Rock and Roll Book Club: 'I Hear a Symphony' spotlights the crossover genius of Motown

Andrew Flory's 'I Hear a Symphony'
Andrew Flory's 'I Hear a Symphony' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Andrew Flory's new book I Hear a Symphony tells the story of Motown, but it's not exactly an introductory text. The book runs 334 pages in paperback, and the last 139 of those pages are notes and appendices. Despite the fact that it's an academic book from an academic publisher (the University of Michigan Press), I Hear a Symphony is quite readable and offers a new perspective on a tale that's been told many times.

Flory, an assistant professor of music at Carleton College, argues that you can't really understand Motown without understanding the history of segregation in the American music industry. He points out that while the earliest records weren't sorted by race, between the 1920s and the 1940s unambiguous institutional lines were drawn around African-American recordings and consumers. In 1942, Billboard started tracking black music in a standalone chart that was eventually renamed the "R&B" chart.

By the 1950s, though, those boundaries were starting to stretch and break. In addition to — and despite — white performers achieving mainstream success with more (Elvis Presley) or less (Pat Boone) inspired interpretations of R&B, black performers also became increasingly common presences on the mainstream pop charts. By 1960, the Hot 100 was seeing one black chart-topper after another: Chubby Checker ("The Twist"), the Drifters ("Save the Last Dance for Me"), Ray Charles ("Georgia On My Mind"), Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs ("Stay").

This was the context in which Berry Gordy founded Motown: a Detroit label releasing R&B records designed to aim precisely for that sweet spot. Every single was like a swing for the fences, and the early to mid-1960s saw a home run derby for Gordy and his crack team of performers, writers, and producers.

Gordy knew that girl groups had special crossover potential, and so the world got the Supremes. Doo-wop was another rich vein of hits...enter the Miracles. Motown had more competition when it came to soul music, where Atlantic and its associated Stax label — together, home to iconic artists like Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding — positioned themselves in direct competition. Stax touted its "Memphis Sound" over Motown's more polished "Detroit Sound," and while Motown's studio was called "Hitsville U.S.A.," the Stax marquee read "Soulsville U.S.A."

Flory recounts that rivalry in the service of defending Motown from critics who see its products as bland or watered-down. Gordy knew that he had an outsize share of the best musical talent — black and white — in the country, and he used it to create tracks that didn't cede an inch to the white producers looking to cash in on the popularity of rock and roll and R&B.

Flory cites a 1965 Life story in which Gordy and Phil Spector — then both at the height of their success, both creating massive pop soul hits — were asked what soul meant. Spector offered that it was about a universal "yearning to be free, to be needed, to be loved." Gordy, on the other hand, tied the music directly to the African-American experience. "We've had the rats and the roaches — and the problems," he said. "Our sound was never calculated technically. It is just something we feel. We've never stopped to think about it."

In fact, of course, Gordy thought about it a lot. He built Motown into a powerful brand by emphasizing its reliability: in-house teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland created surefire hits that spun endless variations on standard, reliably charting musical elements. Musically sophisticated, Flory notices things that not every pop music historian is going to pick up on: "Each of the Supremes' singles released in 1964 and 1965 (except for 'Come See About Me') was set in the key of C major and proceeded at a tempo of between 115 and 135 beats per minute."

Where the book most importantly attacks conventional wisdom is in its implicit rejoinder to the notion that American pop music was safe and stale in the early '60s, before white saviors like Brian Wilson and the Beatles came along to bless us with their genius. With Flory's musicological skills, he unpacks the complexity of Motown singles — a complexity that's been underappreciated both because the tracks came from African-American musicians and also because they were singles, not the albums that became the designated units of musical inspiration from the mid-1960s on.

Much of that musical sophistication, for the unsophisticated listener, was hiding in the open. The first Motown hit, for example, was "Money (That's What I Want)," a song written by Gordy and Janie Bradford and sung by Barrett Strong, who turned the lyric into a visceral, almost elemental demand. When British Invasion bands tried to cover the song, though, they discovered that it was anything but simple. "The song is in major key," notes Flory, "but includes flatted (blue) third and sixth scale degrees in its vocal melody and instrumental riffs. This created the need for performers who learned the song aurally to choose between minor or major modes in several key spots." The Beatles had to simplify the song to pull off a cover version on their 1962 Decca audition tape.

Flory's title is carefully chosen, and the book ends with an explanation that's worth quoting at length.

When the Supremes first popularized "I Hear a Symphony" in 1965, it may have been odd to hear three black girls from Detroit's Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects singing about one of the most important cultural institutions in the history of Western music. At the time, the symphony orchestra represented the unquestioned pinnacle of musical sophistication. Today our valuation is much different. We no longer assume that the orchestra rests on a higher cultural plane, and various forms of popular music are now widely considered potential conduits for musical ambitious and erudition. Motown had a prescient role in this shift, helping to change the place of black-owned businesses within the entertainment field and working to achieve a larger international reception of black pop as an art form with important cultural and musical content. There is no question. The Supremes were hearing a revolution and now, more than half a century later, we all hear the same symphony.

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