Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Sound of Young America

Last week's death of Marv Tarplin, the guitarist in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, got me thinking about the criticism that the music coming out of Motown's Hitsville USA studio in Detroit in the late 50's and early 60's was as mass produced as the cars rolling off the Ford assembly line which gave the city and the label their names.

There is no denying that the Motown sound is more polished than the Southern soul exemplified by Stax in Memphis.  The label's founder Berry Gordy, a former assembly line worker at Ford who had previously run an unsuccessful jazz record store, consciously created a template for music that would appeal to young white as well as black people, labelled the Sound of Young America.

But the Motown sound was also rooted in African-American gospel and specifically its immaculate close harmony singing. Combined with sharp suits, some nifty dance steps and lyricists of the calibre of Smokey Robinson (who wasn't called "America's greatest living poet" by Bob Dylan but could have been), it produced a sound and a look that is as distinctive as it is timeless.

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