The legend that is Tamla Motown started in 1959 when Ford worker and part-time songwriter Berry Gordy Jr borrowed $800 to set up a studio. From his first hit onward – the prophetic Money (That’s What I Want) – he set out to create a crossover style, targeting his records at white and black consumers alike.
Early Motown hits were pure formula. Gordy softened the blue notes of most contemporary black music in favour of a more danceable, poppy beat, with gospel-influenced singing and clapping. Prime examples of the early approach featured all-female groups such as the Marvelettes (Needle in a Haystack), the Supremes (Baby Love) and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (Nowhere to Run), as well as the all-male Miracles (Tracks of My Tears), featuring the sophisticated love lyrics of lead singer Smokey Robinson. Gordy’s “Quality Control Department” scrutinized every beat, playing all recordings through speakers modelled on cheap transistor radios before the final mix.
The Motown organization was an intense, close-knit community: Marvin Gaye married Gordy’s sister, while “Little” Stevie Wonder was the baby of the family. The label did, however, move with the times, utilizing such innovations as the wah-wah pedal and synthesizer. By the late 1960s its output had acquired a harder sound, crowned by the acid soul productions of Norman Whitfield with the versatile Temptations. In 1968 the organization outgrew its premises on Grand Avenue; four years later it abandoned Detroit altogether for LA. Befitting the middle-of-the-road tastes of the 1970s, the top sellers were then the high-society soul of Diana Ross and the ballads of the Commodores. This saw many top artists, dissatisfied with Gordy’s constant intervention, leave the label, although the crack songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for most of the Four Tops’ hits, stayed in Detroit to produce the seminal Chairmen of the Board (Gimme Just A Little More Time), along with Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. Today, Motown is owned by the giant Universal Music Group.