The White House Celebrated Motown This Past Week, so why don’t we celebrate Hitsville, USA.
Motown is a record label that was originally founded by Berry Gordy, Jr. and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation in Detroit, Michigan, USA, on April 14, 1960. The name, a portmanteau of motor and town, is also a nickname for Detroit. Now headquartered in New York City, Motown is a subsidiary of Universal Motown Republic Group, itself a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and now operates as Universal Motown Records. Motown Records was also the name of Gordy’s second record label; the first, Tamla Records, began on January 12, 1959.
Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music, as it was the first record label owned by an African American even if it was not the first to feature primarily African-American artists. Motown achieved a crossover success. In the 1960s, Motown and its soul-based subsidiaries were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, a style of soul music with a distinct pop influence.
In 1959, Billy Davis and Berry Gordy’s sisters Gwen and Anna started Anna Records. Davis and Gwen Gordy wanted Berry to be the company president, but Berry wanted to strike out on his own. On January 12, 1959, he started Tamla Records, with an $800 loan from his family. Gordy originally wanted to name the label “Tammy” Records, after the popular song by Debbie Reynolds. When he found the name was already in use, he decided on Tamla instead. Tamla’s first release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” in 1959. Its first hit was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959), which made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts.
Gordy’s first signed act was The Matadors, a group he had written and produced songs for, who changed their name to The Miracles when Tamla signed them; their first release was “Bad Girl”. Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson became the vice president of the company (and later named his daughter “Tamla” and his son “Berry” out of gratitude to Gordy and the label). Many of Gordy’s family members, including his father Berry, Sr., brothers Robert and George, and sister Esther, were eventually given key roles in the company. By the middle of the decade, Gwen and Anna Gordy had joined the label in administrative positions as well.
Also in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio. The photography studio located in the back of the property was modified into a small recording studio and the Gordys moved into the second floor living quarters. Within a few years, Motown would occupy several neighboring houses with administrative offices, mixing, mastering and rehearsal studios.
 Detroit: 1959–1972
Gordy founded a second label, Motown Records, in September 1959. Among early Tamla/Motown artists were Mable John, Eddie Holland and Mary Wells. “Shop Around,” The Miracles’ first #1 R&B hit peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. It was Tamla’s first million-selling record. On April 14, 1960, Motown and Tamla Records merged into a new company called Motown Record Corporation. A year later, The Marvelettes scored Tamla’s first US #1 pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman”. By the mid-1960s, the label, with the help of songwriters and producers such as Robinson, A&R chief William “Mickey” Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield, was a major force in the music industry.
From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits, and artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5, were all signed to Motown labels. The company operated several labels in addition to the Tamla and Motown imprints. A third label, which Gordy named after himself (though it was originally called “Miracle”) featured The Temptations, The Contours, and Martha and the Vandellas. A fourth, V.I.P., released recordings by The Velvelettes, The Spinners and Chris Clark. A fifth label, Soul, featured Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, and Gladys Knight & the Pips (who had found success before joining Motown, as ‘The Pips’ on Vee-Jay). Many more Motown-owned labels released recordings in other genres, including Workshop Jazz (jazz), Mel-o-dy (country, although it was originally an R&B label), and Rare Earth (rock). Under the slogan “The Sound of Young America”, Motown’s acts were enjoying widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.
Smokey Robinson said of Motown’s cultural impact:
Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.
Berry Gordy House, known as Motown Mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison Historic District.
In 1967, Berry Gordy purchased what is now known as Motown Mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison Historic District as his home. In 1968, Gordy purchased the Donovan building on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Interstate 75, and moved Motown’s Detroit offices there (the Donovan building was demolished in January 2006 to provide parking spaces for Super Bowl XL). The same year, Gordy purchased Golden World Records, and its recording studio became “Studio B” to Hitsville’s “Studio A”.
In Britain, Motown’s records were released on various labels: at first London (only the Miracles’ “Shop Around”/”Who’s Lovin’ You” and “Ain’t It Baby”), then Fontana (“Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes was one of four), Oriole American (“Fingertips” by Little Stevie Wonder was one of many), EMI’s Stateside (“Where Did Our Love Go” by the Supremes and “My Guy” by Mary Wells were Motown’s first British top-20 hits), and finally EMI’s Tamla-Motown (“Stop In The Name Of Love” by The Supremes was the first release in March 1965 and “Ain’t That Peculiar” by Marvin Gaye was among many others).
As you spend this weekend with family and friends, don’t forget JJP.
Drop those links. Engage in debate. Give us trivia and gossip too.
And always, have a peaceful day.
Cheryl Contee aka "Jill Tubman", Baratunde Thurston aka "Jack Turner", rikyrah, Leutisha Stills aka "The Christian Progressive Liberal", B-Serious, Casey Gane-McCalla, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley aka "Marcus Toussaint," Fredric Mitchell
Special Contributors: James Rucker, Rinku Sen, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Adam Luna, Kamala Harris
Technical Contributor: Brandon Sheats