On January 12, 1959, 29-year-old high school dropout Berry Gordy invested $800 borrowed from his family into a new business venture. After stints as a boxer and failed record shop-owner, a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Korea (during which his duties included playing the organ at religious services) and a job on the assembly line at the Detroit Ford Lincoln-Mercury car plant, Gordy had tried his hand at songwriting… and now, he explained to his parents and seven siblings, he needed the money to start his own record company.
Sixty-five years later, the Motown Record Corporation is recognized as perhaps the most important and influential record label in history – and Berry Gordy, now 94, can justifiably be said to be amongst the most significant musical figures of the twentieth century.
Motown revolutionized the music industry – in both content and execution. It brought us Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, Edwin Starr, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips… and a host of other artists who sprang seemingly out of nowhere to find huge success on the label.
Its catalogue remains unrivalled. From “Baby Love” to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, from “Dancing in the Street” to “What’s Going On?”, from “My Guy” to “I Want You Back”, from “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” to “Living for the City”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, “Where Did Our Love Go?”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Money”, “Do You Love Me”, “The Tracks Of My Tears”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”… the list is almost endless, and even six decades after many of them were written, those songs still hold an irresistible power, pathos and pull for music lovers – and music makers – today.
During the 1960s alone, Motown released 535 singles in the U.S. – 357 of them charted, 79 made the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and 21 hit the No. 1 spot. By 1965, just six years after that initial $800 investment, the label was the richest corporation in Black-American history.
If it’s an extraordinary achievement, it's so much more so when one considers Gordy’s initial ambitions for a career in showbiz. All he wanted, he said, “was to make some money, make some music and get some girls”.
Motown – originally called Tamla Records (after the Debbie Reynolds song “Tammy”; the label’s later British releases were under the brand Tamla Motown) – may have been registered as an official business on January 12, 1959, but in a very real sense, the story began two years earlier, with another two men who would become legends in their own right.
During his time at the Lincoln-Mercury car plant, Gordy had met local singer Jackie Wilson, and, keen to break into the music business, offered his services as a songwriter. On paper at least, the results were spectacular. Gordy penned the hits “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” for Wilson – the former made the British Top 10 in 1957, the latter charted at No. 7 in the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the R&B charts the following year.
The same year he met Wilson, Gordy also encountered a 17-year-old named William Robinson Jr. – who performed with his group the Matadors under the stage name “Smokey”. Despite his tender age, Robinson had a notebook crammed with 100 songs he had written while still in high school; if Gordy was smitten by the younger man’s soulful voice and stage presence, he was blown away by the ambition of his songwriting.
The two men duly teamed up to produce Smokey Robinson and the (renamed) Miracles’ first single, “Got a Job”… but, just as had been the case with “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops”, the financial returns were negligible.
According to one story, the royalty cheque for “Got a Job” was a paltry $3.19 – and Robinson reportedly told Gordy, “You might as well start your own record label; I don’t think you could do any worse than this.”
Simply writing hit songs was no way to make money. The key was to control their production, publishing and distribution – and that meant releasing them through your own company. Gordy took Robinson’s advice at face value: Tamla Records was registered on January 12, 1959 and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation (after the local nickname for Detroit, “motor town”) on April 14 the following year.
Smokey Robinson remained a key part of the business, both in front of and behind the microphone, and in 1962 became vice-president of the company. The Miracles were to be Motown’s first million-selling recording artists, and through the 1960s, Robinson would produce 26 top 40 hit singles with the band as singer, songwriter and producer, including “I Second That Emotion" and “Tears of a Clown”. Between 1962 and 1966 he would also write and produce a slew of hits for other Motown artists, including Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” the Temptations’ “My Girl” and Marvin Gaye’s first two million-sellers “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
He was also arguably Gordy’s closest ally. Speaking to the Telegraph in 2016, Gordy said: “Really, Smokey is the soul of Motown… He started right away writing great stuff. His lyrics were so meaningful; he would write songs, even ones that didn’t become big hits, that I just loved.”
