Motown is a record company, a musical style, and a corporate conglomerate with several subsidiary labels. The company was founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. A black entrepreneur and songwriter, Gordy built a successful black-owned, independent company that became a formidable phenomenon in the music business. Motown racked up an enviable number of releases that posted on both pop and rhythm and blues (R&B) charts. At the company's height, an overwhelming 75 percent of Motown's releases charted, where the industry average was about 10 percent. By Gordy's estimation, 70 percent of the buyers of a million-seller Motown record were non-black. Between 1960 and 1969, Motown issued a total of 535 singles, 357 of which became hits. Motown issued 56 number one pop and R&B songs in a decade. The most important Motown asset was not the solid gold records or the millions earned in revenue, but its talented and diverse artists, songwriters, producers, and musicians.
Motown derived its name from the a popular slang contraction of motortown. Detroit, called the motortown for its automobile production, also spawned a number of fine musicians, among them rock and roll stars Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, distinguished jazz artists such as Milt Jackson and Yusef Lateef, bluesman John Lee Hooker, soul singers Little Willie John and Jackie Wilson, gospel diva Aretha Franklin, and many others who became Motown artists. But prior to Motown, Detroit had no major recording company.
One of eight children, Berry Gordy, Jr., was born in Detroit on November 28, 1929. His father, Berry "Pops" Gordy, Sr., and mother, Bertha Gordy, owned several businesses. A high school dropout, Gordy, Jr. became an average boxer who fought in the bantamweight class. He abandoned boxing and, after serving in the army, decided to pursue a musical career. In 1953, an infatuation with jazz prompted Gordy and singer Marv Johnson to open the 3-D Record Mart, a retail store dedicated to jazz. The store folded in 1955, and Gordy went to work for Lincoln-Mercury. But while installing upholstery in cars, he began humming tunes and writing lyrics.
Gordy developed an instinct for recognizing what made a hit song, and he became a master tunesmith. When he heard that Jackie Wilson's manager was looking for new material, he proceeded to write four hits for Wilson. His first song, "Reet Petite," hit the charts in 1957, and several other hits followed. Gordy married Raynoma Liles in 1958. Their union was short lived, though Liles continued to work for the company after the divorce. Her musical and technical skills were critical in helping Gordy to refine his songwriting craft, and she also convinced him to produce his own records, thus taking control over all aspects of production. Gordy's work for the auto manufacturers, learning assembly-line production values, would profit him later in the recording studio.
In 1958, Gordy formed a song publishing company called Jobete Music. He also formed Berry Gordy, Jr. Enterprises and purchased the buildings that would house Hitsville, U.S.A., and the Motown Record Corporation. In 1959, Gordy created Motown using an $800 loan from "Ber-Berry," a family fund earmarked for real estate purchases. In addition to the Motown and Tamla labels, he developed other prominent subsidiary labels, including Gordy in 1962, Soul in 1964, Mowest in 1972, and Hitsville in 1976. Motown established several labels to get around the fact that radio stations limited the amount of airplay given the same label.
Gordy developed several self-serving policies which assured that Motown would have the upper hand in the manager-artist relationship. Artists were only allowed to review Motown's books twice a year. No industry regulatory groups were allowed to review the books, which is why none of Motown's hits of the 1960s was ever certified gold. If an artist signed as a performer and a writer, any costs incurred in preparing his or her records could be charged against the artist's songwriting royalties. In addition, Motown also served as the artists' booking agent. Overall, Gordy exercised total control over his talent. In addition to his songwriting abilities, Gordy was a natural leader who knew how to inspire artists. He initially fostered healthy competition among his artists, and, after a meeting and the singing of the company song, "Hitsville, U.S.A."—"Oh, we have a very swinging company working hard from day to day"—they would be charged up and ready to set the world on fire.
While the Motown musical sound was evolving, artists were also groomed to exhibit a distinctive Motown "style." Gordy, with the help of writer and producer Mickey Stevenson, set up an artist development program and recruited teachers to educate artists on showmanship and performance. Maurice King, who had worked with Billie Holiday, became the chief rehearsal musical director. Gil Askey, who had worked with Billy Eckstine, was the orchestral conductor for Diana Ross and the Supremes and assisted with stage concepts. Cholly Atkins of the famous dancing duo Coles and Atkins became the chief choreographer. Maxine Powell, who had managed a finishing and modeling school, was in charge of dress and grooming. Mandatory classes were held for the artists.
