‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ is a song written and co-produced by Smokey Robinson and performed by The Miracles. The original version of the song was released in 1962, however, the version this essay refers to was released in an album called ‘The Complete Motown Singles’ which featured other Motown songs and was released in 2005.1 When listening to ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’, the controversial treatment of Gordy’s unique artists who suffered from the result of the production systems that were used is clear to hear. The colourful history that Motown has as a genre and its link with the civil rights movements are also heard within the song.
Tamla Records was a records label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959, and in 1960 it incorporated as Motown Records.2 This recording company focused on promoting black artists. The recording company was based within one building called ‘Hitsville’ whose songs frequently appeared in the charts, and made Motown Records one of the most renowned and successful black-owned businesses in America.3 This Motown label stood out for black citizens of Detroit as many black citizens would have to record with white-owned music labels that would use their music for mockery, or a novelty for amusement.4 Motown records also stood out for the way it presented its music in order to make it entertaining for both black and white audiences by ‘packaging’ black music structures in a way which would seem familiar to white audiences.5
Not only did Motown Records stand out in Detroit, but so did ‘You Really Got a Hold Me’. The song hit a peak position of eight of the ‘Hot 100’ chart in Billboard6, as well as the peak position of number one on Billboard’s ‘Hot R/Hip-Hop Songs’.7 This extreme popularity may have been caused the cross-over audiences that Motown Records achieved with their carefully packaged songs and albums, as well as their artists who were trained how to move correctly, as well as hiring professions to teach artists ‘proper English and social skills’.8 Gordy invested lots of effort into the appearance of his artists to show the best side of black music and Motown. This was also a tactic to stop racist comments about any dirtiness or general scruffiness that the black artists may show in any public or television appearances, as well as to promote the artists’ appearance and reputation.
The recording process of ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ may have also contributed to its popular and unique sound. The song was recorded in Studio A of Hitsville, a studio renowned for its’ ingenious method of creating reverb.
The success of Hitsville and its original-sounding artists resulted from a formulated and pre-planned idea. Before founding Motown Records, Gordy worked within one of Detroit’s many car factories and from here stemmed his dream to create a recording company which worked like a car factory line. In an interview, Gordy discusses his formulated approach to his company: “… an idea of coming in one door one day and going out another door and having all these things done … and when you got through and you came out the other door, you were like a star, a potential star. It was just that assembly-line approach to things.” 9 Therefore, Gordy aspires to handle his artists as though they were items in a factory, and find a formula for a song which sells well.
To achieve this, Gordy created ‘determining criteria’10 for his artists’ songs to amount to and a ‘quality control’ system was installed, where songwriters and producers listened to and rated songs to be released.11 This could be criticised as reducing artists to products and not considering their talent, as well as preventing artists from introducing new elements to their music. Many artists suffered from this treatment and left Motown records. An example of this is Holland-Dozier-Holland who left Motown Records after being feeling undervalued as well as underpaid by Gordy and the company. This is because they were uncredited songwriters in many of the company’s charted songs and were important in the ‘quality control’ decision making, which they did not feel recognised for.12 Gordy’s treatment of his artists has been heavily criticised, including his parents who stated that ‘You can’t do that with human beings’13, in response to his dreams of a factory line music company.
In the recording of ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’, Funk Brother Eddie Willis shared guitar parts with Marv Tarplin14, but was never credited with his contribution towards the song. In the recording, the distinction between the two guitarists is not noticeable, and it sounds as though one guitarist is playing the simple guitar riff. This smooth recording of the two guitarists enables Eddie Willis to remain uncredited, as it is not obvious that he ever participated in the song. The performance of the piece is played so professionally and flawlessly that the musicians sound as though they have a good chemistry, which further reinforces the idea that only The Miracles performed the piece and that no session musicians were involved. However, Gordy argues that he did not treat his session musicians badly, exclaiming: ‘” … If I had been cheating all these artists, why did they stay with me for 20 years? They stayed because they loved me, and I loved them. If they didn’t have any money after 20 years, that wasn’t my fault.”’15 However, the reason the artists may not have left Motown Records is because they perhaps could not find work elsewhere, as Motown Records was a one of the kind black music label where artists were not used for comedy. Another reason why Gordy’s artists may not have left Motown Records is because they were afraid it could damage their reputation; either by rumours spread by the public or newspapers, or that Gordy could speak out against them and they could not defend themselves. Therefore, session musicians may have seen leaving Gordy’s company as a riskier option than remaining underpaid and uncredited on songs that they had created.
