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) spelled 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 somber version of “The Last Post.”
Clay’s record was a single. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t chart. Its B-side, “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.
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 offense.)
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 (“Do Yourself A Favor” and “Sunshine In Their Eyes”). “Big Brother,” on 1972’s Talking Book; “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” and “Living For The City” on Innervisions (1973); “You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ on Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974); “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime 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 organized (or disorganized).
Stevie’s combination of music and activism hit a peak when he threw his huge artistic muscle behind the campaign to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday with the joyous 1980 single “Happy 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 realized 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.