Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The most successful black-owned record company, and one of the most successful black-owned corporations in U.S. history, its output fundamental to the sound of the 1960s. Formed by Berry Gordy III (b 28 November 1929, Detroit), whose family had been prominent Georgia farmers (so prominent that they left in 1922, when lynchings of blacks had reached an all-time high). He was a boxer (worked out with a Golden Gloves champion named Jackie Wilson; later won at least nine of 15 fights); served in U.S. Army; worked for his father days and haunted jazz clubs nights. He ran a jazz record shop 1953-5 but his potential customers were into R&B. He worked in a Ford factory and began writing songs, for Wilson for three years including hits 'Reet Petite', 'That Is Why (I Love You So)', 'I'll Be Satisfied', 'Lonely Teardrops'.

Gordy formed a production company with his second wife Raynoma Liles, recorded and leased hits by Marv Johnson and meanwhile met Smokey Robinson in 1957, changed the name of his Robinson's Matadors to the Miracles and leased their records. His writing partner Billy Davis and sisters Gwen and Anna Gordy formed the Anna label, distributed by Chess, and hit with 'Money (That's What I Want)', sung by Barrett Strong, written and recorded by Gordy, who had only wanted to be a successful songwriter, but realized that the only way to reap the rewards meant starting a record company. Jobete Music Publishing, Hitsville USA, ITM (International Talent Management), Motown Record Corporation (short for Motortown) etc established secretiveness and cross-collateral royalty accounts, so that Motown million-sellers were not certified gold by the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) because no outsiders saw the books. Artists were paid salaries until they had hits, but were tied to the company and subject to Gordy's whims. First release in mid-1959 was 'Way Over There' by Smokey and the Miracles on the Tamla label, also Smokey's first solo production. Blues singers Amos Milburn, Mabel John (sister of Little Willie John) and Singing Sammy Ward generated local cash; then the Miracles' 'Shop Around' was no. 1 R&B, no. 2 pop early '61. Gwen and Anna married Harvey Fuqua and Marvin Gaye respectively; Davis left and Anna Records died; Fuqua's undercapitalized TriPhi/Harvey labels suffered the problems of all small labels and he joined the staff of Motown. It became a family operation tightly controlled by Gordy, and soon dominated the decade's black pop, seriously challenged only by the Southern sound of Stax and Muscle Shoals (see Soul).

Teenaged Al Abrams (d 3 October 2015 aged 74) became the press officer before the label was even formed, breaking down doors and coining the slogan 'The Sound of Young America'. Motown developed, looking after Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, the Marvellettes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Junior Walker and many more. The tight in-house staff included songwriting/ production teams Holland/Dozier/Holland and Ashford and Simpson; A&R director William 'Mickey' Stevenson lured local jazz musicians into the studio band with the chance to record on a Jazz Workshop label, which mostly didn't materialize: pianist Joe Hunter, Dave Hamilton on vibes and guitar, Benny Benjamin on drums, the all-important James Jamerson on bass. Barney Ales (d 17 April 2020 aged 85) was VP in charge of distribution; Ales was white, which was good for business: distributors were always slow at paying up, and thought to be even slower in paying blacks. Maxine Powell (who had a local finishing and modelling school) and experienced choreographer Cholly Atkins were brought in to teach the acts deportment and stage movements; touring Motown shows were also tightly chaperoned. Not everyone submitted to Gordy's autocratic style and tight purse strings: Wells, Reeves, H/D/H and the Four Tops eventually jumped ship; Florence Ballard, the Supremes' original leader, died on welfare after Gordy decided that Diana Ross could be a sepia Barbra Streisand; Gaye was the first to get his own way, making innovatory LPs instead of pop singles; Wonder wrote his own ticket when he turned 21, already a star.

But the proof of Gordy's genius in the studio, and deciding who should do what, was in the hits: at least 110 singles in the Billboard pop top ten 1961-71, and still selling today in countless compilations and anthologies, the sound as tight and compelling as that of Phil Spector but less claustrophobic. The hits of the Motown decade are perhaps the ultimate party music, and more than that, thanks to Robinson's songwriting.

Gradually Gordy gave up the hands-on control in the studio, yet still controlled the company absolutely; he moved it to Los Angeles in 1971 as if to signify that the golden era was over, his dabbling in films proving less than completely successful. Motown grossed $40 million in '73 and employed 135 people, but had become just another record company. Where Did Our Love Go? '85 by Nelson George tells the story, a good book of its kind; see also entries for individual Motown acts. Berry made a distribution deal in 1988 with MCA, giving up some of his independence, and later sold it all to Polygram. He published autobiography To Be Loved '95.