Gordy Founds Motown Records

Berry Gordy, Jr., founded Motown Records, which would go on to produce hundreds of recordings that crossed over from rhythm and blues to pop and would come to define popular urban music.

Summary of Event

After years of writing songs for such singers as Detroit’s Jackie Wilson and dabbling in record production for others, Berry Gordy, Jr., decided in January of 1959 to open his own company. Born in Detroit into a stable, determined, and ambitious family, Gordy had tried boxing and work on an automobile assembly line before he found his true vocation as the builder of the largest and most successful black-owned independent record company in American history. Motown Records
Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music
Record labels;Motown
[kw]Gordy Founds Motown Records (Jan., 1959)
[kw]Motown Records, Gordy Founds (Jan., 1959)
[kw]Records, Gordy Founds Motown (Jan., 1959)
Motown Records
Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music
Record labels;Motown
[g]North America;Jan., 1959: Gordy Founds Motown Records[06040]
[g]United States;Jan., 1959: Gordy Founds Motown Records[06040]
[c]Music;Jan., 1959: Gordy Founds Motown Records[06040]
[c]Business and labor;Jan., 1959: Gordy Founds Motown Records[06040]
Gordy, Berry, Jr.
Holland, Eddie
Dozier, Lamont
Holland, Brian
Whitfield, Norman
Robinson, Smokey
Ross, Diana
Gaye, Marvin
Wonder, Stevie
Jackson, Michael

After leasing his recordings to major labels for pressing and distribution, Gordy decided to set up his own labels (Tamla, Motown, and Gordy) and soon scored with hits on the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts. One of the keys to his success was his knowledge of the local Detroit music scene, which was rich in amateur singing groups in the doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues vein and in jazz musicians. By using the talent of Detroit’s black ghettos and housing projects, Gordy had the dream of making such music palatable to young white people as well as to black youth. It was from the start a crossover dream, and it succeeded beyond Gordy’s greatest expectations.

From 1961 into the 1970’s, the carefully trained artists and neatly crafted and produced records from Motown would be the biggest sellers in rhythm and blues and would cross over to the mainstream market as black music had never done before. Gordy nurtured a stable of in-house songwriters, musicians, and producers who redefined black popular music and then went on to change mainstream music-making permanently. The soul music of Motown, Atlantic Records in New York City, and Stax Records in Memphis met the British Invasion head-on and offered a native challenge.

Gordy initially worked closely with his friend Smokey Robinson in writing and producing. Robinson became one of the most creative songwriters and singers with Motown, first as lead singer with the Miracles and then as a superstar solo singer. The Motown labels focused on romantic love ballads and uptempo dance numbers that were aimed at a young audience and a crossover pop market. A song such as the Miracles’ Miracles, the (musical group) “Shop Around” “Shop Around” (the Miracles)[Shop Around (the Miracles)] of 1960 (the company’s first big pop hit) was typical of the kind of material Gordy wanted: an upbeat, lighthearted song about a young man and his search for a girlfriend. The Miracles continued to make both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts with similar songs and slow ballads featuring Robinson’s delicate high tenor. Groups such as the Four Tops, Four Tops, the the Temptations, Temptations, the (musical group) the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and Gladys Knight and the Pips helped Motown to turn out hits throughout the 1960’s and beyond.

Some acts were already experienced when they signed with Gordy; others, such as the Supremes Supremes, the , Stevie Wonder, and later the Jacksons, had to be carefully trained and directed. Motown was a comprehensive enterprise that dealt with every aspect of making and selling music, including songwriting, recording, manufacturing, distribution, touring, publishing, and grooming.

In the studio, Gordy made sure his teams of songwriters, musicians, singers, and producers worked together to craft songs that would attract both blacks and whites. Older rhythm-and-blues styles, with their raw energy, were smoothed over and polished with the use of the new technology of multitrack recording and overdubbing. Gordy demanded quality control and each week organized executive sessions to preview intended releases. His in-house production system reminded some of the Detroit automobile companies’ production-line method, but it worked wonderfully for a decade and more. Songwriters and producers Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland were originally at Motown’s center and became known simply as “H-D-H.” Later, Norman Whitfield effectively took the team’s place as a force in the studio.

