Music is placed into categories for the purpose of marketing. At the end of the 1950’s black musicians were placed into the bin marked Rythm & Blues.
Jerry Wexler, a writer/producer at Billboard Magazine coined the term. The prior label, Race Music, was considered offensive after WWII.
Following the war, a migration of black labor left the south for industry in the north.
Berry Gordy and William “Smokey” Robinson founded a new record label for black artists in Detroit. They called their new group Motown after the city’s famous nickname, Motor City.
There were four labels created. Berry Gordy had his own imprint. Tamla was a subsidiary of Motown. In later years the label was sold to Polygram. The music was then labeled, Soul.
In the late 1950s two other black-owned independent record companies that specialized in rhythm and blues and rock and roll had been enjoying considerable success for nearly a decade—Peacock Records, formed in Houston, Texas, by Don Robey, and Vee Jay Records, formed in Chicago by Vivian Carter Bracken, James Bracken, and Calvin Carter.
This new culture allowed for this to happen, especially after desegregation of schools. Detroit had public schools with music training programs.
Below L-R: Berry Gordy poses with a Supremes record. Smokey Robinson was interviewed by Goldmine Magazine. He talked about his original goals and the early days of the label. He was going to become an electrical engineer. Mr. Gordy thought otherwise.
In January of 1959 they began in a two-story house they named Hitsville, USA. This would become prophetic. 2648 West Grand Boulevard was a former photographer’s studio.
The music created here was a part of millions of people’s lives. This amalgam of Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and R&B became the hallmark known as the Motown Sound.
In the movie business Louis B. Mayer claimed he had more stars than there were in heaven. I think Motown could claim more stars than there are in our galaxy!
The Supremes, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Temptations, Martha and The Vandellas, The Four Tops, The Marvelettes, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, The Contours, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson Five were all signed to Motown.
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland wrote songs for The Supremes: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me” (all 1964), “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony” (all 1965), and “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966).
Sylvia Moy, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Joe Hunter, and Gordy himself were songwriters and producers for the Motown roster.
The label’s peak in the mid to late 1960’s is still unrivaled today. The standards were comprehensive; the talent pool deep. In its heyday, Motown produced more #1 hits than any other record company.
The Supremes were the top all-female group of the 1960’s. Their record sales second only to The Beatles. Ms. Ross left the group to pursue a solo career and also acted in movies.
When the label signed The Jackson Five, Diana Ross presented them to an audience of 500 friends at a private party. The struggles over songwriting royalties led to crediting the new quintets songs to The Corporation.
As the 1970’s dawned The Jackson Five scored with ABC. Diana Ross starred in the Billie Holiday biopic, “Lady Sings The Blues”. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” became the defining soul record of the 1970’s.
The Commodores featuring Lionel Richie arrived with their soul masterpiece, “Machine Gun”. Motown was a cultural juggernaut.
Although the label would move to L.A. the legacy would grow. I watched the Jackson Five’s cartoon series on ABC. It took decades for me to understand how big Motown’s impact had been on my listening.
Today I am able to listen with clarity to all of the truly beautiful recordings of this extremely talented community of artists.
Motown’s music has been covered quite a bit by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Van Halen, and Phil Collins to name a few.
The CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown” created by Diane English features snippets of Motown classics in its opening every week.
The title character loved Motown. A tribute to Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson’s mission to successfully market black musicians to a white mainstream audience.
Most famous perhaps was California’s Raisin Council adapting, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, with animated raisins performing the song with Motown’s signature choreography.
To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Motown’s founding, PBS aired Motown 60, double LP “Motown’s Greatest Hits”, special color vinyl issues of The Jackson Five, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye are available.
“Ain’t Too Proud” a Broadway Musical about the Life and Times of The Temptations opened on Broadway at the Imperial theater. The original cast recording is available.
If those releases are not enough, there is the 11-CD box set, “Hitsville”, compiling all 200 plus chart topping hits!
The collectibility of this music is infinite. The Motown group was sold in the 1980’s to Polygram. Today Universal Music Group (UMG) owns the label.
Showtime has Hitsville: The Making of Motown, a documentary. Premieres were held earlier this month in Los Angeles and on Friday night (Aug. 23) when about 20 Motown alumni — including members of the Vandellas, the Velvelettes and the Contours as well as behind-the-scenes staffers — and guests gathered for an invitation-only screening hosted by the Motown Museum in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.
I admit my ears were listening to full albums by many of these extraordinary people for the first time. I fell deeply in love with their work.
And the beat goes on…