Saturday, October 10, 2009

The History of Motown Records

By Christina Pomoni

Motown Records has been, admittedly, one of the largest and most successful independent record labels in the history of music. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr., an inspirational and insightful leader, who assembled a diligent group of musicians, producers, songwriters, and artists, Motown has changed the sound of music in the 1960s, not only in the United States, but also around the globe.

Founded in 1959 in Detroit, Motown was the equivalent of the Big Three in automobile industry. Being, in effect, a manufacturer of pop music, Motown has gathered the soul and pop classics that altered America. Although it was owned by an African-American and focused on the social problems of the black communities, it gave white America a wonderful, romantic, grooving, moving, and exuberating music.

Unlike other successful labels of that time such as Island Records, Warner Bros Records, or Epic Records, Motown associated music with black civil rights movement and managed to bridge the gap of racial discrimination by producing music that appealed to all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

Berry Gordy Jr., a former professional boxer, Korean War veteran and automobile worker was a promising songwriter when he took the decision to establish Motown Records. Under the urging of Smokey Robinson, a prominent songwriter and producer and founding member of the Miracles (at that time known as The Matadors), Gordy began building a portfolio of talented artists.

On January 12, 1959, he founded Tamla Records, an R&B label with an $800 family loan. In the same year, he purchased the property that would become Hitsville U.S.A. studio at 2648 West Grand Blvd. Originally being a photographer's studio, the property was converted into Motown's administrative building and mixing, mastering, recording and rehearsal studio. On April 14, 1960, Motown Records was launched and was incorporated with Tamla Records into Motown Record Corporation.

Over the next decade, a great number of chart-topping artists produced by Motown captured the audience and the critics. Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores, all became part of what would become known as the Motown Sound. Featuring great melodies, unique soul sounds, chord and percussion sections, tambourines, hand-clapping, bass lines, horn grooves, foot-slapping drums, all orchestrated in revolutionary pop production techniques, the Motown Sound became recognizable and memorable.

Between 1961 and 1971, Motown had 110 top-ten hits. The Motown Corporation operated several labels that featured releases in other genres such as Workshop Jazz for jazz, Mel-o-dy for country and R&B, and Rare Earth for rock aiming to enjoy widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.

It is believed that Gordy modelled Motown after the Detroit car assembly line with which he was so familiar. He manufactured a good end-product, and then he made something similar really quickly with the valuable assistance of the golden trio of songwriters Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, widely known as Holland-Dozier, Holland, or H-D-H. Besides, Smokey Robinson was the basic songwriter of The Temptations, while he contributed to some of the greatest hits by The Marvelettes ('Please Mr. Postman', 1961), Brenda Holloway ('When I'm Gone', 1965), Marvin Gaye ('Ain't That Peculiar', 1965), The Contours ('First I Look at the Purse', 1965) and The Four Tops ('Still Water (Love)', 1970).

Throughout the 1960s, Motown produced a barrage of unparalleled songs.

'Where Did Our Love Go' (1964), 'Baby Love' (1964), 'Stop! In the Name of Love' (1965), 'You Can't Hurry Love' (1966), 'You Keep Me Hangin' On' (1966), and 'Love Is Here and Now You're Gone' (1967) by Diana Ross and The Supremes.

'Shop Around' (1960), 'You've Really Got a Hold on Me' (1962), 'Tracks Of My Tears' (1965), 'Baby, Baby Don't Cry' (1968) and 'The Tears of a Clown' (1970) by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.

'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' (1967), 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)' (1971), 'What's Going On' (1971), 'Trouble Man' (1972), and 'Sexual Healing' (1982) by Marvin Gaye.

'Fingertips - Part 2' (1963), 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)' (1965), 'For Once In My Life' (1967), 'I Was Made To Love Her' (1967), 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours' (1970), 'Higher Ground' (1973), 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' (1973), 'Boogie On Reggae Woman' (1974), 'Sir Duke' (1977), 'Ebony and Ivory' (1982) and 'Part Time Lover' (1985) by Stevie Wonder.

'The Way You Do The Things You Do' (1964), 'My Girl' (1965), 'Get Ready' (1966), 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (1966), 'All I Need' (1967), 'I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)' (1968), 'I Can't Get Next To You' (1969), 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)' (1971), and 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' (1972) by The Temptations.

'Baby I Need Your Loving' (1964), 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)' (1965), '(Reach Out) I'll Be There' (1966), 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' (1966) and 'Bernadette' (1967) by The Four Tops.

'I Want You Back' (1969), 'ABC' (1970), 'The Love You Save' (1970), and 'I'll Be There' (1970) by The Jackson Five.

'Fancy Dancer' (1976), 'Brick House' (1977), 'Easy' (1977), 'Say Yeah' (1978), and 'Three Times A Lady' (1978) by The Commodores and the list goes on.

Simple, straightforward love songs that told simple stories in a happy or a heartbreaking way; yet they all focused on the pride of Detroit and the pride of African-Americans echoing the 'Sound of Young America', the usual stamp on the label's vinyl.

In 1967, Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown over royalty payment disputes. Under the production on Norman Whitfield, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye had some major hits, while Gordy established a television subsidiary, the Motown Productions for the produciton of TV specials for the Motown artists. In 1971, Motown released Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On', the album that changed the setting of R&B scene by featuring a social view about racism, war, drug addiction, police brutality, environmentalism and urban disintegration in America.

In 1972, Gordy decided to leave Detroit for Los Angeles. The main objective of Motown's relocation was to expand into the motion picture industry. To that end, Motown Productions released two films starring Diana Ross: the Billie Holliday biographical film 'Lady Sings the Blues' (1972), and 'Mahogany' (1975).

Because Motown was losing money, in 1988, Berry Gordy Jr. sold Motown Records to Music Corporation of America (MCA) for $61 million. In 1989, Motown Productions was sold to Motown executive Suzanne de Passe who renamed it to de Passe Entertainment and runs it until today. In 1994, Motown Records was purchased by PolyGram and in 1998, PolyGram was acquired by Seagram leaving Motown Records officially to Universal Music Group, the current owner.

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