What Paul Gambaccini labelled the “sound of young America” was founded by Berry Gordy Jr in Detroit, Michigan in the early 60s. A sound that proved a crossover success in both America and Europe and whose legacy has continued to thrive.
Hitsville USA, at West Grand Boulevard, was the starting point, just outside the motor city, where big business were booming including Ford cars and artists such as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, and The Four Tops, amongst many others began to thrive as performers.
Detroit became a hub for catchy, liberating music, reviled by the elders but revered by the youth, where black acts crossed over to the pop charts, creating an atmosphere and “enabling music to reach across racial lines” (Chris Sampson). Gordy contacted Lamont Dozier and Brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, who would write the songs for the acts and together they made a formidable team that would come to define what would become the ‘Motown’ era in US music.
Between 1961 and 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits, with artists including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye bagging numerous releases on the Tamla label. Motown reflected and inspired social change and captured the heart of a burgeoning culture where younger audiences could enjoy and dance to music. The sound reached overseas to parts of Europe, where this bright daring music, produced and performed by African-American artists, would come to influence much of The Beatles’ early works.
Jr Walker & the All Stars joined the label in 1964, and songs such as ‘Shotgun’ and ‘I’m a roadrunner’ formed a benchmark for popularising Motown. Walker embodied this new found freedom where upbeat tracks were coloured with tenor saxophone solos and passionate vocals with the band backing him. Hits were shared between major artists including ‘How sweet it is to be loved’ sung by both Marvin Gaye and Jr Walker as Motown hit its peak.
Perhaps the biggest record that would come to symbolise this era would be ‘My Girl’ by The Temptations. The harmonies of the vocals behind the lead would form the foundation for vocal groups throughout the 20th century. The lyrics conveyed a liberating influence on 60s youth and the over-riding pressures of the Vietnam War and tensions between the US and Russia. ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day’, banished that overriding sense of trouble that was beginning to envelope the country.
Today Motown has retained its legacy, both as a benchmark for performers and groups in both pop and R&B charts today, as well as unifying people of all races and colours to enjoy the music. Due to vanquished businesses and plummeting employment, the Detroit of the 21st century is now regarded as a ghost town with the lack of economic prospects. Hitsville however has maintained its historical and cultural appeal, now called the ‘Motown Museum’ as tourists flock to reminisce and discover the magic that was created in ‘Studio A’ and those very headquarters.
‘Motown classics‘, consisting of 14 rare and unreleased on vinyl gems, is out now!