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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


If you grew up in the sixties or even listened to the radio back then, you know the “Motown Sound.” It was much more than catchy, well arranged three minute songs; more than the fusion of gospel, soul, and pop. It actually had a cultural impact on America. The Motown sound had primary responsibility for the racial integration of popular music by its stunning crossover successes.
The Motown story begins in 1960, when a lightly regarded song writer, Berry Gordy Jr. (pictured here), borrowed $800 from his family to start a record company. While his composing skills were ordinary, his entrepreneurial abilities were unsurpassed.

Motown is of course a reference to “Motor City,” or the city of Detroit. Berry Gordy began his business there by buying a two story house on West Grand Boulevard. The office was on the first floor, Berry and his family lived on the second floor, and a tiny recording studio was located in a structure out in the back. Motown soon outgrew the place and expanded to seven other residences adjacent to the original house.

His first signed act was The Matadors. He changed their name to The Miracles and brought their lead man, Smokey Robinson, into the company management. Gordy’s first hit record was “Money (That’s What I Want)” which climbed to #2 on the R&B charts. Motown’s first #1 hit was “Please Mr. Postman” sung by the Marvelettes. But this was just the beginning. By the mid-sixties, Motown was a major power in both the R&B and Pop music industries. Under Berry Gordy’s guidance and force of personality, the company had 110 Top Ten hits in its first ten years.
Motown’s songwriters and performers enjoyed nationwide popularity with both black and whites audiences during a time of racial unrest and conflict. Its music found acceptance where racial harmony was still unattainable. Smokey Robinson once said, “I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. . . I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. . . I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated.”

So who were these talented musicians? The Motown sound hit the airwaves with Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, and Little Stevie Wonder. After a couple of years, they were joined by The Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, The Spinners, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Gordy closely supervised the development of his young artists. They were well groomed, well dressed, and well choreographed. He taught them that they were “ambassadors” for African American music and must act professionally.

With Motown’s success, imitators began to arrive in Detroit to capture some of the magic. Berry Gordy knew that the Motown sound didn’t come from a place but from the artists who made the music. After all he had already open recording studios in New York, L.A., Chicago, and Nashville. 

By 1968, Gordy formed a television production company which created TV specials featuring his artists. The following year, he moved his operation to Los Angeles to branch out into the motion picture industry. He had some successes including “Lady Sings The Blues,” “Mahogany,” “The Wiz,’ and others. In 2006 the film “Dream Girls” (not a Gordy production), based on the Broadway production of the same name, was a veiled history of Motown Records. In spite of developing new artists during the 1980’s like Lionel Richie, Rick James, and De Barge, company sales began a decline. Berry Gordy sold Motown to MCA Records in 1988. He was a very rich man.
Today, you can visit the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit. It’s known as “Hitsville U.S.A.” and is located in the original Motown office/studio on West Grand Boulevard. It will bring back memories.

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