Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. had a simple goal when he started the legendary record company 60 years ago in Detroit.
"My whole dream was to make the world hear our music," Gordy says in the documentary "Hitsville: The Making of Motown," which premiered Saturday on Showtime. (Repeated airings include noon Sunday on Sho 2 and 6:05 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, as well as on demand.) "And they could either like it or not like it."
But Motown's success was far broader than getting people to like a few songs. "Born at a time of so much struggle, so much strife, it taught us that what unites us will always be stronger than what divides us," President Barack Obama said when he honored Motown founders and artists at the White House in 2011.
In "Hitsville," Oprah Winfrey talks about the thrill of seeing the Supremes on TV for the first time: "It was magical to me, because I'd never seen black women on television who conveyed such glamour and such grace."
R&B DJ pioneer Ken "Spider" Webb remembers seeing the Miracles perform in Farmingdale, N.Y., before Motown Records was formed. "Long Island was a good area for bands and groups to come and perform," said Webb, who made his name as the popular drive-time host on WBLS and WRKS in the 1970s and '80s. "There was a club called Cloud Nine that was a hot place for groups, and that's where I met Smokey Robinson, and, back then, they were just like the guys on the block."
Webb said that initially Motown struggled, not because the quality of the music was lacking, but because of discrimination. "At that particular time, very, very few records from black artists made the Billboard charts," he said. "We're talking about maybe Nat King Cole and Ray Charles. But in my neighborhood, in Amityville, in Brooklyn, where I had family and friends, we didn't listen to radio for black music because they never played it. … We'd put nickels in the jukebox and it would play for an hour. We'd dance in the store or out on the street. This is the way we heard our music."
Gradually, though, Motown's music, written by Gordy, Robinson and legendary songwriting teams such as Holland-Dozier-Holland, became undeniable. And Webb was happy to support it.
He had Stevie Wonder as a guest in his studio. He had the Temptations' Eddie Kendricks out to his house in Wheatley Heights. And he has enjoyed a close relationship with Robinson over the years, so close that Webb even got him to make a revelation on the air. "He says, 'I swear to God, Ken, I ain't got no rhythm at all, man. I can't walk down the street and chew gum at the same time. I just can't do it,' " said Webb, who makes a "Motown Moment" part of his "Soul Town" show on SiriusXM.
In "Hitsville," directors Gabe and Ben Turner use Gordy's idea of a Motown assembly line, one he modeled after what he saw working for car companies in Detroit, as the framework for the movie. Many credit Motown's success to that business strategy, and generations later, musicians such as Chuck D have tried to imitate it.
With "Hitsville," its soundtrack and numerous special concerts, all sorts of artists are set to remember what Motown has accomplished.
What Gordy realized, Webb said, "was it wasn't about assimilation. The Temptations, the Miracles, the Marvelettes, the Supremes — they were not making music that their parents listened to. They were making 'The Sound of Young America' and it was paving the way to a new energy driving to the promised land."