Celebrating 60 Years of Motown
One of the country’s most iconic record labels was modeled off of the main moneymakers in its hometown of Detroit, Michigan: the auto industry. “I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door unknown… and come out another door a star, like an assembly line,” label founder Berry Gordy told the Telegraph in 2016. “That was my dream.”
That germ of an idea would go on to sprout into one of the most important music labels of all time, the future Hitsville, U.S.A. Gordy called it Motown — a combined and shortened version of Detroit’s nickname: Motor Town. This year, that label celebrates its 60th anniversary of launching the careers of future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
A former boxer, songwriter and businessman who’d failed to find success in his previous endeavors, Gordy took out an $800 loan from his family in 1960 to put a down payment on a two-level home in Detroit. He envisioned creating a hit-making factory out of Motown’s HQ and was determined to make Motown “the sound of young America.”
A black businessman in a racially segregated America, Gordy didn’t need to look far to find his artists. He tapped into Detroit’s local black music scene to discover young skilled yet raw talent. Ones he would hone and develop for mass appeal, making his label one of the most successful black-owned businesses in America.
In addition to songwriting teams, performance teams and one of the most prolific studio musician groups of all time, the Funk Brothers, Motown artists worked with a finishing coach who taught them manners and class — even teaching them how to step out of limos elegantly. Gordy was very conscious and controlling of their public image; he saw the whole picture. He knew how important image was, especially for black artists in America at a time during which there was a very clear and often legal line separating audiences by race. Long before Diddy on Making the Band or Simon Cowell on American Idol, Gordy groomed future stars with tough love.
The story of Motown is not just about music history, but American history. By the mid ‘80s the label struggled; Gordy told the Telegraph that “it was no fun anymore.” So, in 1988, Gordy sold the label to MCA and an investment company.
Still, the label continues on today and the legacy still stands strong.
Stevie. Marvin. Diana. Smokey. Michael. So many of Motown’s legends only need one name. There are simply too many great songs, albums and artists to mention, but here we try our best to identify the most important musical moments in Motown’s soulful history.
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” 1960
His name is probably not the first that comes to mind when you think of Motown, but Barrett Strong is responsible for the label’s first-ever hit: “Money (That’s What I Want).” Written by Gordy and performed by Strong, the success of the song, reaching no. 2 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart, helped bankroll the fledgling label.
And while it would be Strong’s only hit as an artist, he went on to enjoy a successful career as a songwriter for other Motown artists; he wrote the classics “I Heard it through the Grapevine” for Marvin Gaye, “War” for Edwin Star and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” for the Temptations.
The Miracles, “Shop Around” 1960
Without Smokey Robinson, there’s no Motown. Proof? Smokey was the one who told Gordy, his songwriting buddy, to get that $800 loan. Plus, Smokey — along with the Miracles — gave Motown its first single to sell a million copies, “Shop Around.”
And that’s not the end of his influence by far. Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Who’s Loving You,” a Smokey song, convinced Gordy to sign the Jackson 5. The man also wrote “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “My Girl” for the Temptations. Both came out in 1964 — and both are cultural staples.
The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” 1961
The first successful female group on the label would deliver Motown’s first no. 1 pop hit on the Billboard 100 pop chart. In it, the Marvelettes beg their postman to see if he’s carrying a letter from their man. The great drum work you hear is by a then-studio drummer named Marvin Gaye. Lead singer Gladys Horton’s frustrations grow as she tells him, “You better wait a minute, wait a minute.”
The energy and vocals of the song are even more urgent than the New Edition hit “Mr. Telephone Man,” which was likely inspired by The Marvelettes, and the song would live on with covers by both the Beatles in 1963 and the Carpenters in 1974, when it reached number on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Supremes Where Did Our Love Go 1964
The Supremes laid the groundwork for all super female groups to come.
With this record, they became the first artists ever to have three no. 1 songs from the same album. “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” perfectly capture the sweetness and joy of the Motown Sound.
The group started with four members and later ended up with just three. Soon, Gordy pushed Diana Ross to the forefront. She later left and found massive success as a solo artist and movie star.
The Temptations Cloud Nine 1969
Before this album, the Temptations were known for their sugary yet soulful hits like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “My Guy,” as well as their GQ style and crisp choreography.
Then two things happened. First, David Ruffin was replaced by Dennis Edwards. Then, their producer Norman Whitfield got inspired by Sly Stone and decided to take the group’s music in a more psychedelic, funky direction.
Cloud Nine contained a murkier sound than a typical polished Motown offering. And the title cut, a song about drug use (perhaps), garnered the label their first Grammy.
In a way, this album cracked the door just enough for Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to push it all the way open, making it possible for them to break off from the classic Motown Sound.
Jackson 5 ABC, 1970
While it’s true that their debut for Motown contained the group’s official first hit, “I Want You Back,” it wasn’t until their follow-up that the Jackson 5 truly launched. This is where it all started to click.
The playfulness, the band’s playing — Michael’s star was shining but not completely blinding his older brothers. “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” all hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Including “I Want You Back,” from the previous album, the band became the first act ever to have their first four singles accomplish this feat. The boy band formula was created and would be copied for years to come.
Marvin Gaye What’s Going On 1971
A long-time Motown artist who found success early making honeyed love songs, Gaye’s struggles with his inner demons became more difficult in the late ‘60s. He suffered through drug addiction, an unstable marriage to Gordy’s sister, issues with the IRS and even an attempted suicide.
The turbulence in the world also weighed heavy on Gaye’s already emotional state. He recorded the title track against Gordy’s wishes; the label owner didn’t want him to record a “protest” song. Later, Gordy told him that it was “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Still, the song was a hit — and Gordy now wanted a full album.
Partly inspired by the letters his brother sent him while stationed in Vietnam, Gaye recorded a concept album from the perspective of a Vietnam vet back home witnessing all the horrors of modern society.
He tackled racism, hatred, poverty, even environmental issues in a lush and haunting tone that was less angry than pleading and earnest. It was something only Gaye could deliver.
Stevie Wonder Music of My Mind, 1972 // Talking Book, 1972 // Innervisions 1973 // Songs in the Key of Life, 1976
It’s considered the greatest run of records ever. Four albums in five years. Twelve Grammys. Wonder’s “classic period.”
After his first contract expired, the one he’d signed when he was 11, Wonder negotiated for more control over his career — and, most importantly, more creative control. He fully took advantage of it during these years.
In the span of four albums, he explores life, love, joys, horrors, struggles, anger, poverty, violence, Black Power and even religious hypocrisy. You can tell that he’s clearly in a zone here.
Many of his songs seamlessly transition into the next track. He plays around with reggae and Afro Cuban rhythms. Wonder wrote, produced, arranged and composed all 21 songs on Songs in the Key of Lifer, a double album with a bonus four-song EP — a concept album about our greatest gift and mystery, life.
By taking the listener through a musical journey of beginnings and endings, of highs and lows, of reality and potential, Wonder ambitiously challenges us to enjoy the ride.
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