The Story of Motown – The Sound that Changed America

The Historical Birth of Motown

August 15th will mark the beginning of the long-awaited festival meant to celebrate the story of Motown Records and its rich history as well as its achievements.

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Motown founder Berry Gordy speaking on the phone, 1970. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

The need for more cash by once a local songwriter Berry Gordy is what triggered the idea that gave birth to the famous Motown we know today. Gordy felt that his earlier job as a songwriter was not paying him enough and, therefore, decided to venture into this lucrative business of producing records and owning the publishing. Motown is probably the most famous African American-owned record label which is loved by all. During the years that followed after it was founded in 1959, Motown achieved the unthinkable and raised ranks than anyone would have imagined. This, however, did not come without a challenge and tempting hard times that saw the company being sold to survive. The following is a well-documented history of how Motown came to be and its most significant achievements.

Motown’s Irresistible Force of Social and Cultural Change

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Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye around a microphone at the Motown recording studio in Detroit in 1965 in the United States. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Motown comes in the music industry in the era where people were defined based on their cultural and weighed through social scales. Being the first successful African American-owned record label, there were no much expectations from it. Gordy’s legendary Motown set new standards that came to be accepted not just in the music industry but at the societal level. This later became one of the American’s stunning success stories due to the significant musical accomplishes that it achieved in the 20th century. Gordy introduced a unique style that influenced culture and favorite music. The influence is still felt to date by both hip-hop and pop lovers. It is impossible to ignore the No.1 hit song, and it is for this same reason why you cannot ignore the influence of Motown.

The Phenomenal Success of Motown Records

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Photo of Berry GORDY and Barbara McNAIR; In the Motown recording studio – Berry Gordy second from left and Barbara McNair, right (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

When you talk about Motown, we do not just refer to important music but also to a remarkable legacy defined by hard work. There were so many obstacles that came on the way and Motown as we know it today was not a one-day success. Gordy did so much to bring different talents on the table, and those who liked his work brought others also. The success of Motown records was fueled by the support of his family that remained dedicated to helping him realize his dream. Motown defined new grounds for minorities and became a worldwide phenomenon that has come to be beloved by many.

The Quality Control System Designed by Gordy

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Motown vocal group The Supremes performing at the Regal, Edmonton, London, 12th November 1971. Left to right: Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Gordy spends most of his time on the assembly working at an automobile plant, and he feels this is where he learned about quality. He watched bare metals into a new car, and he believed he could also turn inspiring or upcoming musicians into superstars. He learned how to turn mistakes into positives and to bring the best of people. He was so much interested in young talents since he wanted to instill a spirit of hard work and quality in them. He aimed at making Motown a place where you could pick a kid from the street, take him through the front door and exit through the back door as a star. He believed in perfection for all musicians who were in Motown, and this is how he came to establish such as an irresistible brand.

The Famous Performers at Motown

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American soul pop group the Jackson Five, five brothers from Indiana who are signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown record label. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Getty Images)

Initially, many of the superstars who were attached to Motown were interested in bridging the social gap that existed between the whites and the blacks. Motown was never a minority affair, but one could not tell the tension during those days. Its top stars back then were Diana Rose and the famous Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Steve Wonder, and but not limited to Gladys Knights. All these superstars tirelessly worked towards healing a country that was divided mainly based on race. These were the first class of artist that helped Motown to launch itself not just at national but also international level. Currently, it is not possible to list every superstar at Motown. The most recent superstars include Drake Bell, Four Years Strong, Melanie Fiona, Ryan Leslie, and Marvin Gaye among many others.

Artist Development at Motown

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Motown singing group The Marvelettes (L-R Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson and Wanda Young (Rogers)) perform live with the Motortown Review circa 1964. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This is one of the significant achievements associated with Motown and has been an inspiration to many. This was and still is one of the major operations instituted by Gordy, but currently, it has been groomed to another level. Motown artists’ were viewed as ambassadors and royal representatives for Africans and were, therefore, expected to meet specific set standards. There were very high standards set for black musicians to protect their image. This involved the grooming of black artist and exposing them to all new social and dressing experiences. This was meant for the young, inexperienced artist and saw many enroll for the program. This is one of the most celebrated achievements by Motown.

Major Divisions

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Motown Museum (Hitsville U.S.A.), original home of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan on October 13, 2017. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Tamla records are one of Motown’s major divisions and were established in 1959 and would specifically deal with R&B and soul music. This is Motown’s original label, and some of its notable artists include; Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and the miracles among others. Motown records were established in 1960, and it’s currently the company’s mainstream for R&B as well as hip-hop after it combined with Tamla back in 1982. Tamla Motown Records established in 1965 would deal with non-US labels, and its major artists include the Supremes and Diana Ross.

Motown’s Unsung Heroes

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Photo of Record Companies, Motown, circa mid 1960s. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Berry Gordy was just the founder of Motown with the help of his family, and that’s what many people know today. There are, however, many other people who equally contributed to the success of Motown nut have remained unknown. Earl Van Dyke and Johnny Griffith makes the first duo of unsung heroes and were the keyboardists while guitarists Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, and Robert White remain behind the scenes. Benny Benjamin, Richard Allen alias Pistol, and Uriel Jones were the names in the drummers’ list. These and many others were the names that helped create a brand for Motown as we know it today.