Motown attracted a large, diverse pool of artists, from the pop balladeer Lionel Richie to the funky Rick James. Singer-songwriter William "Smokey" Robinson, leader of the Miracles and a vice president of Motown, was a principal player on the team. Robinson had not refined his songwriting skills before meeting Gordy. Gordy taught Robinson how to write successful songs, and Robinson urged Gordy to go national distributing the company's releases. In 1959, the company issued singles by the Miracles, Marv Johnson, and Barrett Strong. The Miracles' "Bad Girl," originally released on Chess records, was re-recorded at Motown and became the Motown label's first single. "Shop Around," a Miracles recording on Tamla, became the company's first hit, topping the R&B chart and posting at number two on the pop chart. The Miracles were big record sellers and, between 1960 and 1972, they had 21 Top Ten R&B hits including the memorable "Shop Around" in 1961, "Tracks of My Tears" in 1965, and "The Tears of a Clown" in 1970. Robinson continued to produce commercial hits for numerous Motown artists including Mary Wells, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye.
In January, 1959, singer Marv Johnson recorded "Come to Me" and "Whisper" on the Tamla label, signalling the genesis of the Motown empire. In 1960, singer Barrett Strong recorded "Money" (co-written by Gordy); although it was Tamla's sixth release, the record was leased to Anna records (a label Gordy's sister Anna started in 1958) and rose to number two on the R&B charts. Mary Wells became Motown's first superstar. A teenage vocalist, Wells signed with Motown in 1960 and her self-penned single "Bye Bye Baby" climbed to number eight on the Billboard R&B chart. Gordy then placed Wells's creative development into the hands of Smokey Robinson. Author and critic Lee Hildebrand maintains that Gordy's greatest gift was his ability to match performers with songwriter-producers. The Wells/Robinson synergy was the first such momentous pairing, with Robinson writing and producing the majority of Wells's hits between 1960 and 1964.
In 1960, the Primes, a vocal quintet, later named the Elgins (not to be confused with the Motown group of the same name) and then rechristened the Temptations, signed with Motown. This legendary group became the most successful vocal group in rhythm and blues history as evidenced by their prolific hit-making abilities and by the popularity of the NBC-TV special The Temptations that aired in 1998. The Temptations scored 43 Top Ten R&B singles between 1965 and 1989. Also in 1960, the Marvelettes, a female vocal quintet from the Detroit suburb of Inkster, Michigan, recorded "Please Mr. Postman" and became the first group to score a number one hit for the young record company. Gordy invented the phrase "The Sound of Young America" as a marketing hook for Motown music. In 1961, the Primes' "sister" group, the Primettes, comprising Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Barbara Martin, signed with Motown. Martin left the group and upon Ballard's suggestion, the group's name was changed to the Supremes. After several unsuccessful releases, the Supremes paired with the songwriting team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland and scored a number one R&B hit with "Where Did Our Love Go," following with eleven number one hits. Ballard was fired from the group after six years, and Ross left the trio in 1969 to pursue a successful solo career, giving Motown its largest hit single with "Endless Love," a 1981 duet with Lionel Richie. Ross left the company in 1981 but returned eight years later. The Supremes went through several personnel changes and disbanded in the late 1970s.
The Motown Revue was one of Motown's successful marketing strategies. Several of Motown's artists would tour under the company's name for thirty to forty days with a band. The revue was a cost-saving measure and at the same time excellent promotion for the company. In 1962, the first Motown Revue trekked through the South in cars and buses. The 1963 revue featured Stevie Wonder at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Motown recorded Wonder singing "Fingertips (Part. 2)," which became the first live recording to reach number one on the R&B and pop charts. Born Steveland Morris, Wonder has remained with the company since his signing to the Tamla label in 1961. Blind since birth, Wonder is a multi-talented artist, a fine vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer who has had 18 number one R&B hits and has won 16 Grammy awards. Wonder and Marvin Gaye were artists who eventually gained complete artistic control, shunning Motown's assembly line production style in favor of music that mirrored their personal philosophy.
