FEATURE: Love, Simplicity and Racial Revolution: A Reign Supreme: Motown at Sixty




Love, Simplicity and Racial Revolution


IN THIS PHOTO: Diana Ross & The Supremes outside Hitsville U.S.A. in Detroit, MI in 1965/PHOTO CREDIT: Art Shay

A Reign Supreme: Motown at Sixty


A lot of genres and eras in music come and go...

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Marvelettes scored Motown’s first number-one on the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 with Please Mister Postman on 11th December, 1961/PHOTO CREDIT: Billboard

and we are never that bothered. I still miss Disco and Grunge but realise the former was maligned by many and the latter was part of a specific time in history. We still have bits of both these genres existent today but music trends and waves come and go. It is right to celebrate their births and mark their anniversaries. There are few times in music more important than Motown. What I mean is the start of Motown is one of the most important in music history. Sixty years ago today, this wonderful and hugely instrumental brand came along. It is hard to know whether Motown was a genre, label or phenomenon. I guess it is a bit of all three but, in any case, 12th January, 1959 saw something truly exceptional occur. Many were not expecting something so wonderful and fresh at the end of the 1950s. The decade did see artists like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley shine but I associated that decade with some good Pop, Doo-Wop but few standout moments. The 1960s provided greater strength and genius and Motown sort of arrived at the right time. Not only did Motown play a vital role when it came to inter-racial assimilation at the time but it was the first time an African-owned label gained mainstream acknowledgment. Before then, there was a dominance of white labels and genres: Motown changed everything and helped bring about social change and important integration.


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Miracles (among their string of Motown hits was 1961’s Shop Around)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Motown built off of Pop and Soul and sort of blended them together – it gained remarkable success for a small label and had seventy-nine records in the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969. We look back at the 1960s and associate it with bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. We think of Bob Dylan and a lot of artists that cover distinct genres – Folk, Pop and Rock. We all know about those epic 1960s-released albums and the artists who defined the time. Berry Gordy Jr. established the Motown label but could not have imagined the success it went on to have and the fact that people would be talking about it sixty years later! Detroit is not short of musical genius – given the Garage-Rock movement and how many artists come from there – but Motown is synonymous with the Michigan city. Gordy relocated to L.A. after the Detroit Riots of 1967 but nobody can deny Motown is a Detroit sound. By the 1990s, Motown had changed and been sold but its legacy and relevance is crucial. Let’s go back to the start. The BBC chart the start of Motown and define its sound:

On 12 January 1959, the music sensation that changed America – and the world beyond it – was set in motion. Detroit-born 29-year-old Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records with an $800 loan from his family’s collective savings. By the following year, he’d merge this into the Motown Record Corporation: an independent empire that would seal its genuinely iconic status, introducing legends including The Jackson 5; Diana Ross and The Supremes; Stevie Wonder; Smokey Robinson; Marvin Gaye; Martha and The Vandellas; The Commodores and many others among its hundreds of signings...

Sixty years on, Motown’s classic catalogue remains ubiquitous and influential: forming a blueprint for modern soul and pop successes, from girl groups to hit singer-songwriters; sampled on countless hip hop and dance anthems and covered by acts of every genre. On its anniversary, the music is celebrated in the book Motown: The Sound of Young America by Adam White with Barney Ales (Thames & Hudson) – filled with rarely seen and previously unpublished photos”.

The Motown sound influenced and guided artists from 1959 and you can hear its legacy today. Maybe we do not have bands like The Temptations and The Supremes but that is not to say we have forgotten the lessons and dynamics of the label. In many ways, mind, Motown seems to be very different to the modern scene. The Motown label pushed this tight, punchy and spirited songs; the aim was for artists to write, produce and be as authentic as possible – something we should remember today, where the mainstream is become less punchy, concentrated and personal. That desire for artists to be able to dance, sing and produce sounds rigid and strict but it was designed to ensure the music we were hearing had heart, soul and (that artist’s) stamp. A lot of artists made the label a huge force but few came bigger than The Miracles. The BBC article picks up the story:

The Miracles would become Motown’s first million-selling recording artists. The first of scores of Motown number one singles was delivered by teen girl group The Marvelettes: 1961’s Please Mr Postman had Gladys Horton on lead vocals and backing from Motown’s ultra-sharp house band The Funk Brothers (including Marvin Gaye on drums); like countless Motown gems, it would also inspire major cover versions – in this case, by the likes of The Beatles and The Carpenters”.

