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Happy birthday

To one of the greats, a true American original.

Berry Gordy: The Visionary Who Made Motown

A company that was started with a loan of $800 went on to help shape the sound of the 20th century. We could only be talking about Motown Records, founded on January 12, 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr, who was born in the city he helped make synonymous with soulfulness, Detroit, on November 28, 1929. Unfailingly spritely, just ahead of his 90th birthday, Gordy announced his retirement at the Hitsville Honours ceremony, safe in the knowledge that his achievements will last forever.

Gordy built his empire on his early success as a songwriter, notably of “Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops” and others for perhaps the pre-eminent black music entertainer of the late 1950s, Jackie Wilson.

“Of the late 1950s”? RUFKM? Try: of all time, it’s a much better fit. Don’t believe me?

Jackie was so incredibly, unbelievably good that a young Elvis Presley, on his first time seeing him perform in Vegas, was so blown away by the show he asked to come backstage to visit with “Mr Excitement” in the green room, to which request Wilson graciously acceded. Elvis made his obeisances to a man he recognized as one of the most awe-inspiring vocalists the world has ever seen or ever will see before solemnly swearing that he would never, not EVER, willingly follow Jackie onstage.

Smart fella, that Elvis.

The two nascent legends shared a few laughs and hung out awhile just shooting the familiar old road-dog breeze, then Wilson explained one of his own stage tricks to Elvis: gulp down a bunch of salt tablets and drink a gallon or two of water before going out onstage, so as to make oneself sweat profusely during the show, something any audience just loves to see from a singer; as Wilson told E at the time, “the chicks love it.”

Elvis used the trick forever after, there being but one minor little problem with the technique—it’s just liable to kill ya from a heart attack or stroke eventually. In fact, it was almost certainly a contributing factor in Jackie Wilson’s own debilitating heart attack a few years on down the road, a setback from which he never really recovered.

On September 29, 1975, Wilson was one of the featured acts in Dick Clark‘s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, hosted by the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was in the middle of singing “Lonely Teardrops” when he suffered a massive heart attack. On the words “My heart is crying” he collapsed on stage; audience members applauded as they initially thought it was part of the act. Clark sensed something was wrong, then ordered the musicians to stop the music. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing. Gunter was able to resuscitate him and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital.

Medical personnel worked to stabilize Wilson’s vital signs, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma. He briefly recovered in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state.

Wilson’s friend, fellow singer Bobby Womack, planned a benefit at the Hollywood Palladium to raise funds for Wilson on March 4. Wilson was deemed conscious but incapacitated in early June 1976, unable to speak but aware of his surroundings. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Medford, New Jersey, when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, New Jersey, due to having trouble taking nourishment, according to his attorney John Mulkerin. Elvis Presley covered a large portion of Wilson’s medical bills. Wilson’s friend Joyce McRae tried to become his caregiver while he was in a nursing home, but he was placed in the guardianship of his estranged wife Harlean Harris and her lawyer John Mulkerin in 1978.

Wilson died on January 21, 1984, at the age of 49 from complications of pneumonia. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit.

So sad. But all this got me to revisiting a few of my personal all-time Motown faves on YewToob, a list which would necessarily have to include this slice of pure musical genius on it.

Pay especial attention to what the aptly-named Miracles are doing behind Smokey here; it pulls the entire song together in a way most non-professionals will never even notice at all—a thing often striven for by tunesmiths, but seldom achieved except in the verymost brilliant compositions.

And yes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were also on Motown, of course. Actually, Robinson himself was the label’s VP from 1972 until 1990, two years after the company had been sold.

So yeah, happy 93rd birthday to the great Berry Gordy, who brought us so very much wonderful, wonderful music on the Motown label. Thanks for that, sir, and God bless you.


12 thoughts on “Happy birthday

  1. There is no better illustration of the de-evolution of American Negroes than their music. Back then, the music was beautiful, melodic, and skillfully performed. Now it is gutter grunting, ooking, and eeking over a crude jungle rhythm.

    1. Every generation hates seceding generations “music”.

      I follow that pattern precisely. As does my father.

      1. My Dad loved the Motown and other 60s and 70s Top 40. He didn’t care too much for the harder edged stuff but he “got” the musicianship involved.

