Monday, December 25, 2006

A Brief History of Motown Records: Born and Raised in Detroit

A History of Motown Records

Parent company
Universal Music Group
Founded January 12, 1959
Founder(s) Berry Gordy, Jr.
Distributing label Universal Motown Records Group (U.S.)
Genre(s) R&B/soul, pop music, hip hop
Country United States
Web address

Motown Records, Inc., also known as Tamla-Motown outside of the United States, is a record label originally based out of Detroit, Michigan ("Motor City"), where it achieved widespread international success. Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music as the first record label owned by an African-American and primarily featuring African-American artists to regularly achieve crossover success and have a widespread, lasting effect on the music industry.

Incorporated on January 12 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. as Tamla Records, Motown has, over the course of its history, owned or distributed releases from more than 45 subsidiaries in varying genres, although it is most famous for its releases in the musical genres of R&B, pop, and soul music. Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, and remained an independent company until 1988, when Gordy sold the company to MCA. Now headquartered in New York City, Motown Records is today a subsidiary of the Universal Motown Records Group, itself a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

In the 1960s, Motown and its soul-based subsidiaries were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, a style of soul music with distinctive characteristics, including the use of tambourine along with drums, bass instrumentation, a distinctive melodical and chord structure, and a call and response singing style originating in gospel music.


"Hitsville USA": 1959 - 1972

The Hitsville U.S.A. building in Detroit, Michigan, which served as Motown's headquaters from 1959 until 1968.

Berry Gordy, Jr. got his start as a songwriter for local Detroit acts such as Jackie Wilson and the Matadors. Wilson's single "Lonely Teardrops," cowritten by Gordy, became a huge success; however, Gordy did not feel he made as much money as he deserved. He realized that the "real money" of the business was made producing records and owning the royalties. Therefore, in 1959, he started his own record label, Tamla Records with an $800 loan from his family; his first signed act was The Matadors, who changed their name to The Miracles. Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson became the vice president of the company, and many of Gordy's family members, including his sister Gwen and his father Berry Sr., had instrumental roles in the company.

Also in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Tamla's Hitsville U.S.A. studio. The photography studio located in the back of the property was modified into a small recording studio and the Gordys moved into the second floor living quarters. Within a few years Motown would occupy several neighboring houses with administrative offices, mixing, mastering and rehearsal studios.

Among Tamla's early artists were Mabel John, Mary Wells, and Barrett Strong. Tamla's first release was Marv Johnson's "Come to Me" in 1959. The label's first hit was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" (1959), which made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts; its first #1 R&B hit was "Shop Around" by the Miracles in 1960. "Shop Around" peaked at number-two on the Billboard Hot 100, and was Motown's first million-selling record. Also in 1960, Gordy launched Motown Records as a sister label. Because of the "Motown" name's association with "Motor City" Detroit, the blanket record company under which both Motown Records and Tamla Records operated was incorporated as "Motown Record Coproration". A year later, The Marvelettes scored the label's first US #1 pop hit, "Please Mr. Postman." By the mid-1960s, the label, with the help of songwriters and producers such as Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, was a major force in the music industry.

In the 1960s (from 1961 to 1971), Motown had 110 Top 10 hits and artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, and Gladys Knight & the Pips were all signed to Motown Records. By the late 1960s the label was billing itself as "The Sound of Young America", with its acts enjoying widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.

Artist development

Artist development was a major part of Motown's operations. The acts on the Motown label were fastidiously groomed, dressed and choreographed for live performances. Motown artists were advised that their breakthrough into the white popular music market made them ambassadors for other African-American artists seeking broad market acceptance, and that they should think, act, walk and talk like royalty, so as to alter the less-than-dignified image (commonly held by white Americans in that era) of black musicians. Given that many of the talented young artists had been raised in housing projects and were short on social and dress skills, this Motown department was not only necessary, it created an elegant style of presentation long associated with the label.

Many of the young artists participated in an annual package tour called the "Motortown Revue", which was popular first on the "chitlin circuit", and later around the world. The tours gave the younger singers a chance to hone their performance and social skills and also to learn from more experienced artists.

Production process

Motown's music was crafted with the same eye towards pop appeal. Berry Gordy used weekly quality control meetings and veto power to ensure that only the very best material and performances the company came up with would be released. The test was that every new release needed to "fit" into a sequence of the top 5 selling pop singles of the week. Many of Motown's most well known songs, such as all of the early hits for The Supremes, were written by the songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. Other important producers and songwriters at Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio and headquarters included Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson, Motown artists Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and Gordy himself.

The many artists and producers of Motown Records collaborated to produce numerous hit songs, although the process has been described as factory-like (such as the Brill Building). The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day, and artists would often be on tour for weeks, come back to Detroit to record as many songs as possible, and then promptly set back out on tour again.

The Funk Brothers

In addition to the songwriting prowess of the above individuals, one of the major factors in the widespread appeal of Motown's music was Gordy's practice of using a highly select and tight-knit group of studio musicians, collectively known as "The Funk Brothers", to record the instrumental or "band" tracks of the Motown songs. Among the studio musicians responsible for the "Motown Sound" were Johnny Griffith and Joe Hunter on piano, Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis on guitar, Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Jack Ashford on percussion, Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen on drums, drummer Benny Benjamin, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, and bassist James Jamerson. The band's career and work is chronicled in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

"Hitsville West" 1972 - 1998

After Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label in 1967 over royalty payment disputes, the quality of the Motown output began to decline, as well as the frequency with which its artists scored #1 hits. Even so, Motown still had a number of successful artists during the 1970s and 1980s, including Lionel Richie and The Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie and DeBarge. Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 and attempted to branch out into the motion picture industry, turning out films such as Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, The Wiz, Thank God It's Friday and The Last Dragon. By the mid-1980s, Motown was losing money, and Berry Gordy sold his ownership in Motown to Music Corporation of America (MCA) and Boston Ventures in June 1988 for $61 million.

During the 1990s, Motown was home to successful recording artists such as Boyz II Men and ex-New Edition member Johnny Gill, although the comapny itself remained in a state of turmoil. A revolving door of executives were appointed by MCA to run the company, beginning with Berry Gordy's immediate successor, Jheryl Busby. Busby quarreled with MCA, alledging that the company did not give Motown's product adequate attention or promotion. In 1991, Motown sued MCA to have its distribution deal with the company terminated, and began relasing its product through PolyGram.

Polygram purchased Motown from Boston Ventures three years later. In 1994, Busby was replaced by Andre Harrell, the entrepreneur behind Uptown Records. Harrell served as Motown's CEO for just under two years, leaving the comapny after receiving bad publicity for being inefficient. Danny Goldberg, who ran PolyGram's Mercury Records group, assumed control of Motown, and George Jackson served as president.

Universal/Motown: 1999 - present

By 1998, Motown had added stars such as 702, Brian McKnight, and Erykah Badu to its roster. In December of 1998, PolyGram was aquired by Seagram, and Motown was folded into the Universal Music Group. Universal briefly considered shuttering the floundering label, but instead decided to restucture it. Kedar Massenburg, a producer for Erykah Badu, became the head of the label, and oversaw successful recordings from Badu, McKnight, Michael McDonald, and new Motown artist India.Arie. In 2005, Massenburg was replaced by Sylvia Rhone, former CEO of Elektra Records. Motown was merged with Universal Records to create the Universal Motown Records Group, an umbrella division of Universal Music which oversees the releases and catalogs for Motown, Universal, Blackground, Republic, Cash Money, Casablanca, and other labels.

Motown's current roster includes R&B singers India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Mýa, Kem, and Yummy Bingham; pop singer Lindsay Lohan; reggae singers Damian and Stephen Marley; and rappers Trick Trick and Nick Cannon. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and The Temptations had remained with the label since its early days (although both Ross and the Temptations each briefly recorded for other labels for several years). Ross and Robinson left the label in 1999, and the Temptations in 2004. Wonder is today the only artist from Motown's "classic" period still on the label.

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