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The Ultimate Guide to Motown

An in-depth look at the Motown label, music, artists and history


The Ultimate Guide to Motown

The classic Motown logo

Hitsville U.S.A., as the Motown label liked to refer to its operation, wasn't just the creator of the famous Motown Sound, the Sound of Young America, or, as it's known in England, Tamla/Motown. The Motown empire -- which did indeed include the Tamla labels, and many others -- was the first to successfully introduce black music to American pop radio on a consistent basis, and also the first to graft the mass-production "assembly line" ethos of its native town, Detroit, to the pop music industry. The result was a pop-soul hybrid that produced an amazing number of classic hits.

Roots of Motown

That sound developed simultaneously with soul music, although Motown was a poppier and more mainstream version of that new trend. Motown started like most other labels did in the early Sixties -- making hardcore R&B music and slowly taking advantage of the girl-group craze (which Motown helped invent).
  • Fifties R&B Rhythm and blues, having left behind the pejorative "race" ghettoization and crossed over to help create rock and roll, was, by the end of the decade, moving towards pop.
  • What Is Soul Music? Soul, on the other hand, was the melding of gospel with R&B, a more urgent combination that gave "black" music in America greater urgency.
  • Girl Group Music and Artists FAQ The girl group phenomenon, like soul, was midwifed by Motown. But long after the fad had passed, Berry Gordy's female talent was launching hit after hit into the pop charts.

The Beginning

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, began his label in a small, nondescript house on Detroit's Grand Avenue, assembling a band of local jazz musicians into what would become known as the Funk Brothers, and recording them in his basement. But there was no shortage of talent to put before the mic, either, as he soon proved.

The Breakout

By writing tightly crafted pop songs based on the R&B and soul of the day, the Motown team made stars out of some of their earliest signings; before long, Gordy's vision of elegant, professional, polite and choreographed young men and women had begun to take the still-restricted world of AM radio and television by storm.

The Visionaries

After a full decade of success, it was no wonder that Berry Gordy wanted to keep the formula he'd launched an empire with. But several of his more talented artists and producers had a new vision, one that kept up with the ever more turbulent times. And, oddly enough, their individual visions began to set a new benchmark for pop and soul.
  • Marvin Gaye He began as the label's first sex symbol, but later became its finest social spokesman, not to mention a jazz-soul pioneer.
  • Stevie Wonder Hired as a child prodigy who played one instrument, Stevie became a man at Motown -- and then insisted on creative control in order to show R&B its future.
  • The Four Tops In the late Sixties, this quartet used the phenomenal voice of their leader to create a near-classical blend of dramatic soul.
  • The Temptations Under the guiding hand of producer Norman Whitfield, the Temps created and defined "psychedelic soul" that cast a harsh eye on their surroundings.

The Legacy

A half-century on, Gordy no longer owns his label, and most of his stars have ended their careers. But the music never went out of fashion, and it periodically keeps popping its head back into the mainstream to remind us just how influential and unique the "Motown Sound" really was in music history.
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