That Motown Groove: STILL Unstoppable!

posted by Mike Eiland -

Some of us who are in-the-know realize that Motown is short for Motor Town, which was Detroit's nickname back in its auto-production heyday. It is also widely recognized as the name of the history-making black-owned independent record label formed in Detroit by Berry Gordy. He assembled cars for sure at a local factory but he also assembled a cadre of talented individuals and musicians and created a "sound" that became known as The Motown Sound. The sound was high on percussion (especially the tambourine), hand claps and a shuffling but high-tempo drum beat. Lyrics were upbeat for the most part and it was dance-inducing, mass-appeal music. Among the major artists were the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Miracles and the Four Tops. Songs from these artists and others, especially during the 1963-1968 era, had many of the same musicians on them, therefore creating the "Motown" sound on those recordings.

Motown's dominance during the 1960s can lead one to believe that any song made by an R&B artist during that time might be "Motown." The term really refers to artists and songs produced and recorded in the Motown studios. There also was "Memphis soul" from artists like Booker T. & The M.G.'s and Sam & Dave. There were other popular non-Motown soul artists like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin (ironically enough raised in Detroit) along with Otis Redding, all of whom were very popular in the 60s dominating the music charts. 

A "payola" scandal (label and artist representatives offering money under-the-table to DJs to get records played) plagued the radio and recording industry in the early 60s. The illegal practice claimed the careers of many radio DJs and record producers. Berry Gordy was scandal-free on that front. But he did use extraordinary precautions to avoid even the appearance of payola. He had different record label names and logos for his Motown artists. This came about because a of a new regulation for radio stations to list the names of the labels alongside the artist and title of the songs on their Top 40 music surveys. These surveys were used as music guides for the record-buying public and as a popularity and sales-measurement tool by industry professionals. If any one label name was dominant on the charts, it had the appearance of payola, even if it was not the case. Gordy carefully placed his artists on different subsidiary label imprints. He put Stevie Wonder, the Miracles and the Marvelettes, among others, on the Tamla label (a yellow record label with brown lettering). He placed the Temptations on the Gordy imprint (purple with yellow lettering), Gladys Knight & The Pips and Jr. Walker & The All-Stars on the Soul label (white label with purple lettering) and the Supremes, Four Tops and many others under the main Motown logo (blue label showing a map of Detroit). Therefore, had the Temptations, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight & The Pips dominated the top five positions on a song chart, they all would have shown under a different label name. 

Rare Earth was a rock group that emerged in 1970 covering a lot of earlier Motown classics like the Temptations' Get Ready and (I Know) I'm Losing You. The group gave those songs a real rock edge and breathed new life into them. They also created gems of their own like I Just Want To Celebrate. They were the only group to have a Motown subsidiary imprint named after them with the creation of the Rare Earth record label. 

Some artists who were originally with Motown had major hits on other labels after they left. Gladys Knight & The Pips had their biggest post-Motown hit with Midnight Train To Georgia on Buddah in 1973. The Four Tops ranked high with Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got) on ABC records, also in 1973. Marvin Gaye had a Grammy-winner on Columbia Records with Sexual Healing in 1982. The Isley Brothers recording of their original This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) in 1966 was redone by Rod Stewart and Ronald Isley as This Old Heart Of Mine in 1990 on Warner Bros. Records. The original Isley Brothers hit version was on the Tamla imprint. However, a bigger post-Motown hit of theirs titled It's Your Thing was on the T-Neck label in 1969, the year after they left Motown. The Spinners hit it big on Motown label imprint V.I.P. with the Stevie Wonder penned-and-produced It's A Shame in 1970. But their biggest hits were on Atlantic Records and included I'll Be Around and Could It Be I'm Falling In Love in 1972 and 1973, respectively. Of course, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 (as The Jacksons) had monster after-Motown hits on Epic Records (a CBS record label subsidiary).

Some artists came along after Motown departed Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, which left many of the Detroit musicians behind. As a result, there came a different, more lavishly produced sound, which was common in most other soul recordings of the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s. The Commodores were a self-contained group which came to Motown in 1972, originally under Motown's MoWest imprint. The Dazz Band, from Cleveland, hit it big with Let It Whip in 1982 and Lionel Richie (of the Commodores) had his biggest hits under Motown's main imprint as well in the 1980s. DeBarge, Teena Marie and Rick James were some of the later artists to come along and score big on Motown labels. 

Diana Ross, still with Motown in 1980, got hold of a different but very recognizable sound when she teamed with the members of Atlantic Records act Chic (Le Freak, Good Times) and had their backing for her Diana album on Motown, which contained the hits Upside Down and I'm Coming Out.

Motown Records and their artists enjoyed huge successes, and many of those great songs today still reign "supreme" and give you "temptations" to dance!



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