The Motown Record Label is widely considered as an important milestone in the record label industry since it was able to successfully create racial integration of popular music at a time when race segregation was still a prominent aspect of American society. Owned and originally founded by Berry Gordy Jr. on September 1959 (Columbia, 1), Motown rose to prominence due to its various releases of several musical genres such as the rhythm and blues, hip hop, pop as well as soul music (appropriately named due to the deep soulful rhythm most of the songs possessed). It must be noted that unlike other record labels at the time such as Universal and MCM, Motown was actually able to develop a type of a trademark style of its own in the music that it produced. Often called “The Motown Sound”, this distinctive type of soul music that Motown specialized in was characterized by its use of tambourines, electric bass guitar lines, the use of orchestral string sections as well as distinct background vocals (Nantis, 22). What must be understood is that the distinctive melodic chord structures utilized as well as the call and response singing style often seen in various musical numbers today actually originally came from the Motown sound which also took this distinctive style from the styles utilized in prominently African American church gospel music.
It must be noted that the Motown sound, similar to the evolution of Jazz music in the U.S., featured various elements adopted from African American society.
It was due to this adoption of various cultural traits into the way in which the music was made that gave it its distinctive Motown Sound that few artists could effectively replicate due to their inability to initially understand that the method of production wasn’t concentrated on specialization and complexity but rather of cultural integration into the music itself which gave it that distinctive “feel”.
The first successful and significant act of Motown records was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, a rhythm and blues group that originated from Detroit Michigan who created Motown’s first million selling hit record “Shop Around”. In terms of overall success the Miracles were able to create 50 hits with 26 of their songs reaching the top ten of the Billboard Rhythm and Blues singles chart (Christian, 56). The group itself was known as Motown Record’s “soul super group” due to the continued critical acclaim and chart topping hits that were surprising for a group composed entirely of African Americans during a time when racial prejudice was still firmly embedded in the American society. Another critically acclaimed act produced by Motown Records from 1963 to 1972 was Martha and the Vandellas, while they had a comparatively short performance time consisting of only 9 years the group itself was able to create 26 hits and with 10 of them reaching the top ten of the Billboard R&B singles chart. It must be noted that the group itself was characterized by their far harder R&B style which utilizes a form of call and response singing style that was actually common in gospel choirs at the time but was a rarity in mainstream music till it was brought to the forefront of popularity by both the Vandella’s and Motown records. For example, the song “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas clearly shows the inherently gospel singing style inherent to various southern states in the U.
S. at the time. Last but not the least of the acts produced by Motown records were the Supremes, an all female singing group that became the premier act of Motown due to their 12 number one singles that were able to reach the Billboard Hot 100 list. In fact based on current records of the music industry the Supremes were actually America’s most successful vocal group due to their popularity reaching the heights of the Beatles themselves at the height of their fame.
It was actually due to the historical precedent set by the Supremes which were composed primarily of African American women that future African Americans in the R&B genre were actually able to find mainstream success for themselves. Today the Supremes are well known for popular culture songs such as “Stop in the Name of Love!” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” both of which are currently listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the top 500 songs that helped to shape Rock and Roll at the present.
Creating the Music
When it came to actually producing the music Motown utilized the writing talents of Berry Gordy Jr., Barrett Strong, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland (a.k.a Holland-Dozier-Holland) who helped to produce a majority of hits sung by Motown artists at the time. It must also be noted that Motown also utilized the musical talents of a group affectionately known as the “Funk Brothers” which were composed of various artists that created most of the background instrumental music which was integral in producing the “Motown Sound.
While the Motown record label may no longer exist today its influence in the creation of modern day R&B, soul music and even songs in other genres is not to be underestimated since a large percentage of popular songs today owe their musical quality to the initial steps forged by Motown Records.
Christian, Margena A. “SMOKEY ROBINSON, THE ‘POET LAUREATE OF SOUL,’ CELEBRATES 50 YEARS OF MUSIC. (cover story).” Jet 111.13 (2007): 56. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web.
23 May 2011. Columbia.”Berry Gordy, Jr.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2010): 1.
Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 23 May 2011. Nantis, David E.
“THAT MOTOWN SOUND.” America 200.5 (2009): 22. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web.
23 May 2011.