The History of Motown and Its Distinctive "Sound"

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For many music fans, the Motown Sound is the defining sound of the 1960s pop, R&B, and soul music. The distinctive musical style—all tambourines, driving bass lines, and gospel-influenced vocal harmonies—became synonymous with the Detroit studio where the songs were recorded and the stars who sang them. It also launched dozens of musical careers and changed pop music history.

A Label is Born

The story of Motown begins with its founder, Berry Gordy III (born Nov. 28, 1929), who had had a driving interest in music since his boyhood in Detroit. He met and became friendly with Jackie Wilson, himself a struggling young R&B singer, and Gordy began writing songs for him. Wilson had a minor hit in 1957 with Gordy's "Reet Petite" and scored a smash with "Lonely Teardrops" the following year.

Encouraged by his songwriting success, Berry Gordy turned his attention to producing and began scouting the Detroit music scene for new acts to promote. One of his first discoveries in 1957 was Smokey Robinson's band, the Miracles. Gordy began collaborating with Robinson on songs while laying plans for the next phase of his plan: a record company, proudly owned and operated by African-Americans.

With $800 borrowed from friends and family, Gordy founded Tamla Records in Detroit and purchased a two-story home at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., converting it into a recording studio and office, and renaming it Hitsville U.S.A. By early 1960, Gordy had his first hit on his new label, "Money (That's What I Want)," a song he co-wrote for singer Barrett Strong.

Tamla Becomes Motown

Quickly signing new acts, Gordy renamed Tamla as Motown Records Corp. (Motown is an amalgam of "motor" and "town") in honor of Detroit in April 1960. By the time The Beatles arrived in the U.S. for the first time in 1964, Berry Gordy had signed such soon-to-be-legends as Mary Wells, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes. But only some of these artists wrote their own music; Motown's singers needed songs.

Gordy hired a number of professional songwriters in Motown's early days, but without a doubt, the most influential were the trio of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier. First working independently, then as a team, the trio wrote hits such as "Please, Mr. Postman," "Stop! In The Name of Love," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There."

The Sound of Motown

Like other notable recording studios of the '60s, Motown had a house band that backed up nearly every single song the label released from 1959 to 1971. The Funk Brothers, as the dozen or so professional (and largely unsung) musicians, were known, including bassist James Jamerson and percussionist Jack Ashford. In the early to mid-1960s especially, the Funk Brothers gave Motown's records their signature sound characteristics, including:

  • A strong, steady four-beat drum tempo
  • Frequent use of strings and horns
  • Pop vocal stylings embellished with gospel-influenced chorals
  • Complex chord changes and sophisticated melodies

To enhance this sound, Motown producers would use such studio trickery as two drummers instead of one, as many as four guitars, and frequent overdubbing of both vocals and instruments, plus mixing that emphasized treble for a crisp sound over AM radio.

Motown Then and Now

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved Motown's corporate headquarters to Los Angeles, which had become a major music industry hub. Although the label's hit-making team of Dozier-Holland-Dozier had left in 1967, Motown continued to spawn hits throughout the 1970s and sign new stars well into the 1990s. Among the acts, Gordy debuted included The Commodores, The Jackson 5, Rick James, Boyz II Men, and Erykah Badu.

In 2005, Motown merged with Universal Music Group, but by that time the label was a shell of its former self. Legacy acts like Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie had left for other labels, and Berry Gordy was no longer guiding the company. In recent years, following waves of contraction and reorganization in the larger U.S. music industry, the Motown label has been revived by Universal and has signed stars like Ne-Yo and Migos.