Legendary black hit factory Motown turns 50

The story is like a fairytale: in 1959, Berry Gordy founded the Motown Records. Within a few years it became one of the most successful music labels in the history of pop music, with legendary artists like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Gordy, 29, a former high-school drop-out and assembly-line worker, borrowed 800 dollars from his family and founded Motown in a wooden house in Detroit exactly 50 years ago on Monday.

What was particularly special about the story was that Gordy was the first black man to own a record label in the United States. With his unmistakable feeling for the public taste, he made black music socially-acceptable even for whites in the United States, and revolutionized the country's pop culture forever.

In the 1960s, the pleasant Motown Sound, a mix of soul and pop, charged into the US charts - which had until then been reserved for white artists - in what was a milestone in the fight against racial segregation.

However, Gordy was moved less by missionary enthusiasm than by business calculations. As a songwriter for singers like Jackie Wilson (Lonely Teardrops) he found out that there was more money to be made in the production side of things.

In 1960, Barrett Strong's Money (That's What I Want) became the first hit from the new label - initially known as Tamla Records and later renamed Motown with reference to the car-making city of Detroit (Motor Town).

The same year, the superhit Shop Around, by The Miracles, became Motown's first million-selling record. Success was there to stay.

Over the next 10 years alone, the label marketed more than 100 top-10 songs, including Dancing in the Street by Martha & The Vandellas - David Bowie and Mick Jagger later recorded a version of the song - What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, Papa Was A Rolling Stone by The Temptations and Stop! In the Name of Love by The Supremes.

The label simply exploded. The small house in Detroit, named Hitsville USA, soon got too small, so Gordy bought or rented many other buildings and founded subsidiaries and further labels. He soon became the richest black businessman in the United States.

The secret for Gordy's success was keeping Motown firmly as a hit factory, in accordance with the principle "hire and fire."

Teams of producers wrote songs as if they were in an assembly line, played them with the in-house band and then recorded the artists' voices. Once a week Gordy supervised all the material: whatever was not an absolutely sure hit was scrapped. And if need be, producers would be fired too.

In this machinery, the in-house band played a prominent role. Like its rougher southern competitor Stax in Memphis, Motown had its own professional music group.

Under the name The Funk Brothers, Gordy brought together pianist Earl van Dyke, bass genius James Jamerson, drummer Uriel Jones and other great live performers, the best blues and jazz musicians in the city.

For little money, but with great enthusiasm, they produced the typical Motown Sound in the legendary Studio A - which they called the "snake pit" - in accordance with Gordy's KISS principle: "Keep it simple, stupid."

In 1972, the label moved to Los Angeles. Gordy wanted to expand the film business he had launched, among other things as a springboard for the Hollywood career of his girlfriend Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues).

The Funk Brothers stayed in Detroit, and Motown still continued to generate its own stars. In 1988 Gordy sold the label for 61 million dollars. He later received a further 300 million dollars from EMI Music for the rights to music.

Motown now belongs to the international music giant Universal Music Group, which continues to use the label as a trade mark. For its 50th anniversary, numerous new releases of old classics are planned.

These include the compilation Motown: The Complete Number 1s, with more than 190 songs by the label that once reached the top of the hit lists.

"People wonder why I'm so happy with the 50th. It's because I have protected Motown's legacy for 50 years, " Gordy, 79, said recently in his home city, Detroit.

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