Robinson would later name his children Berry and Tamla.
If owning a record company was the key to making money out of pop music, it wasn’t the be all and end all. For the first six months of Tamla Records’ existence, Gordy and Robinson were forced to hire out other Detroit-based studios to record and produce their songs; seeing this as an unnecessary drain on the meagre resources, in the summer of 1959 Gordy bought a photography studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in a rundown part of Detroit and converted the main floor into a recording studio. The kitchen was the control room; Gordy and his wife lived upstairs. Just in case there was any doubting the scale of his ambitions, he hung a sign above the door. It read: “Hitsville U.S.A.”
“The ‘Hitsville’ sign over the door let it be known that if you set foot inside you were expected to sing, dance, write, produce, sell or manage,” Gordy explained in his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved. “That name kept our mission in focus.”
Motown’s vision and ethos was clear from the start. Gordy had already proven he had the ability to create hit songs himself – and in Smokey Robinson had a right-hand man who was not only a gifted writer but also a sublime singer. The next stage was nothing less than a reinvention of just how record labels operated.
Young talent was recruited from around Detroit and nurtured in Hitsville U.S.A.’s hothouse. Gordy did not only seek out singers – he was after the whole package: writers, producers, musicians, choreographers… even teachers of elocution and deportment.
This idea of record label as a literal “hit factory” had come from his time at the Lincoln-Mercury plant. “I wanted to have a kid off the street walk in one door unknown and come out another door a star, like an assembly line; that was my dream,” he later explained. “My family said, that’s stupid. Those are cars. You can’t do that with human beings. I said, well it’s the same thing – the artists come in and you have one group writing the songs and producing them, then somebody else works on their stage performance and so on. People would say, well, that’s never been done before. Well, maybe that’s the reason we should do it!”
Unsophisticated singers – many of them kids who had grown up in some of Detroit’s most deprived areas – were not only schooled in how to perform the songs that were being written for them, but also how to do so in a way that would transcend race and class barriers. An “Artists Development” department taught elocution and social manners; and stagecraft and choreography lessons – including the tight, simple, but perfectly synchronized moves perfected by performers like the Supremes and the Temptations – were given by legendary vaudeville dancer and choreographer Charles “Cholly” Atkins.
It was a slick, and supremely successful, operation. “I worked in the Ford factory before the record business and I thought: why can’t we do that for the creative process?” Gordy wrote in To Be Loved. “At the plant the cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line – brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records.”
From this intense atmosphere, a new kind of sound blossomed. Driven by Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers, hand-picked from Detroit’s most happening clubs, the music was an original and innovative blend of soul, gospel, jazz, R&B and pop, underpinned by thumping backbeats, handclaps and driving rhythms, and lifted by soaring strings and deceptively simple melodies. It was at once beautiful and highly infectious: music to dance to, and music to lift you up or break your heart.
It was also music capable of crossing the racial divide and into the mainstream, with lyrical themes of love, loss, happiness and heartbreak relatable to all audiences, black and white. It set a template that continues over half a century later; and Gordy, ever one for a killer phrase, declared it: “The sound of young America”.
The Funk Brothers were joined by other now-legendary writers and producers, most notably Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, whose hits included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and the label’s most successful team, Holland-Dozier-Holland.
That trio would write 28 U.S. Top 10 hits for Motown in just five years, including 10 of the Supremes’ 12 U.S. No. 1’s, before quitting the label in 1968 in a dispute over royalties.
It did not take long for this explosion of ideas and talent to deliver its first chart-topper, 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman”, by teen girl group The Marvelettes. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in 2011, band member Katherine Anderson remembered the passionately creative, no-fear atmosphere that existed at Hitsville, U.S.A.
“Once we were back at Motown to audition the song, the producers and musicians there started to fool around with it,” she said. “They increased the tempo, added a new beat and made it more up to date. Everyone wanted to add their mark to the song. We were just teens and too young to know that someone could take a song and add words. Someone at Motown added the line, ‘Deliver the letter, the sooner the better.’ We sang the song acapella, and they loved it. Motown gave us contracts to take home for our parents to sign.”
