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Posted under: Culture Music

How Motown Has Impacted Black Music Over Its 60 Year History

The “Sound of Motown” lives on forever.

Imagine it's the summer of 1964 and people are out enjoying the warm sunshine and summer breeze in Motor City. Families are out in their neighborhoods cooking out, while listening to the radio.

Suddenly the lyrics, “Calling out around the world, Are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer's here and the time is right / For dancing in the street,” are heard and almost instantaneously the beat puts everyone in a good mood. That new beat is the “Motown Sound” blasting through airwaves by one of Motown’s successful girl groups, Martha and The Vandellas. A song that will forever be ingrained as one of the top songs of the record label’s history and a representation of the “Sound of Young America” that is still cherished in Black culture to this day.

The mastermind behind that iconic sound is the innovative producer, entrepreneur and founder of Motown record label, Berry Gordy. Gordy created Motown back in 1959 with $800 and a dream. Not knowing that he would change the face of Black music and create some of the biggest stars ever from his Hitsville U.S.A. office located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.  

Motown produced some of the most culturally defining music in the 20th century including: “Nowhere To Run” by Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, “ABC” by the Jackson 5, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight and the Pips ,“Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” by Stevie Wonder, “Brick House” by The Commodores, “Get Ready” by The Temptations, “Where Did Our Love Go,” by The Supremes and “Ooo Baby Baby” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Motown’s “Sound of Young America” powered love, fun, happiness and cultural revolution throughout the community.

This year, Motown Records is celebrating its 60th anniversary and it’s important to acknowledge how the label’s artists and its music have been stitched into the fabric of the Black community.

Photo: motownmuseum.org
Photo: motownmuseum.org

Motown first signed the Smokey Robinson-led group, the Miracles, in 1959. The first of many hits to come out the record label was “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong in 1960, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart. In 1961, the label gained its momentum with The Miracles reaching their first national hit with the song, “Shop Around,” selling 1 million copies and reaching No. 2 on the pop charts. The Marvelettes, newly signed and fresh from Inkster High, scored the label’s first number one hit with “Please Mr. Postman.” More talent was making its way to Hitsville U.S.A. that year, including The Supremes, The Temptations and Little Stevie Wonder.

By 1963, the label began to hit its stride its prime with artists such as Mary Wells, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder and Martha and The Vandellas. With these artists, the label had 10 singles in the Top 10 with an additional eight singles in the Top 20. And with Stevie Wonder’s The 12 Year Old Genius Recorded Live Motown had its first No. 1 album, and Martha & the Vandellas entered into the Billboard Top 10 with their hot new single “Heat Wave.”  In 1964, The Temptations released its timeless single, “My Girl” and “Dancing In The Street” became Martha & The Vandellas’ biggest hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Supremes also landed five consecutive No. 1 hits, starting with “Where Did Our Love Go,” followed by “Baby Love.” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Back In My Arms Again” followed in 1965. They were the first group in America to land five top-charting hits in a row.

The reign of “The Motown Sound” continued on throughout the years landing many Top 10 singles between 1965 and 1967 such as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by  The Temptations, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by The Four Tops, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Gladys Knight and The Pips, along with many more. In 1968, Motown became a true powerhouse by holding on to the top three Billboard pop chart spots for a whole month. The company signed the legendary Jackson 5 and in less than a year after their late 1969 debut, “I Want You Back,” the young group had four No. 1 records in a row.  By the end of the decade, Gordy’s company had 134 singles in the Top 20.

“As a member of the Motown family, you had to push yourself a little,” said Claudette Robinson, a member of The Miracles and former wife of Smokey Robinson. “I think that distinction was part of what made Motown and its acts a cut above the rest.”

Its distinctive sound “became the heartbeat of American pop music,” according to the Motown Museum’s website, with roots in gospel and blues and such visceral intensity from the singers. Their music communicated and brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, by touching people of all ages and races.

Photo: detroitnews.com
Photo: detroitnews.com

It’s important to note that the “Motown Sound” wouldn’t have been a worldwide phenomenon without the collaboration among artists, producers, and writers, who included Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson – and the sound of Detroit-based house band, The Funk Brothers.

“The bands are the masterminds behind a steady beat, great background harmony parts, horns, catchy lyrics and a storyline that everyone could identify with,” Martha Reeves told author Mark Bego.

Fighting through racism, along with obstacles and setbacks, Berry Gordy and his artists were able to defy the odds by making history as the first African-American-owned record label to be nationally recognized.

“These guys were not only responsible for the Motown Sound, the guys who keep the world dancing to the music, they were some of the best jazz musicians in Detroit. It was these musicians who were responsible for all of the success of the singers at Motown, because it was their music that inspired us to sing our best,” she added.

In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power Movement and the height of the Vietnam War, the lifestyle of “Sound of Young America” gave people from across the world a promising hope for the future through its uplifting sounds and soulful feels.

Motown Records was a symbol of Black revolution by way of its groundbreaking music. Each artist from the label will forever be embedded in Black America’s heart. Motown’s music became synonymous with good food, great weather and bringing family and friends together to fellowship. The music serves as a source of inspiration, perseverance and originality that will never be duplicated. “The Sound of Young America” still resonates today and continues to influence some of the most popular R&B and Hip-Hop stars with more than 180 No. 1 songs worldwide.

It’s important that we put some respect on our history.

In honor of its anniversary, Motown created a playlist to celebrate its most timeless songs. Ready to hear some good music from the best artists in American history? Checkout Motown’s Best Playlist available on Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora featuring The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and more: https://stream.lnk.to/MotownBM

To learn more about Motown, check out the site here: https://www.motown.today

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Brianna Rhodes is the branded content writer for Blavity. Feel free to contact her at brianna@blavity.com