`Motown in Love' celebrates the lyrics

ON POPULAR MUSIC

November 02, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Mama and Motown had grown up together; they were close friends with delicious secrets. As a child, I remember how the music would change her face, taking her off to another place. Smiling, with her eyes closed sometimes, Mama was transported to her happy teenage years of creamy skin and bouffant hair in the 1960s. The stress of holding down two full-time jobs and raising three very difficult children melted whenever Marvin moaned, the Temptations crooned or the Supremes chirped about the sting and glory of love.

Years later, I would grow to appreciate the songs that flowed out of Detroit's Hitsville USA in the '60s. The music itself -- the propulsive, deceptively sophisticated instrumentation, the loud way the recordings were engineered -- was innovative. But the lyrics interlocking with the melodies were often rich -- easy, colloquial language articulating profound ideas of love and self-reflection. The words became everyman's poetry. The lessons they imparted were indelible and true. Check the opening lines from Smokey Robinson's "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game," a hit for the Marvelettes in 1967:

Every day things change

And the world puts on a new face

Certain things rearrange

And this old world seems like a new place

Like my Arkansas-raised mother, Herb Jordan grew up with Motown. But he was literally closer to the music. The 53-year-old author, producer and legal scholar was born in Mississippi but raised in Detroit, coming of age as Berry Gordy's operation flourished in the city.

Jordan's book, Motown in Love: Lyrics from the Golden Era, is a collection of song lyrics written roughly between 1963 and 1968 with a few thrown in from later years. In the book, which hits stores Tuesday, the lyrics appear like poems on the pages.

"The words sing themselves without the music behind them," says Jordan, calling from his Los Angeles home. "A great song virtually sings itself."

The book opens with an insightful, contextual introduction about Detroit in the 1960s -- the environment that inspired and nurtured such local legends as Smokey, Stevie Wonder, the Funk Brothers, the Holland Brothers and Lamont Dozier. We're talking about hard-knock housing projects that produced celebrated glam divas like Diana Ross. "It was rough," Jordan recalls. "We didn't have crack, but we had heroin [troubling the neighborhoods]. But we had hope. At the time, I think the artists engendered more hope than the politicians and the preachers."

There's a line from a Nikki Giovanni poem: "black love is black wealth." Although the segregated neighborhoods that produced the early Motown artists were poor, the richness, the nuances of black love informed the lyrics that came out of the company in the 1960s. Of course, the stories they told and the music underneath were embraced by folks around the world.

"There was a sense of camaraderie, especially among the artists and musicians at Motown in the '60s," Jordan says. "I've talked to some of the songwriters and musicians, and they all talked about the incredible support. They were like a family."

And they were smart and disciplined. These weren't just street kids who picked up a guitar, a sax, a microphone and -- shazam! -- a star was born. Motown had a charm school for its performers, where artists were taught how to move on stage, what to wear, how to conduct themselves in interviews. And the Motown writers -- Sylvia Moy, Henry Cosby, Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson -- studied the craft.

"They were steeped in the tradition," Jordan says. "Smokey studied Cole Porter. [The songwriters] didn't just wing it. They had done the prep work. The writers and musicians learned from the public schools, but they also learned from the great jazz and gospel musicians who came out of Detroit. They combined the formal with the informal education."

The lyrics on the pages of Motown in Love pull you in. Without the urgent backbeats and caramel vocals, the stories become even more revealing. Here's a snippet of "Bernadette," a 1967 smash by the Four Tops.

And when I speak of you, I see envy in other men's eyes,

And I'm well aware of what's on their minds.

They pretend to be my friend, when all the time

They long to persuade you from my side.

They'd give the world and all they own

For just one moment we have known.

As he gathered the lyrics for the book, separating them under such subtitles as "Lessons of Love" and "Love Is Strange," Jordan says, he found a common thread connecting the spirit of the songs.

"Confidence, the same confidence you see with black men on the basketball court," he says. "These writers knew they were good. They had refined their game and gone up against the best."

And in the process taught us how to express love.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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