Saturday, October 10, 2009

How Did Motown Discover Some of Their Amazing Artists?

By Christina Pomoni

Berry Gordy was not only exceptional in his insightful leadership that brought great music to the world, but also in his way of approaching and discovering his artists. From a broad range of talented and remarkable musicians, who remained, for the most part unnoticed and ignored, living in poor areas and having no means of promoting themselves, Gordy and his Motown associates discovered little treasures hidden in the black hoods of Detroit.

With the exception of Stevie Wonder, who was discovered by Ronnie White of The Miracles while performing outside a street corner for his friends and The Jackson Five, who caught Gladys Knight's attention and were brought to Motown by Bobby Taylor of The Vancouvers and Motown's executive Suzanne de Passe, most of the Motown's hit-makers were discovered in the high schools.

Indeed, the high schools were a primary part of Motown's supply system because this is where all those young artists met. This is where they practiced their music, sang their songs and performed their dances. This is where their social lives were built around. Unlike what people normally think that black music came out of gospels and spirituals, although in a large part it did, Motown's young artists did not meet in churches. Besides, they didn't all belong to the same choirs.

Furthermore, Motown could not have produced its remarkable sound without a comprehensive public school music education program. Detroit's black high schools had well-designed music programs that balanced theory and practice and were taught by prominent teachers. In effect, all Motown artists have taken music courses at school and had been both influenced and motivated by their teachers to pursue a career in music.

The fact that schools played such a key role in Motown's birth and success was also an important social aspect because it demonstrated the prosperity of a part of black communities that had been affluent enough to send and keep their children in school. Nearly all Motown artists had graduated from high school. When Diana Ross and The Supremes first auditioned with Motown, Gordy thought they were too young and encouraged them to sign a contract upon graduating from high school. The fact that Gordy didn't want his artists to quit school is a significant sociological remark that should be given credence.

In addition to the schools, artists learned to perform at small black businesses, such as record shops, nightclubs and charm schools. In reality, there was a whole system supporting Motown's success, a system that was not visible, but was contributing immensely through a well-established infrastructure in the black community during the 1950s. In a way, black urban life in northern cities like Detroit had arrived at a certain point of integration to be able to support Motown. When Motown was founded, black kids in Detroit were interested in music and had a background to understand music and be involved with it.

Gordy had always a team of skilful people around him, who could be of great assistance in his endeavours to discover his amazing artists. An important member of Tamla Records was Raynoma Liles, the founder of The Rayber Voices and a back vocal singer on many of Motown's early hits. Raynoma discovered the property at 2648 West Grand Boulevard hat became Motown's famous Hitsville U.S.A. studio. Gordy and Raynoma Liles would marry in 1960 and later divorce, but she remained a significant member of the Motown team.

Another important Motown member was Mickey Stevenson, the label's A&R director. Being responsible for discovering new, talented artists that would match Motown's repertoire, Stevenson discovered Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. Besides, by being a prominent songwriter and producer, he also contributed in 'Dancing In The Street', (1964) by Martha Reeves and The Vandellas and in 'Pride And Joy' (1963) by Marvin Gaye.

Gordy had also the valuable help of Barney Ales, who, unlike the majority of Motown's team, was not an African-American. Ales was a knowledgeable and antagonistic individual, responsible for putting together a team that would place Motown's records with distributors, get airplay and coordinate marketing and advertising. When Motown became of the most successful record labels, Ales became one of the highest paid Motown members.

After all these years that Motown has shaped the music industry, there is little doubt that it was a record label that made music by young artists and marketed it to young people. Before Motown's birth, most of the black artists who recorded R&B music such as Sam Cooke, The Dominoes, The Platters, Little Richard and many others, were older. But with the emergence of Motown, young black people felt that they had their music, their label, and their artists. Besides, all Motown singers were very young. Stevie Wonder signed to Motown at the age of eleven. The Temptations, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson had just finished high school when they began recording for Motown. Motown was the 'Sound of young America.'

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