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|Parent company||Universal Music Group|
|Founded||January 12, 1959|
|Founder||Berry Gordy Jr.|
|Distributor(s)||Capitol Music Group|
Universal Music Group
|Country of origin||United States|
|Location||Los Angeles, California|
Motown Records is an American record label owned by the Universal Music Group. It was founded by Berry Gordy Jr. as Tamla Records on January 12, 1959, and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. Its name, a portmanteau of motor and town, has become a nickname for Detroit, where the label was originally headquartered.
Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music as an African American-owned label that achieved crossover success. In the 1960s, Motown and its subsidiary labels (including Tamla Motown, the brand used outside the US) were the most of the Motown sound, a style of soul music with a mainstream pop appeal. Motown was the most successful soul music label, with a net worth of $61 million. During the 1960s, Motown achieved 79 records in the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969.
Following the events of the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the loss of key songwriting/production team Holland–Dozier–Holland that year over pay disputes, Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles, California. Motown expanded into film and television production.
Motown spent much of the 2000s headquartered in New York City as a part of the UMG subsidiaries Universal Motown and Universal Motown Republic Group. From 2011 to 2014, it was a part of The Island Def Jam Music Group division of Universal Music. In 2014, however, UMG announced the dissolution of Island Def Jam, and Motown relocated back to Los Angeles to operate under the Capitol Music Group, now operating out of the Capitol Tower. In 2018, Motown was inducted into Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at the Charles H. Wright Museum.
Berry Gordy's interest in the record business began when he opened a record store called the 3D Record Mart, a shop where he hoped to "educate customers about the beauty of jazz", in Detroit, Michigan. (The Gordys were an entrepreneurial family.) Although the shop did not last very long, Gordy's interest in the music business did not fade. He frequented Detroit's downtown nightclubs, and in the Flame Show Bar he met bar manager Al Green (not the famed singer), who owned a music publishing company called Pearl Music and represented Detroit-based musician Jackie Wilson. Gordy soon became part of a group of songwriters—with his sister Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis—who wrote songs for Wilson. "Reet Petite" was their first major hit which appeared in November 1957. During the next eighteen months, Gordy helped to write six more Wilson A-sides, including "Lonely Teardrops", a peak-popular hit of 1958. Between 1957 and 1958, Gordy wrote or produced over a hundred sides for various artists, with his siblings Anna, Gwen and Robert, and other collaborators in varying combinations.
In 1957, Gordy met Smokey Robinson, who at the time was a local seventeen-year-old singer fronting a vocal harmony group called the Matadors. Gordy was interested in the doo-wop style that Robinson sang. In 1958, Gordy recorded the group's song "Got a Job" (an answer song to "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes), and released it as a single by leasing the record to a larger company outside Detroit called End Records, based in New York. The practice was common at the time for a small-time producer. "Got a Job" was the first single by Robinson's group, now called the Miracles. Gordy recorded a number of other records by forging a similar arrangement, most significantly with United Artists.
In 1958, Gordy wrote and produced "Come to Me" for Marv Johnson. Seeing that the song had great crossover potential, Gordy leased it to United Artists for national distribution but also released it locally on his own startup imprint. Needing $800 to cover his end of the deal, Gordy asked his family to borrow money from a cooperative family savings account. After some debate, his family agreed, and in January 1959 “Come to Me” was released regionally on Gordy's new Tamla label. Gordy originally wanted to name the label Tammy Records, after the hit song popularized by Debbie Reynolds from the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor, in which Reynolds also starred. When he found the name was already in use, Berry decided on Tamla instead. In April 1959, Gordy and his sister Gwen founded Anna Records which released about two dozen singles between 1959 and 1960. The most popular was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)", written by Gordy and a secretary named Janie Bradford, and produced by Gordy. Many of the songs distributed locally by Anna and Tamla Records were nationally distributed by Chess Records (sometimes with Anna and Tamla imprints). Gordy's relationship with Chess fostered closer dealings with Harvey Fuqua, nephew of Charlie Fuqua of the Ink Spots. Harvey Fuqua later married Gwen Gordy in 1961.
