To anyone whose golden era of music falls between the sixties and eighties, the names Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, the Temptations, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye auger well with melodic richness and distinctive bountiful beats of the Motown sound.
Founded by Berry Gordy Jr, a young African American man, on January 12th 1959 with a loan of $800 from his family, Motown Records turned the “Motown Sound” into a musical factory of black minorities in the city of Detroit into the worldwide music icon.
One of leading lights of Motown, Smokey Robinson says that “On the very first day of Motown, Berry Gordy sat us down and said. I’m starting this record company and we are not going to make black music. We are going to make music for everybody, for the world.”
Indeed they made music for the whole world. Talk about, Stevie Wonder’s I just called to say I love you, Commodores Nightshift or Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. The Motown sound was meticulously put together at various stages with utmost levels of control to ensure success of the product.
A neat group of creative song writers together with the instrumentals made by the Funk brothers, a highly select and tight-knit group of studio musicians who included keyboardists, guitarists, percussionists, drummers and bassists, made the music play.
After putting the music together, Gordy worked on grooming the young artists because he believed that they would become the ambassadors of African-Americans and hence had to portray a good image of the then downtrodden minority.
They were advised that in order to make it the dominantly white popular music market they should think, act, walk and talk like royalty, so as to alter the less-than-dignified image commonly held by white Americans in that era of black musicians, according to online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Gordy tells The Detroit News that “All of them were talented, all of them were magical, because they were doing their own thing. Although we were using the same band, Marvin (Gaye) sounded nothing like Smokey (Robinson), Smokey sounded nothing like Stevie (Wonder), Martha (Reeves) sounded nothing like Diana (Ross). It come from the philosophy of being yourself, you are you. The first song I ever wrote was You are You. They believed in that and they lived that and they’re still living it today, still paying their taxes.”
Apart from being the first record label to usher black artistes in its stable to crossover success, the Motown sound has spawned a religion of artistes all over the world who confess its artistic style as the chief influence of their musical careers.
Gordy was so insistent on quality output so much so that he used weekly quality control meetings and veto power to ensure that only the very best material and performances the company came up with would be released, and had to “fit” into a sequence of the top 5 selling pop singles of the week.
The eighties might have signaled a difficult period for Motown but after various takeovers, buyouts and business deals, the label is still one of the most influential in the world. In the nineties it gave us Boyz II Men, Erykah Badu and Tony Toni Tone while in the last decade, we have seen Akon, Damian Marley, Indian Are and Nelly.
Nevertheless the best of Motown is still the classical Motown period of Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. Surely, the beat goes on.