Column: Motown legacy remains strong 60 years later

Berry Gordy transformed pop music and the image of African Americans with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and others.
Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, attends the Ebony Power 100 Gala in 2013 in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, attends the Ebony Power 100 Gala in 2013 in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Published January 11

“I need money” is a line from the chorus of Motown’s first big hit, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”. We can imagine Berry Gordy echoing that theme when he asked his family for the $800 loan that he would use to create Tamla Records on Jan. 12, 1959, which became Motown a year later.

It was from these humble roots 60 years ago that Gordy founded the most recognizable African American brand of the 20th century. Years before terms like crowdfunding and venture capital came into vogue, Gordy created a black-owned startup that transformed the sound of American pop music and impacted the image of African Americans throughout the globe.

Diana Ross, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five are iconic figures whose music lives on in just about every retail and commercial venue with a Spotify account. That’s a far cry from the early days of Motown, when largely forgotten acts like Marv Johnson, The Satintones and The Twistin’ Kings filled the roster.

When he launched his label, Gordy’s challenge was two-fold: he needed good music -- songwriters, musicians and artists to create that music; and he needed to somehow mainstream black culture to American audiences at a time of civil unrest.

He drew inspiration, in part, from a generation of American immigrants like Atlantic Records’ co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records, who built their enterprises largely on the success of black R&B and blues musicians like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.

Gordy looked for talent locally, finding The Primes, The Distants (The Temptations) and the Primettes (The Supremes) in Detroit’s public housing. In another Detroit native, William “Smokey” Robinson, Gordy found a man with a way with words and pretty falsetto voice who sang lead for one of the Motown’s most successful groups, The Miracles, and penned Motown’s most well-known song, “My Girl,” for The Temptations.

And then there were The Funk Brothers, hard-bop musicians who made their living laying down tracks at Motown’s Hitsville, USA headquarters.

Having spent time on the Ford plant assembly lines, Gordy was also attentive to issues of design and presentation. For Gordy that meant Motown’s artists needed to exhibit what Andre Harrell would later term “High Negro Style.” That’s why The Supremes, for example, were fitted with Bob Mackie original clothing; they wore Mackie gowns when they had an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 1968. In addition, virtually every Motown artist spent time learning etiquette from Maxine Powell, who owned a local finishing school and modeling agency.

In those same sleek automobiles that Detroit produced, Gordy found the technology that would transform his label. Though transistor radio had been standard in many cars since the 1950s, it was with the introduction of the Ford Mustang in 1964 that car culture connected with American youth culture. Part of Gordy’s genius was to produce music perfectly pitched for the car radio; if Motown was, as Gordy branded it, “The Sound of Young America,” that sound could be heard in automobiles throughout the summer of 1964. With songs like “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha & the Vandellas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by The Supremes (their first song to top the pop charts) and “My Girl,” 1964 was the year that Motown broke through.

Gordy was careful to steer clear of overtly political stances during the Civil Rights Movement, although he did have to foresight to record and release Martin Luther King’s “Great March to Freedom” speech from June 1963. Motown held enough gravitas that when Dr. King was assassinated, The Supremes broke from their schedule to appear on “The Tonight Show” to sing “Somewhere” and talk about King’s death.

The power of Motown’s legacy can be found in the careers it helped launch -- Diana Ross, who is the template for Beyonce’s current success; Stevie Wonder, who signed with the label as a 12-year-old; and the late Michael Jackson, arguably the most globally recognized entertainer of the 20th century.

Motown’s reach continues even now. In the recent film “Crazy Rich Asians,” a Malaysian pop singer Cheryl K can be heard singing a version of Barrett Strong’s “Money,” bringing the iconic label’s first hit to new audiences more than six decades later.

Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

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