Further No. 1s soon followed, and by the mid-sixties Gordy’s musical revolution was in full swing. But, perhaps ironically for such an intensely local enterprise, Motown’s transformation from successful Detroit-based independent label to global juggernaut would come courtesy of the British.
In the spring of 1964, Mary Wells’ “My Guy” became Motown’s third U.S. No. 1 and their first major British hit. Gordy seized the opportunity to launch his own “British Invasion”, in direct response to the Beatles’ conquest of America a few months before.
In October of that year, Mary Wells, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha and the Vandellas all crossed the Atlantic to play in the UK – and the British audiences went wild. Following the Supremes’ debut appearance on Top of the Pops, “Baby Love” gave the label its first U.K. chart-topper.
Once again, Gordy didn’t wait for an invitation to success. Within months he was back in London with “The Motortown Revue”, before embarking on a breathless two-month tour of the UK and Europe that included two shows a night, plus a live TV special on Ready Steady Go!. Audiences were treated to a line-up that now seems all-but unbelievable: Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder (still just 14 years old), and headliners The Supremes, all backed by the Funk Brothers.
Crucially, the British audiences also seemed oblivious to the racial tensions which at that time were paralyzing America.
Prior to their UK tour, the Motortown Revue had toured the southern states of the U.S., where they were forced to play to segregated audiences – at their British shows, the audiences were not only mixed, but apparently had no issues with dancing together, regardless of skin color.
“It was a beautiful feeling, when we were so full of hate and anger and everybody was so full of unrest, that we saw people actually join together, get out of their cars and dance to a song [like ‘Dancing In The Street’] that meant we should rejoice,” Martha Reeves of the Vandellas recalled in Susan Whitall’s book, Women Of Motown. “The Motown sound was a very big influence in the civil rights movement. It was not that we marched or paraded; we just promoted it through love.”
In Motown’s early days, Gordy had sought to deliberately play down the idea of the label as a “Black” record company, with album covers often even failing to feature the faces of the performers. After the example of the British tour, however, he was convinced that above all else, it would be the songs themselves that mattered most.
“I refused to be categorized,” he wrote in To Be Loved. “They called my music all kinds of stuff: Rhythm and Blues, Soul. And I said, ‘Look, my music is Pop. Pop means popular. If you sell a million records, you’re popular.’ And that’s what we did. White stations in Detroit and then white stations everywhere started playing our records. Our music became the soundtrack of people’s lives for people all around the world.”
During a time of huge racial tensions, the civil rights movement, police brutality, riots in major cities across the U.S. and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the music of Motown stood as a unifying force, a source of joy and beauty loved by black and white teenagers alike.
By 1967 – the same year that Detroit experienced the worst riots in America since the Civil War, in which 43 (mainly Black people) died, over 1,000 were injured and more than 400 buildings were destroyed – Motown had become not only the most successful Black-owned business in the country, but arguably the most exciting record label in the world.
Smokey Robinson later described the importance of Motown in breaking down barriers in a 2009 interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. “Into the 1960s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history,” he said. “But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.”
In September 1967, just two months after the city was ripped apart by the riots, Fortune magazine ran a feature titled: “The Motown Sound of Money”, in which it attributed what it called “today’s most significant cultural phenomenon… and a communication link between generations” to “Gordy’s ability to build and direct a highly sophisticated enterprise… to release hit records almost as a matter of course, and to do the job in a firm, businesslike manner without interfering with the creative flow.”
Things would only get bigger. In 1969, a new group came to Motown. The Jackson 5 were brothers from Gary, Indiana, managed by their father and fronted by the youngest sibling, 10-year-old Michael. Although Gordy had first been offered the group in 1968, he initially rejected them as just another “kid act”, before finally allowing them an audition. The song they chose to sing was Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You”.