Gordy looked toward creative self-sufficiency and established the publishing firm Jobete in June 1959 (incorporated in Michigan). He applied for copyrights on more than seventy songs before the end of 1959, including material used for the Miracles and Frances Burnett records, which were leased to Chess and Coral Records. The Michigan Chronicle of Detroit called Gordy an "independent producer of records," as his contributions to the city were beginning to attract notice. By that time, he was the president of Jobete, Tamla, and the music writing company Rayber.
Gordy worked in various Detroit-based studios during this period to produce recordings and demos, but most prominently with United Sound Systems which was considered the best studio in town. However, producing at United Sound Systems was financially taxing and not appropriate for every job, so Gordy decided it would be more cost effective to maintain his own facility. In mid-1959, he purchased a photography studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and converted the main floor into a recording studio and office space. Now, rather than shopping his songs to other artists or leasing his recordings to outside companies, Gordy began using the Tamla and Motown imprints to release songs that he wrote and produced. He incorporated Motown Records in April 1960.
Smokey Robinson became the vice president of the company (and later named his daughter "Tamla" and his son "Berry"). Several of Gordy's family members, including his father Berry Sr., brothers Robert and George, and sister Esther, were given key roles in the company. By the middle of the decade, Gwen and Anna Gordy had joined the label in administrative positions as well. Gordy's partner at the time (and wife from 1960–64), Raynoma Liles, also played a key role in the early days of Motown, leading the company's first session group, The Rayber Voices, and overseeing Jobete.
As mentioned above, in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio. The photography studio located in the back of the property was modified into a small recording studio, and the Gordys moved into the second-floor living quarters. Within seven years, Motown would occupy seven additional neighboring houses:
Motown had hired over 450 employees and had a gross income of $20 million by the end of 1966.
Early Tamla/Motown artists included Mable John, Eddie Holland and Mary Wells. "Shop Around", the Miracles' first number 1 R&B hit, peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. It was Tamla's first million-selling record. On April 14, 1960, Motown and Tamla Records merged into a new company called Motown Record Corporation. A year later, the Marvelettes scored Tamla's first US number-one pop hit, "Please Mr. Postman". By the mid-1960s, the company, with the help of songwriters and producers such as Robinson, A&R chief William "Mickey" Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield, had become a major force in the music industry.
From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits. Top artists on the Motown label during that period included the Supremes (initially including Diana Ross), the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5, while Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and the Miracles had hits on the Tamla label. The company operated several labels in addition to the Tamla and Motown imprints. A third label, which Gordy named after himself (though it was originally called "Miracle") featured the Temptations, the Contours, Edwin Starr, and Martha and the Vandellas. A fourth, V.I.P., released recordings by the Velvelettes, the Spinners, the Monitors, and Chris Clark.
A fifth label, Soul, featured Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, the Originals, and Gladys Knight & the Pips (who had found success before joining Motown, as "The Pips" on Vee-Jay). Many more Motown-owned labels released recordings in other genres, including Workshop Jazz (jazz) Earl Washington Reflections and Earl Washington's All Stars, Mel-o-dy (country, although it was originally an R&B label), and Rare Earth, which featured the band Rare Earth themselves. Under the slogan "The Sound of Young America", Motown's acts were enjoying widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.
Smokey Robinson said of Motown's cultural impact:
Into the 1960s, 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 that 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.
In 1967, Berry Gordy purchased what is now known as Motown Mansion in Detroit's Boston-Edison Historic District as his home, leaving his previous home to his sister Anna and then-husband Marvin Gaye (where photos for the cover of his album What's Going On were taken). In 1968, Gordy purchased the Donovan building on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Interstate 75, and moved Motown's Detroit offices there (the Donovan building was demolished in January 2006 to provide parking spaces for Super Bowl XL). In the same year, Gordy purchased Golden World Records, and its recording studio became "Studio B" to Hitsville's "Studio A".
