Music Magic: The History of Motown

It’s Black History Month* here in the UK, an opportunity to further highlight and celebrate black stories which are too often missing from mainstream conversation. With this in mind, today on Some Sources Say we’re going to explore Berry Gordy and the creation of “one of the most successful Black-owned businesses” in America.

We have a lot to thank Gordy for. Have you danced the night away to the energetic Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas? Cried into your wineglass after a break up listening to Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? Or got political and empowered with Edwin Starr’s classic protest song War? These fantastic songs (and so many more!) come from the Motown Record Corporation which Gordy founded on the 12th January 1959.

Martha and the Vandellas 1965 (L-R) Rosaland Ashford, Martha Reeves, and Betty Kelley.

Gordy was born in Detroit (the motor city) in 1929, the seventh child of Berry Gordy, Sr. and Bertha Fuller Gordy. Before his success with Motown Records he had been a boxer, record store owner, assembly line worker and soldier in the Korean War. All this varied experience gave him the skillset to launch out on his own with his own record label. 

At this time music created by black artists in America wasn’t in the mainstream, but as RockHall noted in Gordy’s induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 “Never again would anyone say that black pop music is niche after his reign”. Gordy gave a platform to predominantly black artists, many of whom are now household names like Diana Ross and the Supremes. Alongside the music, Motown also had an Artist Development Department which taught the artists “how to sit, stand and speak with elegance, and act with refinement—no matter the setting” which helped give them an edge in the music industry. As Gordy recorded in his 1994 autobiography at first he didn’t see the need for this type of department, but it was his sisters Gwen and Anna Gordy who pushed for it and it opened in 1964. Gwen brought in etiquette instructor Maxine Powell who became a key part of the company, working with iconic artists like Marvin Gaye and helping them succeed. Upon Powell’s death in 2013, Gordy said “She brought something to Motown that no other record company had…She was a star in her own right – an original”.

The Miracles performing on The Smokey Robinson Show, a 1970 ABC Television special. (L-to-R) Bobby Rogers, Smokey Robinson, Ronnie White.

The first Motown record to sell a million copies was Shop Around by The Miracles in 1960. From there the company became a powerhouse of talent. In 1961 Stevie Wonder (side note: his song I was Made to Love Her is one of my all time favourites!) and the Supremes were signed, and the Marvelettes released Please Mr. Postman which was the record company’s first number one hit on the Billboard Pop Chart. By 1965 Motown had five number 1 hits from their artists in the charts. The next year the company grossed $20 millions dollars and purchased more properties including studio Golden World Records. In Motown’s early years the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum and Martin Luther King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech was recorded on Gordy’s label. 

Music is a great unifier, and this was the case for Motown. It brought black artists to the fore in a time when America was still segregated in many areas. Gordy recalled how in the South when they were on tour “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”. 

The Supremes 1966 (L-R) Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross

No company can last forever though and in 1988 Gordy made the decision to sell the company to MCA. As he put it in his autobiography “Conglomerates were taking over. These multi corporate entities, with their dominating distribution capabilities and their powerful foothold in a radically changing world economy, had the edge…My company was in no position to take advantage of these new developments…Selling wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do”.

The company in its original entity may be gone, but the iconic music remains as relevant today as it was then.**

Do you listen to Motown? Whose your favourite artist? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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The Motown headquarters from 1959 to 1968, which became the Motown Historical Museum in 1985.

*To find out more about Black History Month and events happening in your area visit: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/

**To see what Motown Records is up to today, check out their website here.

Sources:

Motown Museum: https://www.motownmuseum.org/ 

Britannica: Motown: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Motown 

To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown by Berry Gordy

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/berry-gordy-jr 

BBC: Motown: The music that changed America https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190109-motown-the-music-that-changed-america 

The Independent: Maxine Powell: Head of Tamla Motown’s charm school https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/maxine-powell-head-of-tamla-motowns-charm-school-8884889.html 


TIME Magazine: A Brief History of Motown by Gilbert Cruz http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1870975,00.html

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