Motown turns 50, proud of musical, social legacy

Fri Jan 9, 2009 1:36pm EST
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DETROIT (Reuters) - Motown has always been about more than music. As the soul empire turns 50 on Monday, its founders are looking back at its brand of music dubbed the "Motown sound" that remains popular today and the record company's role in breaking down racial barriers in America.

Founded in 1959 in Detroit by songwriter and entrepreneur Berry Gordy using an $800 family loan, Motown plans a year-long celebration with record releases, documentaries and exhibitions. There is even talk of a Broadway musical in 2010.

Originally called Tamla and operating out of a two-story house, Gordy changed the name to Motown to reflect the auto industry that dominated Detroit.

He often likened his method of grooming black talent to an automobile assembly line that transformed plain metal frames into gleaming motorcars.

His management style, which involved weekly "quality control" meetings and lessons in deportment for Motown stars, chafed with some of his biggest acts. But, especially early on, it worked.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gordy helped to make stars of the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Supremes, the Temptations and the Jackson 5.

Motown boasts nearly 200 No. 1 songs worldwide and in its heyday produced classics like "My Girl," "What's Going On," "Dancing in the Street" and "Superstition."

"I think you can hear Motown in almost every song that's played on radio," said Geoff Brown of music magazine Mojo.

"What Motown did was ... take those forms (R&B, jazz, blues) plus gospel, and meld it into the sort of pop market and aim that music both at black and white America," he told BBC radio.   Continued...

<p>Motown Records founder Berry Gordy (L) and singer Diana Ross arrive at the 2007 BET Awards in Los Angeles, California, June 26, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>