In the United Kingdom, Motown's records were released on various labels: at first London (only the Miracles' "Shop Around"/"Who's Lovin' You" and "Ain't It Baby"), then Fontana ("Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes was one of four) and then Oriole American ("Fingertips" by Little Stevie Wonder was one of many). In 1963, Motown signed with EMI's Stateside label ("Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes and "My Guy" by Mary Wells were Motown's first British top-20 hits). Eventually, EMI created the Tamla Motown label ("Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes was the first Tamla Motown release in March 1965).
After the songwriting trio Holland–Dozier–Holland left the label in 1967 over royalty-payment disputes, Norman Whitfield became the company's top producer, turning out hits for The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Rare Earth. In the meantime Berry Gordy established Motown Productions, a television subsidiary which produced TV specials for the Motown artists, including TCB, with Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, Diana! with Diana Ross, and Goin' Back to Indiana with the Jackson 5. The company loosened its production rules, allowing some of its longtime artists the opportunity to write and produce more of their own material. This resulted in the recordings of successful and critically acclaimed albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) and Let's Get it On (1973), and Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), and Innervisions (1973).
Motown had established branch offices in both New York City and Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, and by 1969 had begun gradually moving more of its operations to Los Angeles. The company moved all of its operations to Los Angeles in June 1972, with a number of artists, among them Martha Reeves, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many of the Funk Brothers studio band, either staying behind in Detroit or leaving the company for other reasons. By re-locating, Motown aimed chiefly to branch out into the motion-picture industry, and Motown Productions got its start in film by turning out two hit-vehicles for Diana Ross: the Billie Holiday biographical film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and Mahogany (1975). Other Motown films would include Scott Joplin (1977), Thank God It's Friday (1978), The Wiz (1978) and The Last Dragon (1985). Ewart Abner, who had been associated with Motown since the 1960s, became its president in 1973.
By the 1970s, the Motown "hit factory" had become a target of a backlash from some fans of rock music. Record producer Pete Waterman recalls of this period: "I was a DJ for years and I worked for Motown – the press at the time, papers like NME, used to call it Toytown. When I DJ'd on the Poly circuit, the students wanted me to play Spooky Tooth and Velvet Underground. Things don't change. Nowadays, of course, Motown is hip."
Despite losing Holland–Dozier–Holland, Norman Whitfield, and some of its other hitmakers by 1975, Motown still had a number of successful artists during the 1970s and 1980s, including Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie, the Dazz Band, Jose Feliciano and DeBarge. By the mid-1980s Motown had started losing money, and Berry Gordy sold his ownership in Motown to MCA Records (which began a US distribution deal with the label in 1983) and Boston Ventures in June 1988 for $61 million. In 1989, Gordy sold the Motown Productions TV/film operations to Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who renamed the company de Passe Entertainment and continues to run it as of 2018[update]. Gordy continued to retain the Jobete music publishing catalog, selling it separately to EMI Music Publishing in parts between 1997 and 2004. It is nowadays owned by Sony Music Publishing (Sony/ATV until 2021) through the acquisition of EMI Music Publishing in 2012 (as a leader of the consortium and eventually assigned full ownership in 2018).
During the 1990s, Motown was home to successful recording artists such as Boyz II Men and Johnny Gill, although the company itself remained in a state of turmoil. MCA appointed a series of executives to run the company, beginning with Berry Gordy's immediate successor, Jheryl Busby. Busby quarreled with MCA, alleging that the company did not give Motown's product adequate attention or promotion. In 1991, Motown sued MCA to have its distribution deal with the company terminated, and began releasing its product through PolyGram. PolyGram purchased Motown from Boston Ventures three years later.
