Sunday, August 23, 2009


Is Motown Becoming A Generic Term?

by Wayne Robins

That's one conclusion to draw from the recent incorrect references to the label founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy and dubbed "The Sound of Young America." Motown produced some of the greatest pop music of the 20th century by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and a dozen others. But neither Freda Payne nor the Shirelles were ever Motown acts—in their time, they were almost defiantly not Motown artists, which is why recent references by the New Yorker (to Payne) and the New York Times (the Shirelles) are so disappointing in their cavalier incorrectness. The errors infer a new generation of editors considers Motown to be generic rather than a distinctive brand, the tissue rather than the Kleenex.

In the New Yorker issue dated Aug. 10 & 17, the Goings On About Town Jazz & Standards section took note of an Iridium date by Freda Payne, whom, the item declared, was "best known for the 1970 Motown hit 'Band of Gold.' " Actually, Payne's "Band of Gold" was the breakthrough hit for Invictus Records, the label founded by the production and writing team Holland Dozier Holland, who had fled Motown for a bigger share of their own creative pie.

Meanwhile, the Sunday, Aug. 23 column in the New York Times' Week in Review by the Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, delivers a well-deserved paddle to freelancer Cintra Wilson, whose Critical Shopper column recently mocked J.C. Penney and its customers. The offending column called Penney's goods cheap and its customers fat. "Hateful," "genuinely cruel" and "smug" were some reader comments. Times editor in chief Bill Keller told Hoyt it was "not just bad manners, but bad journalism." Wilson's direct editors missed the disastrous impact the column would have, possibly due to their own smug distance from JC Penney's America, and partly, according to fashion editor Anita LeClerc, because they are used to Wilson's barb-filled style. One example cited by by Hoyt: Wilson's zinger that "a size 14 caftan 'looked like a shower curtain Berry Gordy would have bought for the Shirelles.' "

But there are two factual errors in this brief sentence. One is that the Shirelles, elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, were not large women: check any photo from the early 1960s and you'll see none of them begin to approach a size 14, much less require a shower curtain. The other is that the Shirelles weren't a Motown group either: They recorded all of their dozen hits from 1960-1963 for Scepter Records. And why is Scepter important? Because it's founder and president, Florence Greenberg, was the first woman to run a successful record label in what was then entirely a man's world. Such sloppy work all around. You would think Motown's current owners would defend its trademark with a little more vitality. And that both the New Yorker and the New York Times would stop the condescending assumption that if it came out between 1960 and 1970 by a black woman, it had to be Motown.

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