Gordy was determined that his acts could play any venue, from the older “chitlin’ circuit” houses such as New York’s Apollo or Chicago’s Regal to supper clubs, the best concert halls and auditoriums, and television. For this purpose, he had an artists’ development department that functioned as a sort of finishing school for singers who had to learn stage deportment and dancing. Choreographer Cholly Atkins Atkins, Cholly trained dozens of performers relentlessly. Again, the system worked: Motown’s singing acts built upon traditions of black dance to produce some of the finest and most dynamic routines of the time.

Many of Gordy’s artists later complained about his tough standards, and many eventually left Motown for better financial terms and more creative freedom on other labels. Most admitted at least grudgingly, however, that Gordy got them on their feet and prepared them for survival in the harsh world of the music business.


By 1966, 75 percent of Motown’s single releases reached the pop charts. Billboard
Billboard (periodical) magazine, the leading music trade journal, even dropped its separate rhythm-and-blues chart between November, 1963, and January, 1965, because there seemed no difference at the time between black popular music and mainstream pop. By late 1968, Billboard had changed the name of its black music chart to “Soul.” Along with the British rock groups, Motown acts dominated the market. The Supremes (with Diana Ross), the Miracles (with Smokey Robinson), the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye were leading the roster with hit after hit. By the start of the 1970’s, the Jackson Five Jackson Five, the (with Michael Jackson as lead) had begun a second generation of Motown headliners.

The “Motown sound” shows its roots in gospel, featuring tambourines, hand-clapping, and call-and-response vocals. The groups did not feature group harmonies but rather lead vocals over backing voices. With responses and interjections by other group members and sometimes extra voices added to enrich the sound, Diana Ross, Levi Stubbs with the Four Tops, and David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (often as dual leads, one medium, one higher into falsetto) with the Temptations were the outstanding voices to emerge from the Detroit scene.

The studio musicians, carefully nurtured by Gordy, varied in number and changed over two decades, but there was a solid core group in the 1960’s that helped define the sound. A group led by pianist Eddie Van Dyke Van Dyke, Eddie[Vandyke, Eddie] and featuring drummer Benny Benjamin Benjamin, Benny and bassist James Jamerson Jamerson, James formed the core of the studio band. Jamerson, in particular, became famous for his busy and percolating bass figures and riffs, which gave Motown its distinctive “bottom” sound. His inventive playing used jazz-influenced syncopated phrases in eighth- and sixteenth-note configurations with frequent harmonic changes.

Benjamin’s thudding and kicking drumming pulse and the chopping and staccato rhythm chords of electric guitars combined with Jamerson’s bass to create the rhythmic base upon which other musicians, with the guidance of producers such as H-D-H and Whitfield, garnished the songs. Members of the Detroit Symphony added swirling strings; flutes and vibes softened the harsher tones, and ethereal backing voices often finished the mix. Varieties of this formula applied to nearly all recordings. Funk was sweetened and decorated, saxes and horns mellow. The hits flowed.

In spite of the sense of a production-line mentality, diversity flourished at Motown. At the same time that there was plenty of mellow crooning that would sit well in intimate club settings or on television, there was still the harder-edged tradition of rhythm-and-blues shouting and rasping vocals. Lightweight teen love songs and lyrically sparse uptempo dance pieces alternated with more mature songs that reflected pain and loss.

Singer Marvin Gaye epitomized the conflicting directions Motown’s music took. Always aspiring to be a pop singer of slow ballads, he was directed by Berry Gordy to work on harsher vocal styles and more hard-driving songs reflective of black roots. He recorded both with consummate artistry. In 1971, he recorded What’s Goin’ On, What’s Goin’ On (Gaye)[Whats Goin On (Gaye)] an album of mostly his own songs focused on social issues. Such songs as “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and “Inner City Blues” were in the line of message songs Motown artists started to write and record in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. For a time, the real world of black poverty was reflected directly in Motown’s music.

