The Motown label: a Detroit label that became internationally successful

When people think about Detroit, they usually think about the city in negative terms: unfriendly city of cement, « Murder Capital », city of big cars and factories. People often forget about Detroit’s rich musical heritage.
Detroit’s contemporary hip hop scene is a boiling place of various talents and different styles with « a typical flavor made in the D », but Detroit’s musical history is larger than the hip hop scene in itself.
As far as we can look back to the 50-60’s, Detroit City has always had a very opened musical spirit and ear. One label in particular played a major role in Detroit’s musical history: the Motown label.
The Motown label was the first label to have an African American owner and to experience a widespread international success. The greatest musicians have been signed to Motown Records.

Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label

Berry Gordy was born in Detroit on November the 28th, 1929. Berry Gordy is an African American record producer. Born from Berry Gordy Sr and Bertha Gordy, Berry Gordy Jr was the 7th child of an 8 children family.

Berry Gordy dropped out of school when he was in the eleventh grade. He wanted to become a professional wrestler, but he also dedicated a lot of time to writing songs on the piano during his spare time.
Soon Berry Gordy would realize that a musical career is what interested him most.
In 1950, Berry Gordy integrated the American Army and was sent to Korea to serve as a soldier for the Korean war.
Back from war, in 1953, Berry Gordy Jr married Thelma Coleman. He decided to open a record store,3-D Record Mart, that was all about jazz music . The record shop wasn’t as successful as expected and Berry was forced to find some work at the Lincoln Mercury auto plant in order to support his family. However, he didn’t give up his plans to be part of the music industry and he spent much time writing songs during the night.
He met music producer Al Green thanks to his sister Gwen. Al Green was the owner of owner of the Flame Show Bar talent club. There Berry Gordy met Jackie Wilson.
In 1957, Jackie Wilson recorded “Reet Petite” , Berry Gordy’s song in collaboration with his sister Gwen and Billy Davis.

Berry Gordy released several hits afterwards, “Lonely Teardrops,” “To Be Loved,” and “I’ll Be Satisfied” .

An argument over royalties between Gordy and Al Green over royalties on a Jacky Wilson track lead to a split between both of them.
In 1957, Gordy discovered Smokey Robinson and his group, The Miracles.
In 1959, Berry Gordy founded a R&B label called Tamla Motown Records. The name Tamla was inspired by Debbie Reynolds’ film ‘Tammy’. Motown, as most of you would probably know, is Motor Town, home of Ford Motors in Detroit.

Not only did Berry Gordy help making black music more popular among white people, he also opened doors for many black producers.

Bringing Detroit voices and sounds to an international level

The first artists to be signed to Motown in its early debuts were Mabel John, Barrett Strong, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.

Motown’s early start in the 50’s and 60’s

The label was started with Barrett Strong’s hit « Money » (« That’s What I Want ») in 1959. Its first Nr1 R&B hit was The Miracle’s song « Shop Around ».
In 1961, the Marvelettes hit the top of the Uk charts with « Please Mr Postman ».

The Motown label started becoming more powerful in the mid sixties thanks to Smokey Robinson and to Holland-Dozier-Holland a song writing and producing team. Who are Holland-Dozier-Holland?
Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.
Edward Holland helped pioneer the classic Motown sound of the 60’s.

What is exactly the Motown sound?

The Motown sound is a specific style of soul music characterized by the use of instruments like tambourine, drums and bass inspired by a singing gospel style.
Marvin Gaye’s « How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You » is an example of a typical Motown sound.

Between 1960 and 1970: bringing in “The Sound of Young America”
During this decade, top artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and The Supremes, the Jackson 5 were signed to Motown Records.
Artists from the Motown Label were appreciated among black and white audiences as well, which was certainly a great achievement for Motown.
In 1968, Holland-Dozier- Holland left the label because of a dispute over royalties. Motown Records experienced a temporary decline.

Motown in the 70’s-80’s

Great and successful artists such as Lionel Ritchie and The Commodores and Rick James were signed to the Motown label during the 70’s and 80’s.
Motown relocated from Detroit to LA in 1972. Motown started focusing on the movie industry and released films such as such as Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, The Wiz, Thank God It’s Friday and The Last Dragon.

Motown sold to MCA and Boston Ventures

In 1988, Berry Gordy decided to sell his label to MCA and Boston Ventures for for $61 million.
The Motown label has become a branch of Universal Music and is still active as a label.

Representative of Motown’s classic years, Stevie Wonder is still present on the label.

As the hard working man he actually was, Berry Gordy Jr has made his dream become reality. By creating the famous Motown label, he managed to make the Motown sound and black artists popular in America and worldwide.
For that he deserves a lot of admiration. Motown artists like the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Ritchie have influenced black music’s history and will be remembered always.

Motown Records is the first Detroit label to make it big in the music industry, but -believe me- certainly not the last.

Leave a Reply