America’s Music History: The Motown Era
In America’s music history, there may not be a more distinguished and influential era of music than the Motown Era. Originating with Berry Gordy’s small Tamla Records, Motown Records soon grew to be a music industry powerhouse featuring stars such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and even a young Michael Jackson in the Jackson 5. With so many music legends, Motown has often been considered one of the greatest labels of all time. So what exactly was it about the Motown sound that made it so successful? And how could such a successful label eventually fall apart? We’ll explore both of these questions and more in the article below.
The Birth of the Motown Era
The beginning of the Motown Era officially began on January 21, 1959, when producer Berry Gordy received an $800 loan from a family savings fund. Gordy, who had just recently released 2 Miracle’s singles for a royalty check of only $3.19, felt record companies kept manipulating producers and artists. So, tired of being taken advantage of, Gordy decided to start his own record company in Detroit under the premise that anyone off the street could walk in, record and walk out a star.
Gordy’s first release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” which quickly landed in the Top 30 on the national charts. Although “Come to Me” was a success, Motown Records first major hit wasn’t until 1961 with The Marvelettes’s “Please Mr. Postman” which earned the number 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100. By then, Motown Records had already signed a number of future music legends, such as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder.
The signing of Stevie Wonder is not only a historic part of music history, but also marks a turning point in the Motown Era itself. At the time of his signing, Stevie Wonder was a blind 11-year-old brought in to the studio by The Miracle’s Ronnie White. With Berry Gordy being confused as to why a kid is in the studio, Wonder quickly shows off his musical talents to the astonished producer, who then quickly contacts Wonder’s mother with hopes of signing the young boy. As the legend goes, Wonder’s mother eventually allows her son to sign to Motown Records, starting the illustrious career of an artist who provided countless hits to Motown Records and a crucial component of the Motown sound.
The Motown Sound
Being a small label that spawned 79 top 10 records on the Billboard Top 100 chart in the 60s alone, musicians and music scholars have long been curious as to what it is about the Motown sound that makes it so popular and successful. Essentially, the Motown sound is considered soul music designed for pop radio and features a simple chord-progression alongside funky drums and a melodic, heavy bass line. If this sounds simple, it may be due to the primary philosophy of the Motown producers, which was KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The Motown sound is also largely influenced by Chicago Blues musicians as many of the Motown players idolized the playing of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf.
That said, it is important to note that the authentic Motown sound is not merely pop-soul music (or even soul music with heavy emphasis on bass and drums) as after Motown’s success many other producers attempted, and failed, to mimicked their sound. Instead, musicians, producers and even music lovers swear that the Motown sound is almost a spiritual combination between Detroit and the Motown musicians – primarily The Funk Brothers, who were Motown’s legendary sessions musicians.
Important Artists of the Motown Era
Diana Ross – Initially signing with Motown as the lead singer of the Supremes, Diana Ross released a pivotal Motown album in 1970, Diana Ross, as well as the #1 hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Stevie Wonder – As mentioned above, Stevie Wonder signed to Motown at the age of 11 and has gone on to be one of Motown’s most successful artists with 30 top 10 U.S. hits, 25 Grammy awards and over 100 million records sold.
The Temptations – Featuring members of two former Detroit singing groups, The Temptations signed with Motown in 1961, making them one of the first and most acclaimed artists on the label. Still performing to this day, the Temptations have earned 14 R&B singles and are largely considered one of the greatest bands of the Motown era.
The Jackson 5 – Signed in 1969, the Jackson 5 soon became the Motown’s focus band with much of their marketing money being given to add to the “Jackson mania” permeating through America at the time. Yet by 1975, the group’s popularity declined and they removed themselves from the Motown label, especially considering the younger Michael’s growing success.
The End of Motown
With much of Motown’s success peaking in the 60, 70s and 80s, the Motown sound eventually faded as more focus was placed on the fast rising rock and hip hop scenes. With popularity on the decline, the Motown label was eventually bought out and included as apart of Universal Music Group. Despite the decline in popularity, the Motown sound continues to inspire modern artists and producers, particularly in today’s hip hop, R&B and rap music. Modern songs sampling Motown include:
• “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (Sampled “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye)
• “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” by Jay Z (Sampled “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5)
• “Love Me Not” by J. Cole (Sampled “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder)
• “I” by Lil Wayne (Sampled “I Can’t Get Next to You” by The Temptations)
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Image source:: http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/motown.jpg