Motown: Songs, Artists & History

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore this history, development, and significance of Motown Records and the artists affiliated with them. Motown records will be placed within the context of the popular music of its era and American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

Detroit headquarters of Motown Records, now a museum

The Sound of Young America

Motown was perhaps the most important American record label during the 1960s. This achievement was particularly significant due to the fact that Motown was owned and operated by African-Americans and produced mainly African-American artists. Founded in Detroit, Michigan, Motown was famous for cultivating a sound that branded all of their artists and for bringing together a variety of talented people to produce music. Motown artists like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder represented the most popular African-American artists of the 1960s and early 1970s with audiences across racial boundaries.

Detroit in the 1960s

The 1960s were a time of simmering racial tensions, inequality, and deindustrialization in Detroit. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Detroit was one of the most important industrial centers in the United States. Detroit's economy was based on the booming auto industry which provided well paying jobs to the African-American community that migrated to Detroit from the Deep South in the 1920s and 1930s.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the auto industry began relocating to the Sun Belt and overseas in order to avoid the strong unions that had long kept auto industry wages high in Detroit. Throughout the 1960s, Detroit experienced a rapid decline in the middle class white population, as well as the municipal tax base. It also was experiencing ever-growing unemployment. Motown records came to prominence amidst this environment of decline, uncertainty, and discordant race relations.

Hitsville USA

Motown was established in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 by founder Barry Gordy Jr. Originally it was called Tamla Records, but changed to Motown Record Corporation later that year. The label would experience an outpouring of creativity over the course of the next decade and a half through its numerous subsidiary labels, artists, and producers.

The Miracles

Barry Gordy was an ambitious entrepreneur who brought many of his family members into the Motown fold to help perpetuate its success. The Miracles, led by the charismatic lead singer Smokey Robinson, earned Motown their first string of hits in the early 1960s, 'Way Over There' and 'Shop Around.' In 1962, Marvin Gaye achieved the first of many hit singles on Motown with 'Stubborn Kind of Fellow.' Gaye would prove to be one of Motown's most successful artists and even married Barry Gordy's sister Anna. The early 1960s was an era in popular music driven by hit singles rather than albums and Motown exemplified this trend.

The Supremes performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966

The Motown sound, as it came to be known, was a hybrid style of soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, and vocal jazz artists like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Gordy described his label as 'the sound of young America,' and this was fairly accurate during the first half of the 1960s. Along with their numerous successful male artists, Motown was famous for its extremely popular girl groups such as the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas. These all-female, vocal oriented groups would produce hit after hit through Motown's various imprints.

Motown in the 1970s

The British invasion led by the Beatles stole some of Motown's popular thunder in the 1960s, but Motown would experience some of its most enduring and critically acclaimed success in the late 60s and early 70s. Beginning in the late 60s, Motown gradually began to reestablish itself, like the auto industry before it, from Detroit to Los Angeles. In 1971, Marvin Gaye released one of the most significant, political, and enduring albums of the decade with 'What's Going On.' That same year, Stevie Wonder released 'Where I'm Coming From' to equal acclaim. Although Motown was perceived as a very pop-oriented, single dominated entity in the early 60s, by the mid 70s it had proven itself to be a more serious, album-producing label.

The Jackson 5 in 1974

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