With an $800 loan from his family and a roster of unknown young Detroit singers, former record shop owner Berry Gordy Jnr (pictured below) started what he intended to be a small, inner-city recording company.
From the time of the company’s inception in 1958 to its sale 30 years later, Gordy and his Motown Record Company (short for “Motor City” – the nickname for Detroit) made an impression on American music that has remained unequalled.
Motown, with its sister label Tamla, was based at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
Gordy said his dream was for a hit factory “shaped by principles I learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line” in Detroit where he worked as a car upholstery trimmer for $85 a week.
Marv Johnson’s song Come To Me was the label’s first release, issued as Tamla 101 before being picked up by major label United Artists and hitting #30 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The first Motown million-seller came on 12 February 1961 with The Miracles‘ Shop Around.
The label scored its first US #1 on 10 December that year with The Marvelettes (pictured at right) debut single Please Mr Postman.
The “Motown sound” is something nobody has ever adequately defined, even Gordy himself. Actually, in its heyday, a Motown record was immediately definable when heard on the radio.
Simple melodies that were easy to sing along with, usually with a gospel-flavoured tune augmented by handclaps, finger snaps or tambourine with a strong, rhythmic bass line.
Heavy emphasis was placed on percussion, and the sound was sweetened by violins, chimes and guitars. This was all accomplished by Motown’s in-house band, Earl Van Dyke & The Funk Brothers.
The contributions of bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin are now legendary, and they alone provided the backbeats to all of the 60s Motown hits.
Add to this the talents of some exceptional Motown singers and musicians, most of whom were recruited straight from the Detroit ghettoes: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops.
Under Gordy’s supervision, they all amassed a string of hits that made them international superstars.
In the 1960s, Motown boasted a 75% success rate of its single releases and during the mid to late 60s they sold more singles than any other record company. It was also the largest black-owned corporation in America.
The incredible talents of the songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland were responsible for dozens of hits for the label.
The trio eventually set up their own label, Invictus, following a long legal battle with Motown.
Relocating from Detroit to the West Coast in the early 70s took its toll, as Motown’s trademark sound could not be duplicated accurately elsewhere.
Motown ceased to be an independent record label in 1988 when Gordy sold the company to MCA which, in turn, sold it on to PolyGram in 1993. It is now owned by the Universal Music Group and is based in New York.
The little row of houses where this music was created on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit is now the Motown Museum, still managed by the Gordy family.