This song, as well as Motown generally as a genre and the company Motown records played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. By the Motown sound appealing to both white and black audiences, the genre brought both races together16 and promoted the idea of unification. This also allowed Motown to be played in public places and on the television, which meant that it was less shocking to see black people performing in places that may have been deemed only accessible to white people. Crucially, Motown Records recorded and released Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘The Great March to Freedom’ speech which took place in Detroit on June 23, 1963.17 This album release demonstrated that Motown Records publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement and that it wanted to help the cause. However, this was not always the case as Berry Gordy did not want his company to be associated with any movement or business that would reduce his record sales and income.18 It became clear to Motown that the music brought the two races together and created peace. In an interview Smokey Robinson discusses the unity that Motown created:
“We’d go to the South and at first, even though the white kids would have our music, the audiences would be separated … After the music became so popular a year or two later we’d go to the same places and the black and white kids would be together and they’d be dancing, having a good time, singing, holding hands and mingling and talking. The music bridged a lot of gaps.’19
This interview shows that the company was aware of the effect Motown had on their two audiences, and were willing to use this knowledge for a good purpose – to draw support to the Civil Rights Movement.
When listening to ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’, the history of the place and time is very clear to hear. The conflict between white and black citizens is crucial in the location where the song was recorded. Additionally, the mistreatment and smoothing over of the session musician’s guitar playing is also an important and distinctive area which is considered when listening to this song, as well as Gordy’s disagreement on this matter. Moreover, Motown provided a form of peace between black and white audiences and allowed both audiences to come together and enjoy the music without conflict, as well as contributing positively towards the Civil Rights Movement.
1 The Miracles, vol. 2 of The complete Motown singles (Detroit: Hip-O Select, 2005), https://open.spotify.com/album/7LSc4MJnlclrY36JSWXGhr
2 Mick Brown, ‘Berry Gordy: the man who built Motown’ The Telegraph, 23 January 2016, accessed 7 December 2017, http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/berry-gordy-motown/index.html
3 Early, Gerald, 2016, ‘Motown’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 6 December 2017
4 Geoffrey Cannon, ‘From the archive, 1 May 1972: Motown – the sound that changed America’ The Guardian, 1 May 2014, accessed 10 December 2017
5 Larry Schweikart, ‘Berry Gordy Jr. and the Original “Black Label”‘ Foundation for Economic Education, 1 May 2003, accessed 10 December 2017, https://fee.org/articles/berry-gordy-jr-and-the-original-black-label/
6 Billboard, ‘Smokey Robinson & The Miracles | Chart History’ Billboard, accessed 10 December 2017, https://www.billboard.com/music/the-miracles/chart-history/hot-100/song/572620
7 Billboard, ‘Smokey Robinson & The Miracles | Chart History’ Billboard, accessed 10 December 2017, https://www.billboard.com/music/smokey-robinson-the-miracles/chart-history/r-b-hip-hop-songs/song/572620
8 Brian Wesley Peters, Music Business 101: For Aspiring Producers, Writers, Musicians, Singers, and Future Record Moguls, (United States: Lulu Press Inc.), 26 September 2017, accessed 10 December 2017, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=95s4DwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
9 Michael Goldberg, ‘Berry Gordy: The Tracks of my Years’ New Musical Express, 18 August 1990, accessed 7 December 2017, https://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/berry-gordy-the-tracks-of-my-years.
10 Moy, Ron. Authorship Roles in Popular Music: Issues and Debates, (London: Taylor & Francis Ltd), 2015, 9, accessed 8 December 2017, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=iabwCQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
11 Helienne Lindvall, ‘Behind the music: Motown – a pop factory with quality control’. The Guardian, 26 November 2010, accessed 8 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2010/nov/26/behind-music-motown-pop-factory
12 Moy, Ron. Authorship Roles in Popular Music: Issues and Debates, (London: Taylor & Francis Ltd), 2015, 9, accessed 8 December 2017, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=rabwCQAAQBAJ&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=berry+gordy+underpaid&source=bl&ots=Yj38RjIOLj&sig=qDYzTv4b1-sFXwc9GPYZcTbj4A4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwibgLKh2vrXAhWGYlAKHV1WAzQQ6AEIWjAK#v=onepage&q&f=false
13 Mick Brown, 2016, ‘Berry Gordy: the man who built Motown’ The Telegraph, 23 January 2016, accessed 7 December 2017, accessed 8 December 2017, http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/berry-gordy-motown/index.html
14 Dahl, Bill, Motown: The Golden Years: More than 100 rare photographs, United States: Krause Publications, 2014, 130, accessed 8 December 2017, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=8JRHnCMUVb8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
15 Barry Koltnow, Berry Gordy, ‘The Father of Motown, Sets Record Straight’ Orlando Sentinel, 20 December 1994, accessed 10 December 2017, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1994-12-20/lifestyle/9412170897_1_gordy-motown-jackie-wilson
16 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street (London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 6
17 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street (London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 17
18 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street (London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 11
19 Luke Bainbridge, ‘A label of love’, The Guardian, 9 November 2008, accessed 8 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/nov/09/motown-smokey-robinson-detroit