With an $800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy Jr. established Motown Records in January 1959. Within a few years, this Detroit-based outfit was selling more singles and releasing more hits than any other record company.
Beyond the formidable music and sales figures, Motown itself became a cultural icon. As the most successful African-American owned and operated record company- and business-in the U.S., it symbolized a new day: its energetic product reflected the striving toward progress and optimism of a long-oppressed people and the nation as a whole. Just as Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball had far wider implications, the embrace of Motown’s artists and recordings by the entire listening audience helped hurdle overt racial barriers that had plagued the country since its inception.
In its classic era, the seminal music scene of the 1960s, Motown’s artists were among the most popular, establishing a standard of excellence and sophistication that has never been surpassed. Calling itself “The Sound Of Young America,” the instantly recognizable and often-imitated Motown Sound blended distinctively passionate singers, the call and response vocal arrangements of the African-American church tradition, pop music sensibilities, jazz virtuosity and irresistible rhythms, overlaying them with timeless songwriting.
Prior to founding Motown, Gordy had attempted other professions, including boxer, record store owner and auto worker before finding success as a songwriter, particularly with the dynamic singer Jackie Wilson. A chance meeting in 1958 with an aspiring local singing group, the Miracles, led to his teaching songwriting to the quintet’s leader, William “Smokey” Robinson. Their partnership formed the basis of Motown-a name derived from a folksy version of Detroit’s nickname, “the Motor City”-with Robinson becoming a prolific and highly inventive composer for the Miracles and other acts Gordy brought into his orbit. Motown kicked off with the Tamla label, leasing Marv Johnson’s “Come To Me” to UA; Barrett Strong, who cut “Money (That’s What I Want),” had the company’s first national hit.
Gordy co-wrote “Money” and that’s what he got-enough to purchase a white frame house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, where he boldly hung a sign “Hitsville USA” over the front door. Motown would be headquartered there for the next decade, absorbing adjoining buildings on both sides of the street. A studio was constructed in the converted garage of 2648 in which Motown recorded scores of smash hits, including the Miracles’ “Shop Around” in 1960, on which Gordy himself played piano. It was Motown’s first No. 1 R&B hit and peaked at No. 2 on the Pop chart.
With a roster of young artists drawn largely from Detroit’s poor and working class neighborhoods, the Miracles, the Marvelettes (who had Motown’s first Pop No. 1, “Please Mr. Postman”), Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells began providing Motown with consistent hits, many written and produced by Robinson, while other acts, the Temptations and the Supremes among them, learned their craft. In 1961, Motown signed a blind 11-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist; two years later Stevie Wonder had his first hit, “Fingertips Pt. 2,” and his album The 12 Year Old Genius became Motown’s first No. 1 LP.
Robinson soon grabbed the reins for the Temptations and produced a string of hits for them including “My Girl.” His brilliance was eventually matched by the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. That trio guided the Supremes and Four Tops to stardom. Beginning in 1964, the Supremes had 10 No. 1 Pop hits and five more in the Top 10, becoming Motown’s flagship act. Additional songwriters and producers, including Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Ivy Jo Hunter, Sylvia Moy, and Henry Cosby, and arrangers from Paul Riser to Willie Shorter, helped grow the Motown Sound.
By the mid-60s, as that bright, bouncy Motown Sound captured the U.S. listening public and started making major inroads overseas, Gordy confidently issued a memo stating, “We will release nothing less than Top Ten product on any artist. And on the Supremes we will release only No. 1 records.” In 1966, a typical year for Gordy’s company, 22 Motown singles reached the Top 20 of the Pop charts, with three reaching No. 1 and, quite remarkably, three-quarters of all Motown releases landed someplace on the charts-a testament to the cutting edge role it had assumed in pop music.
Motown’s knack for both gauging and molding public taste could be traced to its weekly Quality Control meetings, where candidates for release had to be approved by Gordy and a panel of other staffers. Sometimes teenagers would be randomly summoned from the street to present their opinions on prospective singles. This early form of focus groups paid off handsomely. Between 1961 and 1971, 163 Motown singles hit the pop Top 20 and 28 topped the Pop chart.
Inside Hitsville, Gordy established departments for every aspect of the business. The complex was home to a round-the-clock recording studio, home of the marvelous Funk Brothers house band, which gave Motown its characteristic sound, as well as a rehearsal hall, music publishing, record promotion, a booking agency, the finance department, an area for teaching artists flashy crowd-pleasing stage choreography and even artist development classes, where Mrs. Maxine Powell gave performers lessons in media relations and proper etiquette. The company also grew downtown into the Donovan Building on Woodward Avenue.
Later in the ’60s, steady smash hits from Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell plus the youthful, fresh-voiced Jackson 5 kept Motown riding high on the charts. Proving it could change as musical fashion did, Motown racked up more hits imbued with psychedelic soul and funk overtones and socially conscious themes, led by producer Norman Whitfield. In 1969, the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” earned Motown its first Grammy® Award. In 1970, Edwin Starr’s explosive No. 1 hit “War” seized the spirit of the moment. And in that charged atmosphere, the singular political and spiritual statement of the turbulent times may have come from Marvin Gaye, whose 1971 LP What’s Going On was hailed as the greatest soul music album ever recorded.
As its second decade began, Motown bolstered its West Coast office in preparation for officially relocating its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972. This allowed for fuller participation in the entertainment industry, including expansion into films. Diana Ross, who left the Supremes for a dazzling solo career, earned praise and an Oscar® nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues.
The hits continued in the ’70s as Gaye, Ross, and Robinson, now a solo artist as well, along with new acts like the Commodores, continued to blaze a creative trail. But no one dominated the decade like Stevie Wonder, who kept Motown on the cutting edge, continually topping himself and everyone else with groundbreaking albums like Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life.
Motown’s third decade provided both new sounds and a reminder of the legacy it had created. Diana, Stevie and Smokey, among others, continued to climb the charts, joined by Rick James’ punk-funk jams, the DeBarge family harmonies and ex-Commodores lead singer Lionel Richie’s big ballads and rhythmic workouts.
Celebrating a quarter century of excitement, the 1983 TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever featured most of Motown’s original superstars and hailed, as Gaye said during his performance, “Twenty-five years of climbing and building and opening doors and breaking old rules.” That same year, the film and soundtrack album The Big Chill connected with the generation that had grown up with the Motown Sound, boosting Motown’s catalog business to unprecedented levels.
Gordy sold Motown Records to MCA and Boston Partners in 1988, ending Motown’s era as an independent company. In 1994, Motown was purchased by PolyGram, and in 1998, PolyGram was acquired by Seagram’s, which had earlier bought MCA and now folded Motown into the newly created Universal Music Group.
In the post-Gordy era, Motown continued to release widely-acclaimed hit music by new artists such as Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill, Shanice, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu and India.Arie, alongside veteran performers like Wonder, Ross, the Temptations and Michael McDonald.
The public’s desire for the Classic Motown material has not diminished. The label’s catalog is unparalleled. The legendary Motown vault is continually explored to unearth previously unheard material. Both are warmly welcomed by a legion of fans and collectors around the world.