Smokey Robinson, on the other hand, always sang with a high tenor that easily soared into a falsetto. As a central songwriter at Motown and as first a member of the Miracles and then a solo singer, Robinson favored romantic love songs with an almost ethereal quality. Similarly, Diana Ross while with the Supremes had a light, sweet voice with a slight breathiness that worked well for crossing over into mainstream pop. Later, as a solo artist, she broadened her repertoire; her voice deepened and grew stronger, allowing her to handle songs of mature love and almost any sort of popular music. Stevie Wonder grew from a novelty instrumental act into a strong singer with a versatile repertoire made up largely of his own searching compositions, many of them in a socially conscious vein.

In 1971, Gordy moved the center of Motown’s operation to Los Angeles and became more deeply involved in the solo career of Diana Ross, who soon became a film actor. By this time, many of the pioneer artists and producers had departed Motown, so Gordy focused more on a second generation of acts, notably the Jacksons. From 1971 through 1975, they had innumerable hits, both as the Jackson Five and with Michael Jackson as a solo performer.

The 1983 twenty-fifth anniversary television show that celebrated Motown’s dominance of popular music demonstrated that even after many acts had left the company, the skills they had learned there had made them stars in mainstream pop music, black and white. Worldwide record sellers and international stars, they had taken the sound of Detroit and forever altered American music. The Jacksons, reunited for that show, were the highlight; they sang a medley of their old hits and let Michael, now twenty-five and recording for another label, reveal how great a dancer and performer he had become. Berry Gordy’s dream had come true. Motown Records
Music;rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues music
Record labels;Motown

Further Reading

  • Dahl, Bill. Motown: The Golden Years. Iola, Wis.: Krause, 2001. History of the founding and rise to prominence of the Motown label.
  • Davis, Sharon. I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Marvin Gaye, the Biography. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1991. A thorough study of Gaye’s troubled life. Davis has a command of facts about the music business that makes this study more than just a celebrity biography. Illustrated and indexed, with a discography.
  • _______. Motown: The History. Enfield, Greater London: Guiness, 1988. The most thorough history of the company. Davis covers everything; her interviews with Motown artists are invaluable and quite frank. Fully illustrated and indexed, with complete listing of releases. Also informative about the international popularity of Motown.
  • Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture. Rev. and expanded ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Charts the expanding influence of Motown on the American music scene and on American culture generally. Bibliographic references and index.
  • George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. George offers more insight into the relation of Motown to earlier black music than Davis does. Critical yet appreciative. Illustrated, with a discography by artist. Indexed.
  • Haskins, Jim, with Kathleen Benson. The Stevie Wonder Scrapbook. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. A useful look at the rise of the musical genius of Wonder. Amply illustrated. Brief bibliography, no discography or index.
  • Hirshey, Gerri. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. New York: Times Books, 1984. Hirshey devotes individual chapters to important soul singers and groups, using interviews and commentary to reflect back on the 1960’s. Motown artists receive ample coverage. Illustrated, indexed.
  • Ritz, David. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Rev. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. Ritz wrote the lyrics for Gaye’s hit “Sexual Healing” and knew Gaye well. Illustrated, discography, indexed.
  • Robinson, Smokey, with David Ritz. Smokey: Inside My Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. An engaging autobiography. Quite frank about tensions and issues within Motown. Illustrated, with discography and index.
  • Shaw, Arnold. The World of Soul: Black America’s Contribution to the Pop Music Scene. New York: Cowles, 1970. One cannot go wrong with any of Shaw’s studies of black music. Although less concerned with details, business matters, and specific chronologies than others, he fills in the broad pre-Motown era of soul music and its roots in earlier forms. Illustrated, general discography, index.
  • Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Call Her Miss Ross: The Unauthorized Biography of Diana Ross. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1989. A celebrity biography that can enrich an understanding of the problems of superstardom. Notes and sources, discography, index.
  • _______. Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness. New York: Carol, 1991. Another celebrity biography with the limitations of the type: conflicting sources, gossip, and so forth. Taraborrelli, though, knows the music scene. Source notes, bibliography, index. No discography.

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