day, Monday to Friday, the D.J. being a young man with a severe speech impediment that made him nearly impossible to understand. He tried hard, and eventually because he refused to accept that he was no good at things, he became our mayor. He had opinions if anyone could understand what he said about them. One opinion was that he hated the Beatles and Bob Dylan, pop stars of the time. We never heard them on that station. We did hear, surprisingly, music from Motown.
We heard Jeb and Betty Lou at the local dances, but we also heard, on the radio, the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. No doubt Jeb was a fine fiddler, and Betty Lou could break yer heart singin’ ‘bout horses, but to listen to Diana Ross? Such was heaven.
This music came from Berry Gordy and his company, Motown, formed in 1959, incorporated in 1960. This is not to down-play Zeke playing them there spoons on a tin bucket, but “repeating choruses and a mix of gospel, R&B and pop that combined to form memorable melodies,” the Motown sound, did it for us in ways the old boys down at the barn couldn’t compete with.
Good is good, and when your feet start to move and your body can’t help but get up and dance, then you know you are in the center of a musical experience that transcends the norms of any small town and its hard-packed traditions. Motown? It makes you fall in love– even if you miss your horse and the lone prairie. Micheal Jackson? Stevie Wonder? Marvin Gaye? On could almost hear old Elmo weeping alone in the barn most Saturday nights.
I’m an old guy now, having traveled around the world for about 50 years. In many ways, I am still the same ten-year-old boy growing up in the remote Rocky Mountains back long ago. I write moody, obscure novels few ever read. One of the next to come, should I live so long, is a love story about a middle-aged woman and an axe murderer. Central to that love story is a song that offers some of the greatest joy this life has to offer, all thanks to Berry Gordy and Motown Music.
Main Photo: Grammy.com
Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Where did our love go?”