In 1994, Busby was replaced by Andre Harrell, the entrepreneur behind Uptown Records. Harrell served as Motown's CEO for just under two years, leaving the company after receiving bad publicity for being inefficient. Danny Goldberg, who ran PolyGram's Mercury Records group, assumed control of Motown, and George Jackson served as president.
By 1998, Motown had added stars such as 702, Brian McKnight, and Erykah Badu to its roster. In December 1998, PolyGram was acquired by Seagram, and Motown was absorbed into the Universal Music Group. Seagram had purchased Motown's former parent MCA in 1995, and Motown was in effect reunited with many of its MCA corporate siblings (Seagram had hoped to build a media empire around Universal, and started by purchasing PolyGram). Universal briefly considered shuttering the label, but instead decided to restructure it. Kedar Massenburg, a producer for Erykah Badu, became the head of the label, and oversaw successful recordings from Badu, McKnight, Michael McDonald, and new Motown artist India.Arie.
Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations had remained with the label since its early days, although all except Wonder recorded for other labels for several years. Ross left Motown for RCA Records from 1981 to 1988, but returned in 1989 and stayed until 2002, while Robinson left Motown in 1991 (although he did return to release one more album for the label in 1999). The Temptations left for Atlantic Records in 1977, but returned in 1980 and eventually left again in 2004. As of 2018[update], Wonder is the only artist from Motown's early period still on the label.
In 2005, Massenburg was replaced by Sylvia Rhone, former CEO of Elektra Records. Motown was merged with Universal Records to create the Universal Motown Records and placed under the newly created umbrella division of Universal Motown Republic Group. Notable artists on Universal Motown included Drake Bell, Ryan Leslie, Melanie Fiona, Kelly Rowland, Forever the Sickest Kids, The Veer Union and Four Year Strong. Motown celebrated its 50th anniversary on January 12, 2009 and celebrated it in Detroit on November 20, 2009, in a black-tie Gala titled "Live It Again!" The event was hosted by Sinbad and included Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin and Kid Rock.
In the mid-2011, Universal Motown reverted to the Motown brand after having been separated from Universal Motown Republic Group, hired Ethiopia Habtemariam as its Senior Vice President, and operated under The Island Def Jam Music Group. Artists from Universal Motown were transferred to the newly revitalized Motown label. On January 25, 2012, it was announced that Ne-Yo would join the Motown label both as an artist as well as the new Senior Vice President of A&R. On April 1, 2014, it was announced that Island Def Jam will no longer be running following the resignation of CEO Barry Weiss. In a press release sent out by Universal Music Group, the label will now be reorganizing Def Jam Recordings, Island Records and Motown Records all as separate entities. Motown would then begin serving as a subsidiary of Capitol Records. In late 2018, Motown began celebrating its 60th anniversary by reissuing numerous albums from their catalog.
Motown specialized in a type of soul music it referred to with the trademark "The Motown Sound". Crafted with an ear towards pop appeal, the Motown Sound typically used tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent and often melodic electric bass-guitar lines, distinctive melodic and chord structures, and a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music. In 1971, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that the sound consisted of songs with simple structures but sophisticated melodies, along with a four-beat drum pattern, regular use of horns and strings, and "a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio". Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used. Complex arrangements and elaborate, melismatic vocal riffs were avoided. Motown producers believed steadfastly in the "KISS principle" (keep it simple, stupid).
The Motown production process has been described as factory-like. The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day, and artists would often go on tour for weeks, come back to Detroit to record as many songs as possible, and then promptly go on tour again. Berry Gordy held quality control meetings every Friday morning, and used veto power to ensure that only the very best material and performances would be released. The test was that every new release needed to fit into a sequence of the top five selling pop singles of the week. Several tracks that later became critical and commercial favorites were initially rejected by Gordy, the two most notable being the Marvin Gaye songs "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "What's Going On". In several cases, producers would rework tracks in hopes of eventually getting them approved at a later Friday morning meeting, as producer Norman Whitfield did with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg".
