How Motown Changed Black Business Forever
Some of the most emotional and evocative human sounds, and a timeless imprint on musical history.
Diana Ross & The Supremes being supreme (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives)
Motown is so many things, but first and foremost it’s a form of rhythm and blues from 60s/70s Detroit that changed Black influence and Black business forever. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson all found fame through Motown. Said to be more polished and tightly-produced than R&B that had come before, influences upon the sub genre include everything from jazz and soul to gospel and pop. Motown managed to encapsulate both the trouble and strife of the Black experience as well as celebrating the construct of romantic love and anguish: often, all in one perfect song. This was an era where songwriters really came into their own like never before.
Scraping together some small coin from songwriting for local artists, a young Detroit entrepreneur by the name of Berry Gordy seized 1960 by its collar and launched what later became the Motown Record Corporation label. This was a monumental occasion in not just music but also Black history: though the two are of course, majorly and intrinsically linked.
Back to Black
This new hybrid sound of song historically catapulted this small record label to become the largest Black American-owned enterprise in the country and brought about the girl group/boy band sounds – from The Marvelettes to The Isley Brothers – that echo in our hearts to this day. Also came the sharp tailoring, bouffant/dapper haircuts and choreographed sways and clicks that came to be seared in our minds as quintessential Motown moves.
It Felt Like a KISS
Motown producers kept to the funny and brilliant 'KISS principle' (Keep It Simple, Stupid), coined by the US Navy in 1970 and universally popularized by 1970. As is reflected slightly in Gordy’s label’s labor-intensive suggestive name, Motown’s writers, producers and musicians worked prolifically, churning out high-quality sounds and pressing records in record time. Many worked tirelessly around the clock. It was almost like an assembly line, and you can see from the manicured presentation of the most successful acts - including their watertight choreography and composure - how regimented and dedicated Motown’s workforce was from the start. Try sparking a moodagent from the devastating, infinitely covered ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)'?
Jackie Wilson Said
One of the hits Gordy penned was 'Reet Petite’ for Jackie Wilson, but the label’s first smash hit was 'Money (That’s What I Want)’ by Barrett Strong, which was later covered by The Beatles and many others.
This is exactly what Motown was, and still is today. The label Motown itself is home to everyone from Cardi B and Stefflon Don to Lil Yachty and Migos. Artists like Amy Winehouse and Deerhunter’s early work is indebted to Motown’s sound.
Try this moodagent, sparked from the devastating, infinitely covered ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’ by The Crystals.
Words by Alexandra Pereira