December 11, 2017

You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me: A History of Motown

By Nicole Amine

On January 12th, 1959, Detroit-native Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Record Corporation with a loan of $800 he obtained from his family. He was a songwriter, producer, entrepreneur, and teacher who believed in providing new spaces for artists who were underrepresented in the music industry, primarily due to race. Gordy was a jazz fan rebounding from a failed attempt to run a record shop and eager to create a new sound among the popular music world. When Gordy opened his famed Hitsville U.S.A. office at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, he created not only an office for his business, but a 24-hour “hit-making and artist development factory, nurturing the artistic talent of the singers, writers, producers, as well as corporate executives” (motownmuseum.org).

Even though Detroit was the automotive capital in the early 20th century and the origin of a massive amount of popular music and culture, it is undoubtedly overshadowed by its later-obtained poor reputation that resulted from the city’s financial crisis and extreme economic decline. Given this statement, it is not startling that Motown’s importance in 1960s history is buried underneath the British Invasion and 1960s counterculture.

Nelson George summarizes the record label’s success in his book Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. Between 1964 and 1967 Motown records achieved a total of 60 top fifteen pop chart hits including fourteen number ones. In 1966, Motown’s songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) matched John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s successes in 1965 and doubled them in 1966 when Motown achieved twice as many top forty entries and top ten hits as the British songwriting duo. Smokey Robinson and H-D-H contributed the majority of the work that filled the void in the United States popular song market when the British Invasion put traditional writing duos like Goffin-King and Barry Greenwich out of style.

As a black-owned business featuring mostly black artists, Motown disturbed the cultural agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. In Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Jerry Wexler explains, “They took black music and beamed it directly to the white American teenager.” Barry Gordy Jr. aimed to overcome the challenges black Americans faced by exposing black culture to the white generation and beginning the process of slowly chipping away intense racism within the parent generation. In a 2009 interview with Maria C. Montoya of The Times-Picayune, Robinson describes the way in which he experienced the impact that Motown had on audiences around the United States:

“’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 it 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. It was a wonderful thing to witness.’”

Robinson’s reflection here displays that Motown’s influence quickly extended beyond its birthplace of Detroit and into the rest of the country.

During the 1960s, Motown was often marketed as the “sound of young America.” Its musical essence was distinctly upbeat and uplifting, bringing together stylistic elements of pop music, soul music, white music, black music, old music, young music, etc. The label’s primarily black talent delivered a sound that became the heartbeat of American pop music, and included artists such as The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson 5. The “Motown Sound” married church gospel, jazz, and soul stylization with new and old techniques such as the call-and-response patterns in secular music and the syncopation and improvisation of the be-bop movement in jazz.  Before the days of computers and synthesizers, producers pumped tracks through the Echo Chamber at Hitsville U.S.A. to create a unique reverb effect that became specific to Motown music.

Much of Motown’s legacy is hidden behind the bluesy rock of the Stones, or the famous psychedelic era of the Beatles, but just how much Motown influenced these bands is infrequently mentioned. The song “Please Mr. Postman” was the debut single performed by The Marvelettes that was released on 21 August 1961. It shortly became the first tune from Motown records to reach the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 pop and R&B singles charts.

The Beatles began covering “Please Mr. Postman” as a part of their live act in 1962 when they were regularly gigging at the Cavern Club.  After working out a suitable version for recording, The Beatles released their version of the song on their second studio album With the Beatles. The Fab Four also covered one of Smokey and the Miracles’ big hits, “You’ve Really Got A Hold on Me.”

In the late 1980s and 1990s, all of Motown’s major artists, including the company’s founder Barry Gordy Jr., were rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Motown is responsible for the greatest assembly of talent to ever exist within one company. Its collection of singers, musicians, songwriters, and producers redefined the simplicity and catchiness of popular music by creating the universally popular “Motown Sound” and ending the dismissal of black popular music as a minority taste. Barry Gordy Jr. and Motown Records became a model of black pride, self-expression, and capitalism by cutting through the limitations of race inequality in the 1960s by sheer means of passion and talent. Aesthetically, musically, and commercially, the paradox of Motown’s success will most likely never be matched or given the credit it deserves as one of the most powerful movements in 1960s popular music and culture.