Motown’s boom and popularity peaked by 1967 and that coincided with the riots in Detroit. Motown was rare because it was a black-owned label with multi-racial staff. Civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped raise awareness of inequality and bring about change but, in musical terms, Motown was key and huge. Racism and a lack of opportunity for black artists would rear its head in the 1970s and 1980s but Motown helped break down barriers and see some of the best black artists of the day in the mainstream. Gordy set up the Motown label with a solid ethos: to write songs for every race and make everyone feel good. Motown certainly achieved that and took the world by storm. That is not to say Pop and mainstream sounds before then lacked heart and smile but Motown threw something new into the mix. Funkiness, soulful grooves and these brilliantly tight and catchy songs got the world dancing and remain classics to this day. Motown was as much about promoting love and peace as it was a simple and effective style of music. Have we seen a label/genre arrive that, at its heart, was about love and making everyone come together?! It is amazing to think that, if we tried today, the notion would be shot down and mocked. Motown was not all about general themes like love and harmony: political anthems would emerge once Motown’s superiority was established by 1970. Edwin Starr (War) and The Temptations (Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today) would deliver political directives and these hugely powerful songs.

 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images/Spotify

Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On) and Stevie Wonder (Innervisions) put out albums that talked about political corruption, racial tensions and rivalries. Maybe Motown’s sound and stable changed after the 1970s and the label relocated to Los Angeles. Big stars like Michael Jackson had moved to other labels by the 1980s but the kindred spirit and family connection remained strong. Every Motown anniversary is important but now, for its sixtieth, something great is happening in Detroit – as this article shows:

The Sound of Young America now has 60 candles on its birthday cake. And in Detroit, the party is just getting started.

Motown is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2019, marking 60 years since Berry Gordy Jr. founded the company that became a musical, cultural and commercial force inextricably linked to the city, right down to the name.

The anniversary will bring a series of high-profile hometown events led by the Motown Museum, including a new exhibit, a spring block party and a celebrity-studded Motown 60 Weekend in the fall.

The birthday is officially Saturday: On Jan. 12, 1959, Gordy secured $800 from a family co-op fund to start his independent record company.

But the Motown anniversary campaign will be a yearlong affair, including global initiatives by Motown Records and Capitol Music Group, the latest corporate parent since Gordy sold the label in 1988. It will be a year that honors Detroit stars now gone and the luminaries still with us — working alumni such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson and Martha Reeves, along with groups such as the Temptations and Four Tops, helmed by respective founding members Otis Williams and Duke Fakir”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr./PHOTO CREDIT: Forbes/Getty Images

I love Motown and get a great feeling when listening to a golden hit from its stable. As from 2011, Universal Motown was separate from Universal Motown Republic Group. It is not the same label as was set up in 1959 but artists from the Universal Motown label have been transferred to the revitalised Motown label. It is a subsidiary of Capitol Records but it is good to see the Motown name operating and surviving to this day. I love the fact there were these divisions and different Motown camps. We had Tamla Records that was established in 1959 and was in operation a couple of months before the Motown Record Corporation. The label was merged with Motown in 1988 but the stable gave us Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Stevie Wonder. Motown Records, established in 1960, was purchased by MCA in 1988 but gave us Michael Jackson, Four Tops and Lionel Richie. The appetite and desire for Motown is still around today. In 2011, President Barack Obama hosted a star-studded Motown Gala at the White House; Gordy’s biography led to the Motown the Musical it made its way from Broadway to London’s West End. Even though we do not have the same pedigree as the 1950s-1980s; it is clear people still love Motown and the label’s reputation will never fade. My personal favourite Motown track is Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone from The Temptations.

It was written by Motown hit-makers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for The Undisputed Truth in 1971. The Temptations took the song to number-one late in 1972 and it remains one of the most instant and icon Motown songs. Why has Motown endured and why has its name extended beyond the music itself? Was it a well-timed offering or was the simple philosophy of Motown too hard to resist? I will make one last trip to the BBC article and leave the final offering to Berry Gordy Jr.

There is something else that explains the enduring power of Motown. Gordy, recalling a tour of the American South, said that “despite the hostility and racism we faced, we knew we were bringing joy to people. The audiences were segregated. The venues had a rope down the middle of the audience separating blacks from whites, but soon the rope was gone and black kids and white kids were dancing together to the same music. It created a bond that echoed throughout the world”.

Not only should we spin some classic Motown to celebrate sixty years but take to heart the spirit and aim of the label. How often do we talk about love and compassion in music today? Is there the same simplicity and joy as we got from Motown? I think we could revive a great time and corner of music that produced some of our very finest artists. As we end the day, let’s raise a glass to Berry Gordy Jr. and...

 IN THIS PHOTO: A group of Motown recording artists and employees, c. 1962-1963 (from left to right: Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks; Uriel Jones (on step), Elbridge Bryant; Otis Williams, Esther Gordy (unconfirmed); Paul Williams, (unknown); Melvin Franklin, Diana Ross; Robert Bullock, Patrice Gordy; Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A revolutionary record label!