Motown Records: Founder, History & Artists

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

'I Heard It Through the Grapevine'... 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough'... 'My Guy'... What do these songs have in common? They're all Motown hits! In this lesson, we'll explore the history and artists of Motown Records.

Beginnings

Motown Records started as the dream of one man. Berry Gordy, Jr. (1929 - ) was seventh of eight children born to hard-working, African-American parents in Detroit, Michigan. Gordy wasn't a great student, but he loved music. After spending time as a boxer and serving in the Korean conflict, he worked (as many people in Detroit did) on an automotive assembly line, in his case, at the Lincoln-Mercury plant. But Gordy wanted to make his name in music. He wrote several moderately successful songs in the late 1950s, but was frustrated by the system and his lack of success. He wanted more control over the quality of his product

In 1959, Gordy got an $800 loan from his family to start a record company, and in April 1960, Motown Records Co. was incorporated. He named it Motown after Detroit, which was known as the Motor City. Remembering how the auto assembly line pulled parts together to make a quality product, Gordy kept the experience in mind when he started his company.

Motown Records: Methods and Sound

Motown started small, with administrative offices and a recording studio sharing space at 2648 West Grand Blvd in Detroit. Signaling his intentions, Gordy dubbed the building Hitsville U. S. A. and emblazoned the name over its entrance. Gordy started at a time when pop music was undergoing many changes, and with Motown, he was able to blend African-American music like gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues, with the newer sounds of rock and roll.

Image of original Motown Studio in Detroit, Michigan.
Hitsville USA

Gordy established a quality control method to ensure the strongest product (i.e., song or musical act) rose to the top. Each Friday he met with his producers, each of whom pitched his top prospect for the week. Then they discussed and voted on them in a competitive process. After singers were signed to a contract, Motown had an Artist Development Department that taught them skills and polish far beyond music, such as how to speak and dress, and how to present music with poise and polish.

We'll get to individual acts and artists in a moment. But another important element to the Motown sound was its excellent house band known as the Funk Brothers. These guys weren't heralded stars but working musicians who built the background sound. The Funk Brothers was comprised of accomplished professional musicians who played the bars, nightclubs, and other venues in black Detroit. Their skill and cohesion were crucial to the Motown sound, which became a highly successful style of rock-tinged soul music featuring more sophisticated arrangements and orchestration.

Motown Artists and Hit Songs

The Motown Records roster of stars reads like a 'Who's Who' of pop superstardom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Artists included groups and individuals like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Jackson 5 and a young Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many, many more.

Some performers came from the surrounding streets and neighborhoods of Detroit, which had a strong music program in the public schools in the 1950s. Among Motown's earliest stars was William Robinson, who was still a student at a local high school when he was discovered. Nicknamed 'Smokey' for his smooth voice, Robinson became a star as lead singer with the Miracles. Their hits included 'I Second That Emotion' and 'The Tears of a Clown.' Later Robinson became a Vice President of Motown and produced other acts for the company.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Robinson is at the far left.
Smokey Robinson and Miracles

Another huge group for Motown was Diana Ross and the Supremes, who had seven number 1 hits, including 'Baby Love' (1964), 'Stop! In the Name of Love' (1965), and 'You Can't Hurry Love' (1966). Lead singer Diana Ross went on to even greater stardom as a solo artist. The Supremes' success signaled more to come, and Motown Records hit its peak between 1965 and 1968, when the company held five of the top 10 spots on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 Chart.

Diana Ross and the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966.
Diana Ross and the Supremes

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