Many of Motown's best-known songs, including all the early hits for the Supremes, were written by the songwriting trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland). Other important Motown producers and songwriters included Norman Whitfield, William "Mickey" Stevenson, Smokey Robinson, Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson, Pamela Sawyer & Gloria Jones, James Dean & William Weatherspoon, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Gil Askey, Stevie Wonder, and Gordy himself.
The style created by the Motown musicians was a major influence on several non-Motown artists of the mid-1960s, such as Dusty Springfield and the Foundations. In the United Kingdom, the Motown Sound became the basis of the northern soul movement. Smokey Robinson said the Motown Sound had little to do with Detroit:
People would listen to it, and they'd say, 'Aha, they use more bass. Or they use more drums.' Bullshit. When we were first successful with it, people were coming from Germany, France, Italy, Mobile, Alabama. From New York, Chicago, California. From everywhere. Just to record in Detroit. They figured it was in the air, that if they came to Detroit and recorded on the freeway, they'd get the Motown sound. Listen, the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It's spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen. What other people didn't realize is that we just had one studio there, but we recorded in Chicago, Nashville, New York, L.A.—almost every big city. And we still got the sound.
In addition to the songwriting process of the writers and producers, one of the major factors in the widespread appeal of Motown's music was Gordy's practice of using a highly-select and tight-knit group of studio musicians, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, to record the instrumental or "band" tracks of a majority of Motown recordings. Among the studio musicians responsible for the "Motown Sound" were keyboardists Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith, and Joe Hunter; guitarists Ray Monette, Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis; percussionists Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Jack Ashford; drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, and Richard "Pistol" Allen; and bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. The band's career and work is chronicled in the 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which publicised the fact that these musicians "played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined". Ashford later played on Raphael Saadiq's 2008 album The Way I See It, whose recording and production were modelled after the Motown Sound.
Much of the Motown Sound came from the use of overdubbed and duplicated instrumentation. Motown songs regularly featured two drummers instead of one (either overdubbed or in unison), as well as three or four guitar lines. Bassist James Jamerson often played his instrument with only the index finger of his right hand, and created many of the basslines apparent on Motown songs such as "Up the Ladder to the Roof" by The Supremes.
Artist development was a major part of Motown's operations instituted by Berry Gordy. The acts on the Motown label were fastidiously groomed, dressed and choreographed for live performances. Motown artists were advised that their breakthrough into the white popular music market made them ambassadors for other African-American artists seeking broad market acceptance, and that they should think, act, walk and talk like royalty, so as to alter the less-than-dignified image commonly held of black musicians by white Americans in that era. Given that many of the talented young artists had been raised in housing projects and lacked the necessary social and dress experience, this Motown department was not only necessary, it created an elegant style of presentation long associated with the label. The artist development department specialized primarily in working with younger, less-experienced acts; experienced performers such as Jr. Walker and Marvin Gaye were exempt from artist-development classes.
Many of the young artists participated in an annual package tour called the "Motortown Revue", which was popular, first, on the "Chitlin' Circuit", and, later, around the world. The tours gave the younger artists a chance to hone their performance and social skills and learn from the more experienced artists.
In order to avoid accusations of payola should DJs play too many records from the original Tamla label, Gordy formed Motown Records as a second label in 1960. The two labels featured the same writers, producers and artists.
Many more subsidiary labels were established later under the umbrella of the Motown parent company, including Gordy Records, Soul Records and VIP Records; in reality the Motown Record Corporation controlled all of these labels. Most of the distinctions between Motown labels were largely arbitrary, with the same writers, producers and musicians working on all the major subsidiaries, and artists were often shuffled between labels for internal marketing reasons. All of these records are usually considered to be "Motown" records, regardless of whether they actually appeared on the Motown Records label itself.
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