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Motown: 50 Years Of Soul

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As this historic record label commemorates its 50th year in the music industry, let's learn more about the history of this iconic music leader:

"One of the principles we had at Motown was that success will come, but that is not enough," founder Berry Gordy explained. "You had to be proud of yourself in order to achieve true happiness. And if you do it right, not only will you be successful, you'll be happy. And at Motown, we're the happiest people in the world."

His feelings on the meaning of Motown border on the mystical.

"Motown is a magical something that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. Because the world has changed for the worse. And to have a company like that is probably impossible now. It was too simple to be believed."

Berry Gordy is indeed a happy man. He formed the Motown Record Corporation in 1960 after a year of being called Tamla Records. And now, fifty years later, the world will help celebrate the legendary record label with a series of gala events.

Berry Gordy actually started his career in the music industry as a songwriter for local Detroit musicians such as Jackie Wilson and The Matadors. In fact, Wilson's single, "Lonely Teardrops" became a huge hit, but Gordy did not feel that he made as much money as he deserved and soon Gordy realized that the more lucrative part of the music industry was in producing and owning the publishing rights.

So, with an $800 loan from family members, Gordy started Tamla Records, signing his first act, The Matadors (who changed their name to The Miracles). In fact, The Miracles lead singer, Smokey Robinson became vice president of the company and many of Gordy's family also assumed roles in the company.

In 1959, Gordy purchased property that would eventually become Tamla's "Hitsville U.S.A."studio. The property was modified into a small recording studio with Gordy moving into the second floor living quarters. Over the next few years, Motown would go on to own several more neighboring houses, with administrative offices, mixing and mastering studios and rehearsal studios.

Success came quickly for the new record label, the first hit single was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" in 1959 (#2 on Billboard R&B charts) and the first #1 R&B hit was "Shop Around," by The Miracles in 1960 (which also peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Motown's first million-dollar selling record).

From 1961-1971, Motown Records had 100 Top Ten Hits from such music artists as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5, among others. In addition, the company operated several other record labels (besides releases on the Tamla and Motown labels) including "Gordy," which featured such acts as the Temptations, the Contours and Martha & the Vandellas, "V.I.P," which released music by the Velvelettes and the Spinners. Another label, "Soul" released recordings by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Other labels included "Workshop Jazz" (which released Jazz music), "Mel-o-dy" (country music) and "Rare Earth," which focused on rock recordings. Gordy utilized the slogan "The Sound Of Young America" and Motown acts enjoyed widespread popularity with both black and white audiences.

The "Motown Sound" is what made the music appealing. This was a unique combination of tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent and melodic electric bass lines, distinctive chord structures and a call and response singing style that had its origins in gospel music. Add to this the use of orchestral string sections, bluesy horns, and carefully arranged background vocals and the recipe was complete.

Gordy also surrounded himself with some of the best songwriters and producers in music at the time, including the songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland (brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier), Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson and many others.

The Motown Sound also had a profound influence on other musicians of the time including Dusty Springfield and the Foundations, among others. In the UK, the Motown Sound was the basis of the "Northern Soul" phenomenon.

Adding to Motown's worldwide appeal was Gordy's practice of using a group of select studio musicians, collectively known as the "Funk Brothers," who would record the instrumental tracks for the songs. Included in this ensemble were keyboard players, Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith, and Joe Hunter, guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis, percussionists Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Jack Ashford, drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, and Richard "Pistol" Allen and the bass playing of James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. Much of the Motown Sound was made by the use of over dubbing instrumentation and the use of two drummers to go along with three or four guitar lines.

Gordy was also a master marketer, his acts were well-groomed, well-dressed and their appearances were expertly choreographed. Gordy's reasoning was that Motown artists were ambassadors for other African-American artists who sought broad market appeal and thought that they should act accordingly.

By 1969, Motown began its gradual move from Detroit to Los Angles, with its main objective to branch out into the television and motion picture industries. Gordy formed Motown Productions which provided some very memorable TV specials including TCB with Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, Diana! (with Diana Ross) as well as "Goin' Back to Indiana," with the Jackson 5. Additionally, after the loss of the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (who left because of royalty payment disputes); the company loosened its productions rules allowing some of the longtime acts the opportunity to write and produce their own material. The result was the release of some classic albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), and Let's Get It On (1973) and three fantastic LP's from Stevie Wonder, Music Of My Mind in 1971, Talking Book in 1972 and Innervisions in 1973.

In addition to establishing branch offices in New York City and Los Angles, Motown also produced several hit films, including Lady Sings The Blues and Mahogany, both starring Diana Ross. Other Motown films included Thank God It's Friday in 1978, The Wiz, in 1978 and Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon in 1985.

Motown continued with its successful musical acts in the late 70s and into the 80s with acts such as Lionel Richie, The Commodores, Rick James and DeBarge, among others. Despite this success, by the mid-1980s Motown was losing money and consequently Gordy sold his ownership rights in Motown Records to Music Corporation of America (MCA) and Boston Ventures in June 1988. In 1989, Gordy sold the Motown Productions operations to Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who renamed the company de Passe Entertainment.

Despite major recording starts such as Boys II Men, among others, during the 1990s the company remained in a state of turmoil. Numerous executives were appointed by MCA and a multitude of legal issues plagued the company. But by 1999, Motown was again a driving force in the music industry with such acts as 702, Brian McKnight, and Erykah Badu.

Motown's (which has merged with Universal Records to become Universal Motown Records Group) current roster includes many R&B super stars such as India Arie, Mya, Kem, Yummy Bingham, Badu, pop superstar Lindsay Lohan, reggae stars Damien and Stephen Marley and many more. Additionally, Universal Motown Records Group has retained Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations.

In Motown, Berry Gordy was able to adeptly blend R&B and Soul with mainstream pop music to create a "super" record label. This template can never be duplicated, but the world of music is by far a better place because of Berry Gordy's visions and unique management.

For more information visit the Motown website.

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About Robert Benson

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos-/ Christine

    I love Motown, the best music ever!!

  • http://www.megaplatinum.net Nick

    That amazing Motown sound will live on forever. Is it possible to gauge the influence Gordy had?

  • http://www.myspace.com/tinkie101 tink

    Barry Gordy is an amazing man who rarely missed his mark. The fact that Motown’s music throughout the years has remained exciting and captivating proves that point.

    Great article!

  • http://www.philliplfletcher.com Phillip L Fletcher

    the Sound of Young America – words can’t describe the impact Motown has had not only on the American cultural and social scene – but equally its impact globally has been nothing short of phenomenal.

    Phillip L Fletcher

  • ksed

    Yes Motown was one of the very best, however its no longer Mowtown, its now owned by the big conglomrate Universal Music group, to give them credit for 50 years of Motown is unfair, the credit goes to Berry Gordy.