By Jennifer Young
Operating today under the Universal Motown Records label, Motown was founded in Detroit by auto assembly worker, store owner, and musician Berry Gordy in 1960. ‘Hitsville,’ as the company would be dubbed, was located in a two-story house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. As an African-American owned and operated company, Motown achieved a level of success that crossed over into mainstream America at a time when the racial divide was a deep chasm that few entrepreneurs managed to bridge.
Berry Gordy was born in Detroit to a family that ventured north from Georgia to find work in the industry-rich cities of the upper midwest. As an adult, Gordy opened a jazz record store but preferred making records to selling them. After co-writing a few hit songs, Gordy was still on the music business fringe. Though he may not have known it, his fortunes were about to rise when he met a young Smokey Robinson in 1957. With Robinson’s urging, Gordy launched Motown and Robinson penned and performed its first smash hit “Shop Around” in 1960.
From 1960 to 1970, Gordy’s little record company dominated music charts with hit after hit after hit. He mined Detroit’s black music scene and put together a house band collectively known as the Funk Brothers that included club musicians like Uriel Jones, James Jamerson, and Earl Van Dyke. He also assembled a team of songwriters (Ashford and Simpson) and producers that would form the backbone of the company. These players produced music that was soulful and rich but also had the doo-wop style that listeners could groove and sing along to.
For a crash course in Motown, listen to songs like these Motown greats:
“Stop in the Name of Love”
“Tracks of My Tears”
“Dancing in the Street”
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
“Three Times a Lady”
“Just My Imagination”
Gordy, who had previously worked a short stint in an auto assembly factory, applied some assembly-line methods for creating hit music with a robust emphasis on quality control. If the music didn’t pass muster with him, it didn’t get released. He also relied on the city’s wealth of musicians to find his performers. Arguably the most successful singing group out of Motown, the all-girl group known as The Supremes, walked into the studio on Grand Boulevard from Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects.
Motown owned the mainstream airwaves and performing venues, and Gordy created a network that not only polished the music coming out of his studio, but also the performers themselves. For The Supremes, that meant lessons in social graces—Gordy’s finishing school of sorts. He also had chaperones escort the women when they toured. Gordy did much the same for other Motown acts, ensuring they represented Motown in a manner that would command respect and acclaim both in the US and abroad.
Motown launched some of the biggest acts and performers in music history: Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Temptations, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Rick James, and the Commodores. While the record company achieved its greatest success in the 1960s, it continued to be a major force in the music business during the 70s with hits from Marvin Gaye (”What’s Goin’ On”) and Diana Ross (”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”).
In the early 1970s, Gordy decided to move his company’s headquarters to Los Angeles in 1972. The move made it easier for Gordy to move into film where he achieved success with cinematic hits like Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross.
By the 1980s, with conglomerates taking over his music business, Gordy sold Motown to MCA. MCA then sold the label to Polygram, which then sold it to Universal. Motown still operates under a conglomerate umbrella, but it no longer has that famous Berry Gordy Jr touch that blends soul, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and pop into audio candy.