Marvin Gaye married Anna Gordy and also signed with Motown, first recording "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" in 1961. He provided backup vocals and served as a drummer for other company artists. His fourth single for Tamla, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," was a commercial success. Many memorable songs followed, including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (which peaked at number one on both the R&B and pop charts). While his duos with Mary Wells and Kim Weston were moderately received, it was his pairing with Tammi Terrell that really jelled. "Your Precious Love" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," among other songs, scored in the R&B Top Ten. The 1971 album What's Going On, a profound and visionary cycle of songs, lushly orchestrated, and exploring socio-political and environmental themes, struck to the heart of human existence. It remains Gaye's masterpiece. Gaye altered the face of Motown with this artist-produced album, unprecedented at the company at that time. Gaye had many other hits including, "Let's Get It On" and "Got to Give It Up (Part 1)," before leaving Motown in 1982.
The Four Tops signed with Motown in 1963, although the group first started in 1954. They enjoyed a string of hits produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, including "I Can't Help Myself," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There," both of which topped the R&B and pop charts. The Jackson Five signed with Motown in 1969 after Gordy learned of them through Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor; their initial single, "I Want You Back," rose to the top of the R&B and pop charts, assuring the Jacksons international stardom. Over the next five years, a total of ten of their singles cut for Motown posted in the Top Ten R&B and two of these, "Never Can Say Goodbye" in 1971 and "Dancing Machine" in 1974, reached number one on the R&B chart.Motown made solo recordings of Michael, Jackie, and Jermaine. The group left Motown and signed with Epic in 1976.
Gladys Knight and the Pips signed with Motown in 1966 and enjoyed twelve Top Ten R&B hits on Motown's ancillary Soul label. Other artists that recorded for Motown were the Commodores, whose Motown single "Machine Gun" charted and was followed by a string of hits. Singer-songwriter Lionel Richie bolted from the group in 1982 and became a successful solo act. Singer songwriter Rick James signed with Motown in 1978, scoring a number of hits on the Gordy label including "Mary Jane" and "Super Freak (Part I)." Other Motown artists include Jr. Walker and the All Stars, Martha and the Vandellas, Brenda Holloway, Edwin Starr and the Contours, and many others.
The Motown sound was never one style but a number of styles that were created by the producer/writer teams. Motown had a coterie of exceptional writers and producers, beginning with Gordy himself and including Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Ashford and Simpson, and Stevie Wonder, among others. The Motown sound evolved over a period of years, beginning with the strong sonic identity imparted by the songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. "Their three-minute soul symphonies managed to take the gospel-rooted sounds of black America to unprecedented levels of universal acceptance and yet retain enough ghetto grit to still appeal to the music's core audience," notes author and critic Lee Hildebrand. The Motown sound was also influenced by the Atlantic songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who created orchestral string arrangements for the Drifters.
In 1964 Gordy established offices in New York and in Los Angeles staffed by executives whose chief responsibility was to scout for TV and film possibilities. In addition, Motown's artists frequently appeared on various talk and variety shows. T.C.B.—Taking Care of Business, which aired in 1968, was Motown Productions' first television endeavor and featured the Supremes, primarily spotlighting Diana Ross, and the Temptations. Motown's attempt to establish itself as a force in the film and television industry saw more failures than triumphs. Several television specials followed, featuring prominent Motown artists, including the Jackson Five, the Supremes, and the Temptations. Motown 25—Yesterday, Today, and Forever, the NBC anniversary special that aired in 1983, not only garnered top ratings but was the most watched variety special in the history of the medium. The Motown-produced film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), staring Diana Ross in a fictionalized account of jazz singer Billie Holiday's life, won several awards but received mixed reviews. Several other films followed with mixed reviews, including Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings in 1976, Scott Joplin in 1977, Almost Summer and Thank God It's Friday in 1978. The biggest failure was the 1978 all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz, called The Wiz. Some Motown artists also scored films, including Smokey Robinson's soundtrack for Big Time and Marvin Gaye's score of Trouble Man.
In 1973, Motown's Detroit offices closed and the company relocated to Hollywood. All divisions of Motown were restructured under the auspices of Motown Industries. Berry Gordy, Jr., became chairman of the board, with Ewart Abner II taking over as president. Black Enterprise in 1973 listed Motown as the biggest black-owned company in America, grossing $40 million. Motown's reputation as "one big, happy family" was part myth and part fact. Gordy was not only a CEO but a father figure to many of the young artists, and his roster of talented artists were touted as the Motown family. By the mid-1960s, a third of the Motown payroll went to actual members of the Gordy family. Yet this family slowly became dysfunctional and its artists were treated as orphans. With the exception of Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson, the artists, whose talents and performances made Motown and Gordy rich and famous, were the least appreciated and most mistreated element of Motown Records. Artists' royalty statements were substandard, and when they fought for their own interests, they were considered insubordinate. As Motown's talent became its enemy, the company was flooded with lawsuits and bitter feelings. Rumors that Motown was controlled by underworld figures began to surface, as more whites came to work for the company. These were never substantiated but led to widespread gossip. There also were a number of Motown artist tragedies: Florence Ballard's termination from the Supremes and eventual death of cardiac arrest; Temptation Paul Williams's suicide; Motown's studio drummer Benny Benjamin's stroke; and the casting aside of bassist James Jamerson, Sr. In 1988, Gordy sold Motown to MCA for a reported $61 million.