        So I really can’t say he disliked my music too much. On the other hand, I liked a lot of the “fuddy duddy” stuff until I became a teen. At which point Sinatra and Ellington and the like were hopelessly “old” and “corny”. That lasted until my mid-20s, at which point I reverted to my pre-teen opinions and all of a sudden Sinatra and such could be seen in a new light.

        I think many in my generation had the same ideas. Brian Setzer and others who were punks began the Swing Revival and people like David Lee Roth and Joe Jackson trotted out old Jump Blues Classics and for me the connection between Jazz and Rock and Roll became clearer again.

        Also, I find that there is a lot of talent out there. My criticism of modern music is not the talent but the production. People like Queen Latifah or even Lady Gaga or Beyonce (listen to her sing Etta James songs in Cadillac Records movie) are talented. Even early rap I found interesting.

        Until rap became Gangsta and Cliched. That’s where the production part comes in. It all sounds the same and cliched. I hardly see the difference between something produced today as anything produced in 2000 when computers and formulaic production took over.

        Imagine 20 years after Chuck Berry hit it big if EVERYONE still sounded like his recordings from 1955 in 1975. Sure, Chuck’s Children were still playing his licks, but they were speeding it up or slowing it down, bluesing it, recording using 32 tracks and so highly layered or minimalizing it like punk trios and George Thorogood, or simply throwing it into a shredded and fingertapped guitar solo a la Eddie Van Halen. Some people, like Dave Edmunds were staying retro with it with Tube Amps and Echo and 50s effects, and some were going the opposite way and modernizing it.

        And that was JUST the people who were Chuck’s Children. An incredible amount of Variety just from Berry Afficionados.

        In 1975-1980 there was Disco, Punk, Punkabilly, Prog Rock, Corp Rock, Yacht Rock, Soft Rock, Folk Rock, Country Rock, Heavy Metal, Rap, Metal Rap, Techno and New Wave all hitting the charts.

        An incredible amount of diversity to choose from and it was ALL selling.

        Turn on “Top 40” today. There’s no diversity there and it hasn’t changed for 20 years. It’s all “safe” in the sense that even gangsta rappers are carbon copies of the ones from 20 years ago.

        A limited number of “safe” niches the six or so “Record Companies” slot people into.

        1. I always thought most people were inclined to like the music they loved in their mid-to-late teens best of all, however much their tastes may have broadened since. It’s definitely held true for me over the years; to this day, there’s nobody I like better than Deep Purple, AC/DC, KISS, etc.

          1. That’s what I think. Music is imprinted at that age.

            To Kenny’s point, there are exceptions to everything, but I think the vast majority of people dislike seceding generations music.

          2. Yet you had a band dedicated to what was essentially a 1950s style of music updated for the times.

            1. Indeed I did, kenny. But that was after years of playing in various bands which covered all those old favorites of my hard-rock youth, and even in the BPs I wore those old teenage influences on my sleeve, as they say.

            2. I think you missed the point ever so slightly Kenny. It’s the music of the generations after yours you don’t like, not the ones that came before. So, Mike playing 50’s music doesn’t violate the rule 🙂

              1. I WAS just trying to say that it’s not the music or the Talent I don’t like. A lot of contemporary music is fine. It’s just same old same old. I see no experimentation getting any exposure for 20 years.

                Drop a Lady Gaga “single” from 2020 into a time machine to 2000 and it would sound perfectly in sync with the era.

                It’s the Music Business that is the problem, not the music. Those who ARE experimenting don’t get heard except in niche programming that is hard to find.

                In 1975 as I found FM Radio we had two Rock Stations, an R&B Station, a Dance Music/Disco Station, and a few years later a Station dedicated to New Wave. That was in addition to AM Top 40, Oldies and Soft Music Radio Stations. Then there was College Radio and the like.

                So if you wanted to find new music that was different just turn the dial and listen.

                How do people separate the chaff from the wheat these days? And even back then people lamented the “Corporate” Influence on playlists. Yet back then seems like Radio Nirvana these days even though it was coined Radio GaGa back then!

                1. I have no argument with any of that, nor am I knowledgeable enough to even understand the music biz.

                  But I did build my first radio with my Dad’s help around age 6 🙂 It was an AM receiver tuned to pick up one station out of Greensboro. Later we built another one for FM with a real tuner.

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