Motown, also known as Tamla-Motown outside the U.S., is a record label founded on December 14, 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. in Detroit, Michigan ("Motor Town"), and named for the city's association with the automobile industry. In the 1960s it was the most successful proponent of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, a style of soul music with distinctive characteristics including the use of tambourine along with drums, bass instrumentation, and a 'call and response' singing style originating in gospel music.
The Motown Sound
While there were popular African American musicians prior to the 1960s, including Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Mamie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and Chuck Berry, Motown was the most consistently chart-topping genre until hip-hop. In contrast to previous genres of black popular music, Motown soul used African-American performers instead of grooming white musicians for crossover fame. It was also among the first genres of African-American popular music to move beyond simple lyricisms into the realm of socio-political topics, allowing for a wide range of African-American viewpoints to be expressed in song.
The Motown Sound was also defined by the use of orchestration, string sections, charted horn sections, carefully arranged harmonies and other more refined pop music production techniques. It was also one of the first styles of pop music of that era wherein girl groups--including The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and The Marvelettes--were showcased as an act, as opposed to individual female artists. The style was also showcased by the work of non-Motown artists, including British act The Foundations.
Artist development and production process
Artist development was a major part of Motown's operations. The acts on the Motown label were fastidiously groomed, dressed and choreographed for live performances. Motown artists were told that their breakthrough into the white popular music market made them ambassadors for other African-American artists seeking broad market acceptance, and that they should think, act, walk and talk like royalty, so as to alter the less-than-dignified image (commonly held by white Americans in that era) of black musicians.
Motown's music was crafted with the same eye towards pop appeal. Berry Gordy used weekly quality control meetings and veto power to ensure that only records with appeal to both white and black audiences would be released. Many of Motown's most well known songs, such as all of the early hits for The Supremes, were written by the songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. Other important producers and songwritiers at Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio and headquaters included Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson, Motown artists Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and Gordy himself.
The many artists and producers of Motown Records collaborated to produce numerous hit songs, although the process has been described as factory-like (such as the Brill Building). The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day, and artists would often be on tour for weeks, come back to Detroit to record as many songs as possible, and then promptly set back out on tour again.
Berry Gordy, Jr. got his start as a songwriter for local Detroit acts such as Jackie Wilson and the Matadors. In 1959, he started his own record label, Tamla Records; his first signed act was The Matadors, who changed their name to The Miracles. Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson became the vice president of the company, and many of Gordy's family members, including his sister Gwen and his father Berry Sr. had instrumental roles in the company.
Also in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio and offices. A photographer's studio was modfied into the administrative offices for the label, with a large recording studio built downstairs in the basement.
Among Motown's early artists were Mabel John, Mary Wells, and Barrett Strong. The label's first hit was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" (1959), which made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts; its first #1 R&B hit was "Shop Around" by the Miracles in 1960. A year later, The Marvelettes scored the label's first US #1 pop hit, "Please Mr. Postman." By the mid-1960s, the label, with the help of songwriters and producers such as Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, was a major force in the music industry.
In the 1960's (from 1961 to 1971) , Motown had 110 Top 10 hits and artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, and Gladys Knight & the Pips were all signed to Motown Records. After Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label in 1968 over royalty payment disputes, the quality of the Motown output began to decline, as well as the frequency with which its artists scored #1 hits. Even so, Motown still boasted a roster of successful artists during the 1970s and 1980s, including Lionel Richie and The Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie and DeBarge. Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 and attempted to branch out into the motion picture industry, turning out films such as Lady Sings the Blues, The Wiz, Thank God It's Friday and The Last Dragon.
Berry Gordy sold his ownership in Motown to MCA and Boston Ventures in June 1988 for $61 million. Today a subsidiary of Universal Music, Motown is still active as a record label, and has been home to artists such as Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Johnny Gill (ex-New Edition) and India.Arie. Stevie Wonder is still signed to Motown to this day, making him the only act from the "classic years" still on the label. Over the course of its history, the Motown Corporation has owned or distributed more than 45 labels in varying genres.
1950s and 1960s
From 1959 to 1971, many of these acts were backed by Motown Records' major studio band, The Funk Brothers, which was credited for being instrumental in creating the essential sound of Motown. The band's career and work is chronicled in the acclaimed documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
- http://www.motown.com/ Motown Records