On January 12, 1959, a music industry juggernaut was created with only $800. Barry Gordy, a struggling songwriter and featherweight boxer at the time, was urged to start a record label by good friend and future Motown heavy hitter Smokey Robinson. He borrowed the money from his family, and one of the most influential record labels was born. It was a small label owned and controlled solely by African Americans, and the most important black owned labels of all time. This was in stark contrast to the major white owned labels that were prevalent at the time. Berry Gordy was an astute entrepreneur who had a keen business sense. He also had an ear for talent and an eye for a star. Shelly Berger, manager of The Supremes and The Temptations, describes his charisma: “Berry Gordy is a leader. Berry Gordy can get people to follow him. He’s got charisma to burn. When Berry Gordy wants to get you, you are got. I don’t care if you come in with a white hood on, you are got.”
Motown produced music that was not considered traditional R&B of the time. There wasn’t a twelve bar blues pattern in sight. In its place was a gospel influenced pop-structured brand of music that would come to be known as the “Motown sound.” Gordy manufactured hits that would appeal to a wide audience without “selling out” or sounding like traditional “black music.” In the humble house-turned- headquarters of Hitsville USA, some of the most talented individuals in the industry cranked out strings of hits. Gordy ran Motown and his employees with military precision. Songs were written for the artists by the powerhouse team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. Acts were taught dance steps by choreographer, Cholly Atkins. They were preened and groomed for the stage by Maxine Powell, and had arguably the most talented house band, The Funk Brothers, play on their records. Artists at Motown were packaged into hit making machines. Artists on the roster included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores, The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5 to name a few. While Motown retained a family-like atmosphere, everyone had to stay on top of their game to keep up with the tough competition. The “Hitsville USA” sign that proudly hangs over 2648 W. Grand Blvd., has earned its bragging rights.
The Motown sound was becoming more and more popular, and by 1966, every three out of four releases made it onto the charts. Led by Mary Wells in 1964 with “My Guy” written by Smokey Robinson, numerous number ones, thirty-two in the next ten years, followed.
Berry Gordy moved Motown’s headquarters to Los Angeles in 1971. By 1988, Gordy was financially drained and sold Motown to MCA Records for $61 million. Polygram bought it five years later for $325 million. In 1997, Berry Gordy sold half of his publishing arm to EMI for $132 million and in 2004 sold the other half to EMI for a combined $188 million. Motown is still in existence, but operated under Universal Music Group. However, Motown’s glory days are unlikely to be duplicated. The caliber of success Motown enjoyed in the 60s stemmed from hard work, dedication, stunning talent, perfect timing, and maybe even some luck. To this day, Berry Gordy’s Motown remains one of the most recognizable and successful independent labels, and the Motown sound will live on through its amazing music.
Waterman, Christopher. “Good Vibrations.” American Popular Music. By Larry Starr. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. 246-49.