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The 'Silent Architects' of Motown

"I call them the silent architects of Motown. Very often the public has no idea who wrote the song." -- Herb Jordan, music producer and editor of the book Motown in Love

In its heyday, Motown was a music-producing empire that is still often compared to the assembly lines of the automobile industry. Herb Jordan sees it a little differently: "It was really this creative enclave, a salon, if you will, where the brilliant musicians from many different traditions -- from jazz, from gospel -- convened and passed on musical knowledge and a love for a lyric and for a great song. Berry Gordy recognized the value of a great song. Songs were chosen in a trial by fire and it was very competitive between songwriters."

Smokey Robinson was a charter member of the Motown "salon," and recalls the competitive spirit, and how it fell into a weekly ritual.

"We not only looked at everybody outside of Motown as our competition, but we looked at each other as competition, you know what I mean? Nobody was not competition in our eyesight. And we had better come with a great song, because when it came to Monday morning meetings, your song was either shot down, or given the thumbs up."

Not surprisingly, as Robinson notes, "the writers and the producers wrote songs that were pinpointed or designated for a said artist -- like 'My Girl' was definitely a Temps song. It was definitely a David Ruffin [of the Temptations] song. Very few of the songwriters wrote a song and then said, 'Let me see who this song would be good for.'"

Robinson was one of a number of great songwriters that defined the Motown legacy: a group that also includes lesser-known individuals like Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, Marilyn McLeod. Four songwriters or songwriting teams that benefited from the creative pressure-cooker Gordy created in the'60s, and received the thumbs up to have Motown groups record their material, are celebrated below.

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Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.