“Smokey had written that from his own pain and creativity, and Michael sang it better than Smokey,” Gordy later told the Telegraph. “It was just amazing. A 10-year-old kid!”
If The Supremes had been Motown’s first superstar group, the Jackson 5 – and Michael in particular – would eclipse even their success. Gordy dedicated a whole team of writers, nicknamed “The Corporation”, to work exclusively on Jacksons material and sent the group to Hollywood to be mentored by Diana Ross.
What happened next was unprecedented. The Jackson 5’s first four singles, “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” all shot to No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 – the first time any group had made such an achievement. Additionally, their first three albums all made the Top 5; the second and third each spent a full year in the charts.
Ironically, the phenomenal success of the Jackson 5 would also spell the beginning of the end of Motown’s – or at least Gordy’s – dominance over the music industry.
In 1972, partly with a view to securing the Jackson 5 and Diana Ross opportunities in movies and television, Gordy quit Detroit, moving the entire Motown operation to Los Angeles. In doing so he left behind a number of artists who had been crucial to the label’s early success, including Martha Reeves, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, along with several members of the Funk Brothers. Holland-Dozier-Holland had already quit acrimoniously, and other big-name acts including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had begun demanding the freedom to write and produce their own material away from Gordy’s patented production line approach.
According to A&M Records executive John McClain, Gordy’s abandonment of hometown Hitsville U.S.A. for the bright lights of Hollywood was a fatal mistake. "Something happened when [Motown] left Detroit and came to [Los Angeles]," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They quit being innovators and started following trends. Before, Berry had a much more hands-on approach. And maybe you lose some of your desire after you get to a certain level financially."
Although the label continued to enjoy successes in the 1970s and early '80s with acts including Lionel Richie and the Commodores and Rick “Superfreak” James, the magic had faded. Through the following years, many of its superstar acts quit Motown altogether.
In 1975 the Jackson 5 left to sign for Epic Records (renaming themselves the Jacksons), and in 1977 the Temptations joined Atlantic. in 1981 Diana Ross took a $20 million deal at RCA; a year later Marvin Gaye signed with CBS.
There were still moments of sublimity: many of the former acts, including Gaye, Diana Ross, the Temptations and the Four Tops, reunited to perform at the 25th anniversary TV special “Motown 25” broadcast in 1983; it was also during this celebration that Michael Jackson briefly returned to the label in superlative style, debuting his moonwalk during a performance of “Billie Jean.”
Nostalgia was not enough, however. Finally, in 1988, after falling out of fashion with youth trends and struggling to keep pace with changes in the industry as a whole, Berry Gordy finally bowed out of the music business, selling Motown, the label he had started with just $800, for $61 million to MCA Records and an investment company. Even that deal was an eventual disappointment: five years later, Polygram would purchase Motown for a cool $301 million.
The label would continue to exist, in name at least – and still does today, as a subsidiary of Capitol Records – but it is for that brief, bright explosion of creativity and brilliance in the ‘60s and early ‘70s for which it will always be cherished.
Hitsville U.S.A. at 2648 West Grand Boulevard is now a museum, with the downstairs studio preserved as it was when a production line of stars was created six decades ago, and in 2013, a Broadway production, Motown the Musical, recreated the magic of the label’s heyday for a new audience.
“Motown is almost more alive as an entity than it ever was before,” British producer of the musical Adam Spiegel told the BBC in 2019. “Its legacy is very apparent – this is music that’s played at every wedding, and in every shop and restaurant – and there are also millions of young people discovering its songs every day.
“It doesn’t matter where you go in the world; if you say the word ‘Motown,’ people instinctively smile. There are almost no words that trigger the same international emotional response.”
The last word must go to the man who had the first word. In his autobiography, Berry Gordy summed up the enduring power of the music he created.
“Despite the hostility and racism we faced, we knew we were bringing joy to people. The audiences were segregated. The venues had a rope down the middle of the audience separating blacks from whites, but soon the rope was gone and Black kids and white kids were dancing together to the same music. It created a bond that echoed throughout the world.”