First Published 11 July 2020
The genesis of Motown Records dates from January 12, 1959, when Berry Gordy Jr. set up a company called Tamla Records.
Gordy’s interest in music had led him to open a record store in Detroit a few years earlier, which he called 3D Record Mart. Unfortunately the business failed to take off, but Gordy saw another opportunity when he met the manager of a local music bar, who owned a music publishing company called Pearl Music. Pearl also represented a singer, Jackie Wilson, who needed songs. Song-writing appealed to Gordy and he soon joined up with his sister Gwen and Wilson’s cousin Billy Davis (going by the name of Tyran Carlo) to create material for Wilson. The group’s first success was “Reet Petite”, which was released in November 1957 and sold well, reaching number sixty-two on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next year or so, Gordy and his co-writers wrote six more songs for Wilson and many more for other artists, collaborating now not just with Gwen and Billy Davis but also with his sister Anna and his brother Robert. He also started to get involved as a record producer. The scene was set for the foundation of Tamla Records in early 1959.
Just over a year later the company’s name was changed to Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. Its new name is a derivation from Motor Town, a nickname for Detroit. (In the UK, the record label was Tamla Motown).
Berry Gordy Jr. began to grow the business by his astute hiring of local talent and the addition of several spin-off companies. By the end of 1959 he was president of Jobete, a music-publishing company, of Tamla, the record label, and Rayber, a music writing company. He had hired William “Mickey” Stevenson as Head of A&R and was building up a roster of artists, including the Miracles, headed by Smokey Robinson. He had also acquired a photography studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, which was converted into offices and a recording studio.
Now he could be independent of the large corporations that he had been relying on to make and sell the records that Motown was creating. Smokey Robinson was made vice-president of the new company and various members of the Gordy family took on important roles. Gordy’s partner, Raynoma Liles, led the backing group Rayber Voices. Gordy was ready to take on the world of music. Within six years Motown had 450 employees and gross income of $20 million. Over the first ten years, Motown had 110 top 10 hits.
The list of Motown Artists is amazing: Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye have all become icons of pop music around the world. But the reason for Motown’s extraordinary success is that behind these wonderful artists was a team of outstanding musicians and technicians. Actually it wasn’t one team but several teams. Gordy put each artist with a specific group of people who were chosen to bring the best out of the artist. These teams consisted of a small number of multi-talented professionals, who could write, arrange and produce music that would create the Motown stars. Each of the teams could call on the house band, the Funk Brothers, to support their artists. And behind the artists, musicians and technicians was Gordy himself, directing operations.
For seven years the company continued to grow, dominating the charts and becoming a household name world-wide. Then, in 1967, things changed.
A dispute arose between the Holland, Dozier, Holland team and Berry Gordy Jr. over profit-sharing and royalties. Eddie Holland organised a work slowdown, but Gordy stood firm and by early 1968 the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier left Motown. Norman Whitfield took over as the main song-writer/producer and Gordy carried on his development of the company, acquiring a new house (see top of page) and Detroit’s Golden World Studios. Even five days of riots in Detroit in July 1967 didn’t slow Motown down. Gordy was dreaming of bigger things for his company.
By 1969 he began gradually moving more and more of the company’s operations to Los Angeles, with the move finally completed in June 1972. A number of artists, among them Martha Reeves, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many of the Funk Brothers studio band, were unwilling to move to the West coast and stayed in Detroit or left Motown completely.
Gordy’s logic was clear. He wanted to develop Motown into an entertainment company, encompassing recorded music, television and cinema. Motown Productions soon had its first hit film completed, a biography of Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross, with the title “Lady Sings the Blues”. Other films followed, similarly exploiting cinema sales and soundtrack recording sales: “Mahogany” (1975) with a fantastic theme song sung by Diana Ross, “Scott Joplin”, “Thank God It’s Friday” “The Wiz”, with Diana Ross starring opposite Michael Jackson, and “The Last Dragon”.
By the mid-1980s, however, Berry Gordy could see that the company was starting to lose money. He therefore sold his ownership in Motown Records to MCA Records and Boston Ventures in June 1988 for $61 million. Most of the big stars moved on.
Then, in 1989, Gordy sold the Motown Productions TV/film operations to Suzanne de Passe, an executive at the company. PolyGram purchased Motown Records from MCA in 1993 and Universal Music Group (MCA’s successor) re-acquired it when it bought Polygram in 1999. In late 2018, Motown began reissuing albums from their back catalogue.
The company is now sixty years old!