Andy Welch looks back at the first 50 years of a legendary record label.
Whether you’re old enough to remember the songs first time around or heard your parents playing their records, chances are you will know and love at least one Motown song.
The legendary label celebrates its 50th anniversary today - giving fans a great opportunity to celebrate the glorious hits of artists such as Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves And The Vandellas, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Jackson Five, Mary Wells, The Four Tops and The Isley Brothers.
It all started with Berry Gordy Jr when he founded Tamla Records in 1959 – which changed its name to Motown a year later - thanks to an $800 loan from members of his family and a passion for music. The name Motown was derived from the city’s nickname as ‘Motor Town’, a reference to Detroit’s position as the hub of the American automobile industry.
After returning from the Korean War, Gordy got married and set up a record store. He also dabbled in songwriting, penning Reet Petite, among other hits, for singer Jackie Wilson.
Gordy’s real strength, however, was in producing and talent spotting.
In the years leading up to Tamla’s foundation he built up an impressive portfolio of artists, including The Miracles. In fact, it was The Miracles lead singer and Gordy’s best friend Smokey Robinson who initially encouraged him to start his own label.
He had also worked in Detroit’s Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant, and put his time there to good use.
“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car,” Gordy, now 79, reflects. “I thought ‘What a great idea!’
“Maybe I could do the same thing with music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.”
And that’s exactly how Motown worked. Behind the slick choreographed moves of The Supremes and The Temptations, or the raw emotion of Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops, was a well-oiled bank of songwriters, most notably Holland-Dozier-Holland which comprised brothers Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. The trio wrote more than 200 songs for Motown between 1962-67.
Music came courtesy of The Funk Brothers, the in-house band at Motown’s Hitsville USA studio. It’s often said that if this band of achingly talented session musicians had released all the records they played on themselves, they would have had more No 1 hits than Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones combined.
But why are we still so obsessed with the Motown sound 50 years on? Daryl Easlea, head of back catalogue at Universal Music (the company that owns Motown), thinks he knows why.
“Look at those early symphonies, He Was Really Sayin’ Something, Where Did Our Love Go? Stop In The Name Of Love etc. They are classic love songs. Those songs could mean something to the man or woman on the street in Rotherham, or the man or woman in Richmond, Virginia.”
No matter what you looked for, there was an artist to cater for all tastes.
“Diana Ross had that incredibly frail, interesting voice, not a classic singer’s voice, but so charming,” continues Daryl. Then there was Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops sounding like the most wounded man in the world.
“Marvin sang like he was everyone’s lover, and Smokey had that sweetness.”
It’s impossible to examine Motown without addressing the issue of race.
In 1960s America, black artists struggled to be heard on the radio, with many stations refusing to play their music.
As the civil rights movement gathered momentum, Motown, along with other labels such as Atlantic, Stax and Chess, provided the soundtrack.
Martha Reeve’s Dancing In The Street was adopted as an unofficial anthem, while the Vietnam War was also talked about, particularly on Marvin Gaye’s watermark album What’s Going On and, more overtly, War by Edwin Starr.
While less of an issue here in the UK, black singers weren’t substantially heard on the radio until the advent of pirate stations such as Radio Caroline in the mid-60s, where DJs like Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis championed American imports. Not surprisingly, The Beatles also played their part.
Russ Winstanley, author and himself something of a soul pioneer – he founded the world-famous Wigan Casino Allnighters that ran between 1973 and 1981 – remembers how he first heard artists such as The Supremes and The Temptations.
“I was a little bit too young to be one of the original Mods, but I really loved The Small Faces, The Who and The Beatles when I was a young lad,” he says.
“I got hold of With The Beatles, their second album, and on it were three Motown covers – You Really Got A Hold On Me, Money and Please Mr Postman.
They often mentioned black American artists like Smokey Robinson in their interviews as well, so I decided to find out what they were talking about.
“The first record I got was My Girl by The Temptations in about 1965. It was so exciting, because you didn’t know what those bands looked like until they toured or appeared on Top Of The Pops or Ready Steady Go! There was such a mystique surrounding it all.”
And what does the future hold?
Motown is much more than merely a record label, it’s a sound, a genre of music. No other record company has achieved what Berry Gordy’s baby did, and with artists like Erykah Badu, Damian Marley, Q-Tip and India.Arie releasing groundbreaking new music for the label, it’s still clearly a going concern.
* The album Motown 50, which was compiled after a public vote to find the label’s most-loved songs, is out now.