During the early 1960s, radios across the United States played hit songs by such groups as the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. These artists helped shape what was called the "Motown" sound, named for their record company, Motown. Founded in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959, Motown Records released dozens of number-one songs during the 1960s and early 1970s, making it for a time the largest U.S. business owned by an African American. The Motown sound also helped break down a musical wall that kept most African American artists from being played on radio stations that targeted white listeners. The driving force behind Motown was its founder, songwriter-turned-music producer Berry Gordy.
Berry Gordy entered the music business in 1957, writing songs for local Detroit singers. In 1958, he formed the Jobete Music Company to publish the songs he wrote. By publishing his own songs, Gordy could keep all the royalties (money earned when a record was sold), instead of splitting them with an outside publisher. He also began producing the recording sessions of his songs, shaping their sound in the studio. The next year, Gordy went one step further and formed his own record label after borrowing $800 from his family.
Gordy called his new company Tamla—a variation on Tammy, the name of a song popular at the time. Tamla's first release was "Come to Me," sung by Marv Johnson, who cowrote the song with Gordy. Soon Gordy started another label, Motown. Gordy's hometown of Detroit was known as the "Motor City," since it was the center of automobile manufacturing in the United States. As he explained in his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved, Gordy called it the Motor Town, "in tribute to the down-home quality of warm, soulful country-hearted people I grew up around.… A contraction of 'Motor Town' gave me the perfect name—Motown."
The first song released on Motown Records was "Bad Girl" (1959), by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Gordy and Smokey Robinson (1940-) had worked together for several years, and Robinson emerged as one of the label's early stars. He also wrote and produced songs for other Motown artists, and Gordy eventually made him a vice president. In 1960, Robinson and his group recorded "Way Over There," the first Motown record released nationally.
Motown at a Glance
- Employees: Not available
- CEO: Kedar Massenberg
- Major Competitors: Atlantic Records; Arista Records; Sony Music; Electra Records; EMI Records
- Notable Artists: Erykah Badu; Brian McKnight; India.Arie; Benzino 702; Damian Marley; The Temptations; Stevie Wonder; Smokey Robinson; Bebe Winans
Living in "Hitsville USA"
By then, Gordy had moved his operations into a two-story house at 2648 West Grand Blvd. He called the new company headquarters "Hitsville." As Gordy wrote in his autobiography, he wanted "a hip name for a factory where hits are going to be built." The name was soon changed to Hitsville USA.
Gordy definitely saw Motown as a music factory. Teams of writers created the raw material—songs—which were shaped in the studio, while Gordy worked closely with the musicians. Most of the Motown singers did not play instruments, so Gordy relied on a group of session men, talented musicians who did most of their playing in studios, not on the road. To prepare the singers for their public appearances, Gordy taught them how to dance and speak. Motown stars knew Gordy controlled every part of their career. They also knew he had musical and business talents that usually led to success.
- Berry Cordy launches the Tamla and Motown record labels after borrowing $800 from his family.
- "Shop Around," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, is the first Motown song to sell more than one million copies.
- Motown has its first number-one song with "My Guy," by Mary Wells; the Supremes release three number-one songs.
- Motown officially moves its headquarters from Detroit, Michigan, to Los Angeles, California; the company enters the movie business with the release of Lady Sings the Blues.
- Berry Gordy sells Motown to MCA for $61 million.
- Polygram buys Motown for a reported $301 million.
- Polygram is bought by Seagram Ltd. and becomes part of the Universal Music Group.
- Kedar Massenburg becomes CEO at Motown.
- Motown, along with the other Universal Music Group companies, is bought by Vivendi.
The early recording sessions at Hitsville could be crude. To add echo to a voice, a singer recorded in the bathroom. As Gordy recalled in To Be Loved, "We had to post a guard outside the door to make sure no one flushed the toilet while we were recording." But Motown's producers and musicians were also creative, using any object they could find to get the right sound.
Motown soon developed a sound that was instantly recognizable and very unique. Part rhythm and blues (R&B) and part pop music, Motown hits appealed to both whites and blacks. R&B is a style of music that sprang from traditional African American folk music, and is characterized by a strong beat. Gordy broke out of tradition by adding small groups of background singers to harmonize on records. He also added string and horn instruments to the more common bass, drums, guitar, and piano. An early advertising slogan called Motown "The Sound of Young America."
Climbing the Charts
Sales in the recording industry are tracked on lists called charts; there are different charts for different kinds of music, including country, soul, R&B, and pop. The most widely consulted charts in the industry are found in Billboard magazine. Motown's records were often listed on Billboard's R&B chart and the pop chart. To Gordy, however, the true measure of success was getting a song to number one on the pop chart. That happened for the first time in May 1964, when "My Guy," by Mary Wells (1943-1992), reached the top spot. A few months later, the Supremes followed with "Where Did Our Love Go," the first of the group's three number-one hits of the year.
The Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), and Stevie Wonder (1950-) joined the Supremes as Motown's top acts. The Temptations and Four Tops were known for their tight harmonies and carefully practiced dance steps. Gaye had a more soulful, emotional sound. Dave Marsh, a well-known rock critic, called Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968) the greatest single ever recorded. Wonder, a multitalented musician, was signed by Berry Gordy when he was ten years old. He eventually became one of the most innovative artists of the 1970s.
