In January 1959, a 30-year-old eighth grade dropout from Detroit borrowed $800 from a family savings plan to buy a house, not an unusual goal for a man of his age. Only this enterprising 30-year-old had his sights set a little higher. He was going to use that unassuming two-story house to start a record company.
The man, of course, is Berry Gordy, the record company is Motown and the plan, well, let’s just say that it worked. Between 1959 and 1972, Gordy’s Motown released 535 singles, 75 percent of which made the pop charts. From a recording studio that’s barely larger than a king-sized bed, Gordy produced 60 number one hits before he moved to Hollywood and sold Motown to MCA Records for $61 million.
I tell you this story because it demonstrates the power of opening to a bigger possibility. Berry Gordy could have easily settled for less. He was black at a time when black wasn’t yet beautiful. He dropped out of school in eighth grade, had already failed at an upstart boxing career and could neither play an instrument nor read music.
But he had a dream. He wanted to write songs. And if nobody else would produce them, well, he’d just do it himself.
Catching a dream is the point at which all of us must start. We see a vision. We hear a tapping on our heart. We start to wonder if “maybe, just maybe, we might be able to”….write a song, dance a poem, leap into a new way of being. We become willing to say “it IS possible.”
But not even Gordy could have known that when he recruited a 19-year-old Smokey Robinson and his high school quartet, the Matadors (later to become the Miracles), he was launching one of the biggest musical phenomenon of our times.
When we first begin to listen to our dreams, we don’t always know where they’re leading us. This is good news. If we could see the final outcome, we might get scared off, put on the brakes, think “whoa nelly, that’s way too big for me.” So luckily all we have to do for now is take that first step, put that first toe out the door.
The other thing that the Motown phenomenon demonstrates is the wealth of talent that so often goes undiscovered. Had Berry Gordy been content to plug lugnuts at a Detroit auto plant, one of many jobs he tried before starting Motown, he would have never plucked Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and hundreds of other poor black kids out of the ghetto. It seems impossible that superstars of their stature might have taken another path. But had Diana Ross not caught a vision, she could very well be just another bag lady on 9th Street; Stevie Wonder, another blind kid on welfare. Thank God, they had the opportunity to tap the creative spirit that was within them.
If Gordy hadn’t turned 2648 West Grand Boulevard into a “happening” place to be, “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I’ll Be There” and thousands of other songs would never have been written.
I, for one, would have had a completely different upbringing. If it wasn’t for the Four Tops hit, “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” I’d have never danced with Andy Gilmore at Jim Rinklemeyer’s party. I’d have never known he wore Brut cologne, never known he smelled like mothballs, a discovery that can undoubtedly be traced to the tweed jacket he’d stolen from his older brother’s closet, and never known how it felt to be 13 and helplessly smitten. Unfortunately, I lacked the nerve to ever speak to him again.
How many of us lack the nerve to investigate the creative spirit within us? How many of us are on spiritual “welfare” because we haven’t caught the vision? The same kind of talent that Gordy found in his ghetto protégés is hidden in the people we walk by every day. It lays hidden because nobody bothered to look, nobody bothered to say, “hey, look what we can do.” It lays hidden behind thoughts of unworthiness, behind “masks” that we put on for a good show.
Each and every one of us have that same creative spirit. But, no, you’re probably thinking Detroit was different. The list of superstars goes on and on–the Temps, the Tops, the Vandellas, the Supremes. But you know what? Gordy could have just as easily opened that record company and been just as successful in Cleveland or Chicago or Omaha, Nebraska, for that matter. There are Temps, Tops, Vandellas, Supremes everywhere. There are people that are just as talented, just as musical. The only thing they don’t have is Gordy’s vision.
This is not to deny the huge talent that existed in Detroit at that time. What they did on that little three-track recording system in Studio A can only be described as the musical equivalent of sitting in the front of the bus.
But it only happened because one man was willing to step up to the plate, was willing to say, “I believe.”
Pam Grout is the author of E-Squared, 9 Do-it-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality.