As Lisa Stansfield said in many interviews, she grew up with black music. In addition to her idol of all time, Barry White, Lisa listened to black Motown icons such as the Supremes and Marvin Gaye. Let’s see how the most important black music label changed music history forever.
Berry Gordy got his start as a songwriter for local Detroit acts such as Jackie Wilson and The Matadors. Wilson's single "Lonely Teardrops", written by Gordy, became a huge success; however, Gordy did not feel he made as much money as he deserved from this and other singles he wrote for Wilson. He realized that the real business was in producing records and owning the publishing. On January 12, 1959, he started Tamla Records, with an $800 loan from his family. Also in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Motown'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.
The success of the label was impressive. The first real hit came in 1961, and in 1964, Motown was already a national phenomenon as disruptive to undermine Billboard that, not knowing whether to classify Gordy hits under rock or rhythm & blues, decided to unify the two charts.
The Motown production process has been described as factory-like. The discs were produced by different and highly professional teams: composers (the trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, aka HDH, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Norman Whitfield), producers (including Smokey Robinson), session men, and so on. But the big hit came from the artists of the ghetto of Detroit, a crowd of unknown people who overnight became international stars.
Motown specialized in a type of soul music it referred to with the trademark "The Motown Sound". Crafted with an ear towards pop appeal, the Motown Sound typically used: tambourines to accent the back beat; prominent and often melodic electric bass-guitar lines; distinctive melodic and chord structures (i.e “I want you back”, which is the first success of the Jackson 5, dated 1969); and a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music. Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections (Gordy even made use of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra), lyrical, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used.
Gordy had established the foundation for the success of Motown for many years to come. With the Miracles, Four Tops, Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Supremes and the Temptations, he had 6 of the best vocal groups on record. Added to these groups were solo singers Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells. With himself, Mickey Stevenson, Smokey Robinson, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, he had proven songwriters and producers who knew how to make popular record hits.
Another reason for the success of the label was the ability to identify the right audience: teenagers. Berry Gordy was not interested in making culture in contemporary music: he did not care to retrace the path of Stax, intent on rewriting the history of R & B, he simply wanted to disseminate, propagate, distribute black quality music in the world.
This “assembly line” production allowed the Motown sound to place more than a hundred singles in the Top 10 U.S. number one and 31 from 1961 to 1972.
In 1972, Motown moved all of its operations to California in an effort to build on its early television success and begin to make motion pictures featuring Motown artists.
In all, Motown produced many films including the highly successful movie “The Wiz” in 1978.
The 1970s were also the era of highest mainstream visibility for funk music, and Tamla was still in the limelight, with at least three groups: Gladys Knight and the Pips, who had been one of the first groups in New Orleans Soul, The Jackson Five, led by the 12 years old prodigious Michael, and the Commodores.
At first influenced by Sly Stone, they later became the most sentimental group of the '70s, led by Lionel Richie (Three Times A Lady, 1978 , Still, 1979), who pursued this style even in his solo career (Say You Say Me 1985).
Motown was able to survive through time and have the strength not to lean on his own glory. No coincidence that the best-selling album of Motown history was “III” by Boys II Men, released forty years since the founding of the label.
Even rock and roll music, especially since the seventies had to bend to the influence of soul. For example, the Rolling Stones used the Motown songs in their repertoire for at least twenty years, and many other white artists recorded covers of Motown's biggest hits.
Berry Gordy Junior finally sold Motown Industries in 1988 for more than sixty million dollars. Motown had become the most successful record label that was owned by an Afro-American. In honor of his achievements in the music business, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
For three decades, Motown was, at first, the only major, then the most important, black-owned music company in a business dominated by white-owned record and distribution companies, and, with more than 100 Top 10 hits in its 1960s heyday, it would revolutionize American popular music forever.
By: Cristina Solenni