Saturday, October 10, 2009

How Motown Changed the American Sound

By Christina Pomoni

When thinking of Motown, the legendary record label of Detroit that characterized an entire era, a few names come to mind triggering wonderful memories. Diana Ross and The Supremes, the epitome of glamor and glitz; Marvin Gaye with his irresistible sensuality; Stevie Wonder, the essential one-band man; Smokey Robinson with his easiness to belt out hits; and, of course, Berry Gordy Jr., the bona fide leader.

Before Motown' birth, black music was seen as a minority taste, as a product of migration of many black people from the agricultural South to the industrial North during World War I. This population shift created a new demographic group, which developed R&B music in the late 1940s. In the mid-50s, black music found its expression in Soul music as a result of the confluence of R&B, gospel and doo-wop. At that moment in history, Soul got associated with the black civil rights movement through the transformation of black music into a type of funky affirmation.

Besides, before Motown, in the late 40s and early 50s, Detroit had a prominent jazz scene of white musicians such as Frank Morelli, Leo Osebold and Red Ray. The postwar economic boom had favored Detroit by creating a variety of challenging jobs for jazz musicians, shaping an audience with an interest in supporting jazz and creating a network of business people with an interest in catering to that audience. The advanced instrumental techniques of white musicians and the secrets of improvisation seemed to leave no room for the black artists to enter the magic world of jazz, soul and music industry at a large.

The founding of Motown in 1959 signified a paradigm shift of cultural preferences towards the integration of black music into the white society. Although black auto workers in Detroit were experiencing extreme racial discrimination and racism, their black music found its way to millions of white American households and crossed the color line in an unprecedented way.

Furthermore, the music per se changed. Featuring catchy grooves, hand-clapping, impulsive body moves, improvisational embellishments, and regular interplay between the soloist and the chorus, Motown capitalized on the dynamic roster of local jazz talent, thriving nightclubs and hall venues and competing independent labels, making Gordy's vision of Motown to change the course of music in America and around the globe, a musical entity to be deemed throughout the 60's well into the 80's.

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were among Motown's first artists that topped the charts with their 1960 release 'Shop Around', which also became the label's first million-selling album. Besides, the extraordinary talent of Robinson to identify tunes that could become smash hits and his contribution to other Motown artists such as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Brenda Holloway, The Contours, The Marvelettes and others, made him practically an architect of black music.

Decade by decade, Motown created a blueprint that would be worshiped for generations to come. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Commodores, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, all worked passionately and eagerly to bring to the world a new sound and make history. Today, after all these years of musical influences and experimentation, of the emergence of a variety of different, yet confluent music genres, the Motown Sound remains fresh. In reality, Motown shook up the music industry with a stream of back-to-back hits forging the road for continued dominance of modern R&B music.

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