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.
Underscoring its role in crossing racial boundaries was “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, which topped Mojo’s poll of the 100 greatest Motown songs.
The 1964 track was adopted as a civil rights anthem by black campaigners at the time, although lead singer Martha Reeves said the track was about soothing, not stoking, tensions.
Robinson and Reeves recalled how difficult the early days were for black artists starting out at a time of racial segregation in some regions of the United States.
“Back in the day we would go to play places in the south in America,” Robinson told Reuters in a recent interview.
“Many times the stage would be in the center, white people would be on one side and black people would be on the other side, white people would be upstairs and black people would be downstairs, or vice versa.”
Robinson credits Motown with helping to remove the barriers. “Years later ... everybody was in the same area, partying and sharing, and it was a great accomplishment musically and socially.”
Reeves told Reuters that pictures of band members were not allowed on early album covers because they may not have sold as well with black musicians and singers featured so prominently.
“A lot of DJs (told) us that their program directors didn’t want our music played out of there, but they played it anyway, they sacrificed their jobs,” she said.
Gordy, 79, believes one secret of Motown’s success was to write for listeners of all races. “We may have come over here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,” he said in a recorded interview released by Universal, the major record company that now owns Motown.
He declined requests to be interviewed by Reuters.
Motown chroniclers believe Gordy’s decision to move Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles in the late 1960s alienated some artists and weakened the company. Many of its stars inevitably went their own way and radical changes to the music industry eventually led to the company’s takeover. Gordy sold Motown on June 28, 1988, for $61 million.
While Stevie Wonder and younger acts continue to record on the label, it is better known today for what it has left behind than what it promises in the future.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White and Cindy Martin in London and Michelle Emard in Los Angeles, writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Vicki Allen