Along with Motown and Tamla, Berry Gordy's other record labels included Gordy, Soul, Rayber, Melody, and Miracle. Most did not survive, but Gordy did. In 1998, Polygram and Motown became part of the Universal Music Group, which used to be MCA and was owned by Seagram Ltd. Two years later, Universal was bought by Vivendi, a French utility company that expanded into communications and entertainment.
At the end of the 1960s, Motown struck gold again with the discovery of the Jackson 5. Michael Jackson (1958-) was just nine years old when he and his brothers hit the top of the charts with their first hit, "I Want You Back." Jackson went on to become one of the most successful recording stars of all time, although most of this success came after he left Motown. In The Motown Album, by Ben Fong-Torres, Jackson said "Berry was my teacher and a great one.… Berry insisted on perfection and attention to detail.… This was his genius."
Moving West, Selling Out
In 1968, Gordy bought a house in Los Angeles, California, then built a recording studio. In 1972, Motown's official corporate headquarters moved to Los Angeles in order to expand into movies and television. The company's first film production was Lady Sings the Blues (1972), with Diana Ross (1944-) playing jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959). The film was a hit and earned five Academy Award nominations.
In 1973, Gordy stepped down as president of Motown Records to run Motown Industries, which included both film production and music publishing. Motown released several more films, although none did as well as Lady Sings the Blues. During the 1980s, the company produced several television specials that stressed Motown's rich musical roots.
On the record charts, however, Motown started to slump. Other record companies had taken some of Motown's talent, and the company had not replaced these artists with quality acts. Sales fell, and in 1983 Gordy considered selling Jobete, his publishing company. He also signed a deal with MCA, a large entertainment company, to distribute Motown's records. Three years later, MCA offered to buy Motown Records, but Gordy refused. By 1988, however, Gordy realized Motown was too small to survive on its own, and he sold the company to MCA for $61 million. Gordy kept Jobete and Motown's film production unit.
The Supremes, featuring lead singer Diana Ross, was Motown's best-selling act. They released twelve number-one hits between 1964 and 1969, including "Baby Love" (1964), "Stop! In the Name of Love" (1965), and "You Can't Hurry Love" (1966). Many of these songs were written by the team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Eddie and Brian Holland.
Motown was part of MCA for five years. In 1993, it was bought by another large media company, Polygram, for a reported $301 million. By then, Motown had expanded into jazz and rap music, and its stars included Queen Latifah (c. 1970-) and Boyz II Men. In 1994, Motown president and chief executive officer (CEO) Jheryl Busby told Billboard that Motown executives and Polygram had the same vision: "We both want Motown to be the leading African American company in the entertainment business."
Recapturing Past Glory
In 1995, Andre Harrell replaced Busby as CEO. Harrell had worked with several rap artists in the early 1980s and started his own successful recording company, Uptown Records. He wanted Motown to add more hip-hop music to reach a wider audience. In a 1996 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Harrell called the new Motown sound "music that's African-American based, but very pop … basically what Berry Gordy did." Harrell also opened a small Motown office in Detroit while moving the company's headquarters to New York.
Harrell's flamboyant style, however, did not mesh with Polygram's approach, and the parent company reduced his role at Motown. That move led to Harrell's departure in 1997; he was replaced by George Jackson. Early the next year, several popular R&B artists at Polygram's Mercury Records were placed with Motown. These acts included Brian McKnight (1969-) and Tony Toni Tone. Jackson organized a celebration of Motown's fortieth anniversary, featuring a television special on ABC and a two-disc greatest hits collection. Like Harrell, however, Jackson, did not stay at Motown long. He left in 1998 and was replaced by Kedar Massenberg.
Before joining Motown, Massenberg had helped turn singers D'Angelo (1974-) and Erykah Badu (1972-) into stars. He brought Badu with him to Motown, as well his faith in a type of music he called "neo-classical soul." As he explained on his former company's Web site, Massenberg was "committed to signing and grooming the careers of artists who reflect a return to performing, writing, and live instrumentation." That came as a response to the large number of artists who recorded songs written by others and relied on taped music or vocals during their concerts.
Moving Forward by Looking Back
Even as Motown focuses on new artists and new musical styles, it still promotes its catalog of hits from the 1960s and early 1970s. The Motown Web site features a section called "Classic Motown," devoted to the company's early, influential years. It offers selections from some of the best songs and profiles of the most important artists.
In 1998, Motown reissued a 1971 classic album by Marvin Gaye, What's Going On, featuring songs not available on the original release. The Temptations, an act that peaked in the 1960s, also released new material, selling more than one million copies of their 1998 release Phoenix Rising, and winning a Grammy, the music industry's top award, for their 2000 CD Ear-Resistible. Other classic acts still with Motown include Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.
Massenberg dropped about half of Motown's existing acts and looked for new musicians that fit his vision. In 2001, he signed India.Arie (1976-), a promising young singer/songwriter who in 2001 sold more than one million copies of her debut album, Acoustic Soul. Motown also reached an agreement to distribute records for a company founded by the sons of Bob Marley (1945-1981), a legendary reggae artists of the 1970s. After these moves, Massenberg felt confident about Motown's direction. "I don't know if people will … want to hip-hop around when they are 60," he told Crain's New York Business. "But I know they'll be listening to Erykah or India or Brian." Those artists promised to keep Motown thriving in the twenty-first century.