The company's legend rests on its impressive list of classic hit songs and on the enormous influence that Motown artists, producers, songwriters, and musicians have had on contemporary music. This legend is preserved at the Motown Historical Museum, founded in 1985 in Detroit. The museum's CEO, Berry's sister Esther Gordy, who once headed up the company's International Talent Management division, is dedicated the preservation of the Motown spirit. The musuem provides a retrospective view of the evolution of both the Motown company and the Motown sound, including Studio A where so many artists recorded hit songs. Motown's legacy is a monument to the principles of capitalism. Gordy stuck to his credo and succeeded in making a better product than his competition, even though it was often at the expense of his artists, songwriters, and producers.
George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York, St Martin's Press, 1985.
Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. New York, Warner Books, 1994.
Hildebrand, Lee. Stars of Soul and Rhythm and Blues. New York, Billboard Books, 1994.
Singleton, Raynoma Gordy. Berry, Me, and Motown: The Untold Story. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1990.
Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Motown: Hot Wax, City Cool & Solid Gold. New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986.
Waller, Don. The Motown Story. New York, Charles Scribner'sSongs. 1985.
Motown Records helped define soul music during the 1960s. Motown was one of the most important, and popular, sounds in all of American pop music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. (1929–) in 1959 in Detroit, Michigan, the label's name came from a popular nickname for Detroit. "Motown" was short for "motor town," because of Detroit's importance as the most important automobile manufacturing center in the world. Gordy's passion for music came with a unique ability to nurture great songwriting and musical talent. That ability would make Motown one of the most successful recording companies in pop-music history.
Gordy created a distinct sound for Motown's records by modeling the company after the automobile industry's assembly-line production method. He developed a stable of songwriters and musicians to provide a uniform sound for all of the company's records, including the songwriting team of Eddie Holland (1939–), Lamont Dozier (1941–), and Brian Holland (1941–), and musicians such as bassist James Jamerson (1938–1983). The songwriters and musicians provided the assembly-line structure. As products for this assembly line, Gordy scouted Detroit and other areas for local vocal talent, hiring promising singers as either solo stars or as vocal groups. His efforts produced such talents as Marvin Gaye (1939–1984), Stevie Wonder (1950–), Diana Ross (1944–) and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson (1940–) and the Miracles, among many others. In the 1960s, Motown produced fifty-six number-one pop and rhythm and blues (R&B; see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) hits, including "My Girl" by the Temptations, "Baby Love" by the Supremes, "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by the Four Tops. These songs only hint at the enormous number of hits the company had in the 1960s. It was difficult to turn on a radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) in the 1960s for long without hearing a Motown record.
By the early 1970s, Motown was moving in new directions. The assembly-line sound broke down as some of Motown's biggest talents moved in their own creative directions (most notably Wonder and Gaye). The company moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1973, ending the label's official connection to Detroit. Despite these changes, the Motown sound lives on, as the hit records from the 1960s continue to be played on radio stations. The many great songs Motown produced have earned themselves a treasured place in American popular culture.
For More Information
Classic Motown.http://www.motown.com/classicmotown (accessed March 18, 2002).
Folsom, Burton W. "Berry Gordy and Motown Records: Lessons for Black History Month." Mackinac Center for Public Policy. http://www. mackinac.org/print.asp?ID=344 (accessed March 18, 2002).
George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the MotownSound. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Miller, Jim, ed. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
Smith, Suzanne E. Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Waller, Don. The Motown Story. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
Mo·town / ˈmōˌtoun/ • n. 1. (also trademark Tamla Motown) music released on or reminiscent of the U.S. record label Tamla Motown. The first black-owned record company in the U.S., Tamla Motown was founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordy, and was important in popularizing soul music, producing artists such as the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. 2. informal name for Detroit.