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Black History Re-Mixed

A conversation with Motown recording engineer Harold Keith Taylor

Harold Taylor was a hit before he became a recording engineer for Motown in the '60s -- he was hit by a car on his way to the interview. Still in high school, Taylor kicked off -- on his good foot -- a six-year career at Motown, where he helped record and mix some of the hit singles through which Motown brought soul music to the mainstream. Now living in Plum in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs, Taylor has authored The Motown Music Machine: a Candid Look at Motown's Success Formula. It reveals how Motown charged through the American Bandstand-landscape like a soul train with no brakes. On Taylor's first day at work he witnessed the recording of "Shotgun" by Junior Walker & the All Stars; as recording engineer, Taylor rode shotgun for the vehicle that drove hits by The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes and other artists to the top of the charts.


What's the Motown sound?

The company was built on songwriting. Berry [Gordy, Motown label head and founder] was a songwriter. He wrote Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops," he wrote The Contours' "Do You Love Me?" He understood the value of the song. Next, you gotta have great musicians. Motown had a bunch of musicians who played together all the time; they knew each other other's nuances. Then everything was recorded exactly the same way. Wasn't no experimenting.


What was the ingredient you added?

Recording is just like being a photographer. When a photographer is photographing a beautiful model, he's trying to capture a moment in time in picture. Our job was to capture 2 minutes and 45 seconds in time. After we capture that, just like with a photographer, he may enhance that model by adding darkness or shading to enhance the beauty. That's the same job as the engineer. We add equalization and reverb and little things to enhance sound to make it come alive.


You worked briefly at Stax Records, the Southern soul label that pumped out legends like Sam & Dave and Booker T. & the M.G.s. How did that compare to Motown?

It wasn't professional. Motown did everything in-house. Everything was scheduled normally for a three-hour session whereas at Stax the guys spent a lot of extra-unlimited time in the studio. I never saw [Stax label head] Al Belle walking through Stax like I saw Gordy walking through Motown. Stax sent you to Philly to record using other musicians for some sessions. In Motown that never would have happened. Stax was in financial trouble and did that; Motown was financially sound and still wouldn't have spent money to record somewhere else. [Motown producers and songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland] went to L.A. once to record some Supremes songs, which I think were their worst. They didn't have the Motown sound.


Why'd you leave Motown?

Well, when Holland-Dozier-Holland left they formed Invictus Records: The Honeycombs, The Want Ads, Chairmen of the Board. I had a lot of respect for Holland-Dozier-Holland, so I thought it was an opportunity. It was a mistake on my part. It wasn't the atmosphere we had at Motown. They had the talent to write but it takes more than just talent. I don't think they had the business savvy [of] Gordy. Berry started out as a songwriter but once you get into that executive role you gotta let the songwriting go. When you're the writer, producer and executive, the quality of the product suffers and even though they had some hits at Invictus, [it was] nothing in the same light as what they had at Motown. They didn't produce any "I Can't Help Myself"s. No superstars came out of Invictus.


Pop music machines and formulas get a bad rap in some circles nowadays. Should Motown be blamed for that?

Nothing wrong with formulas. Pop music does have a formula. The problem is -- there's an expression in the industry "we can fix it in the mix." They do believe there's something you can do behind the controls with all these million-dollar consoles, that you can add this and that to make the singers something that they're not. But the bottom line is, whether it's Beyonce, Outkast or Alicia Keys, you gotta have great songs.


What did you think of the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown?

I haven't seen the movie. But I did see the trailer and one of the musicians says, "If it wasn't for the musicians there wouldn't be any Motown." I totally disagree with that. Great as [Motown house band] The Funk Brothers are, the greatest musician -- if he ain't got a song to play on he ain't got nothing.

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