The Sound That Changed America: Motown Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary
As an irresistible force of social and cultural change, Berry Gordy's legendary Motown Records made its mark not just on the music industry, but society at large, with a sound that that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20th century. Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie & the Commodores, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, their music communicated and brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people of all ages and race. No other record company in history has exerted such an enormous influence on both the style and substance of popular music and culture. With more than 180 No. 1 hit songs worldwide and counting, that influence is still being felt today, from pop to hip-hop, Motown celebrates the 50th anniversary of the company's founding.
Motown, of course, stands for more than just the historic music. The label and its remarkable legacy is a reflection of the hard work of dedicated individuals overcoming incredible obstacles to achieve great success. Nearly a half-century ago, on January 12, 1959, to be exact, a young African-American songwriter named Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records with a loan of $800 from his family, marking the birth of the "Motown Records Corporation." A man of vision, drive, talent and determination, Berry Gordy was also a producer, innovative entrepreneur, and teacher. The phenomenal success of Motown Records is a tribute to all that he embodies and all the talent that he brought out in others. Under his leadership, and through determination and support of the Motown family of artists, Gordy forged new grounds for minorities and made the "Motown Sound" a worldwide phenomenon beloved by millions.
Berry Gordy always learned from all his experiences and applied them to his business. He put the tedious time he spent working on the assembly line at Detroit's Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant to good use: "Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. What a great idea! Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star." That little thought that came to him while running up and down that assembly line became a reality we now know as "Motown."
When Motown was housed in its famed "Hitsville U.S.A." offices at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, it was not just a location; history would be made there. In fact, Berry Gordy created a twenty-four hour hit-making and artist development factory, nurturing the artistic talent of the singers, writers, producers, as well as, corporate executives. Today, Motown is not only the greatest pop music hit factory ever heard, but an institution, a state of mind, a way of life, a style, the "Sound of Young America." The distinctive, upbeat and uplifting music brought together pop and soul, white and black, old and young, like never before and continues to this day. Regardless of race or social background, teenage girls admired Diana Ross and teenage boys pretended to be Smokey Robinson. Motown became the heartbeat of American pop music. With multi-platinum artists ranging from the Miracles, Temptations, Four Tops and Supremes to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson 5, the House That Gordy Built had and has no rival. Motown defined the term "crossover" not only on record and stage, but also behind the scenes. After breaking down barriers and having pop radio embrace Motown artists, Berry Gordy set his sights on television. He booked his artists on popular shows such as American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show, making history as the first African-American artists on these shows. After captivating national audiences with repeat performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Supremes were the first R&B act to play the country's most prestigious night club, New York's Copacabana, which paved the way for other R&B acts into the top cabaret circuits around the world.
Motown was the first African-American-owned record label to reach widespread national acclaim, Motown broke down racial prejudice by becoming the most successful independent record company in history and the most successful African-American owned business in America.
After Gordy purchased that first Detroit property, he converted the garage into a small recording studio and the kitchen into the control room. The company's first signing was the Miracles, led by Smokey Robinson, and its first release was Marv Johnson's "Come to Me, " January 21, 1959. But its first major hit was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want), " a song co-written by Gordy himself, which reached #2 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1960. A year later, the Miracles would score the company's first million seller with "Shop Around." That same year, teen girl group the Marvelettes landed the company's first pop No. 1, "Please Mr. Postman, " while the label signed two young groups, the Supremes and the Temptations. Within three years, those two groups would lead Motown into the mainstream, when the Supremes launched an unprecedented string of five consecutive No. 1 hits, starting with "Where Did Our Love Go, " while the Temptations released the eternal Motown classic, "My Girl." In 1968 the company had five records out of the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and accomplished another unprecedented feat by seizing the top three spots for a full month.
Upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Motown's founder was given the following tribute: "Gordy endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people, regardless of the color of their skin. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black capitalism, pride and self-expression and a repository for some of the greatest talent ever assembled at one company. . . Motown's stable of singers, songwriters, producers and musicians took the concept of simple, catchy pop songs to a whole new level of sophistication and, thanks to the music's roots in gospel and blues, visceral intensity. . . After Motown, black popular music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste. . . Aesthetically no less than commercially, Motown's achievements will likely remain unrivaled and untoppable."
Today, the label is part of the Universal Music Group, with its classic recorded music catalog managed by Universal Music Enterprises (UMe). The timeless songs from Motown between 1959 and 1985 are represented by EMI Music Publishing.
From late 2008 to the end of 2009, Universal Music Group and EMI Music Publishing will mark the historic Detroit label's musical achievements with a series of initiatives. Notably, Universal Music Enterprises will issue monthly music releases in both physical and digital formats, with bonus tracks enhancing these packages. Details will be announced as each new package approaches.
Also upcoming throughout the celebration are releases of classic Motown Television specials in a series of DVD collections and INSIDE MOTOWN, a multi-part documentary on how the company was built.
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