American record company specializing in black soul music; the name is the registered trademark of the company but has also come to be used as a descriptive term for the associated musical style. The company was founded by berry Gordy in Detroit (‘motor town’: hence the name) in 1959 as Tamla Records, the Motown imprint following in 1961. Subsequent subsidiary labels to Motown included Gordy (1962), Soul (1964), VIP (1964), Rare Earth (1969) and Black Forum (1970). Gordy himself trained all the early songwriters and producers in an attempt to reach both black and white audiences, and quickly achieved hits with the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells and Martha and the Vandellas. By 1963 Motown’s sales of singles in the USA were exceeded only by RCA and CBS, and soon such artists as Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Junior Walker and the All-Stars had been built into superstars.
Motown’s distinctive sound developed from a policy of using the same teams of songwriters and producers, the same musicians and the same studio for virtually every recording. Although there was a fair degree of latitude in the realization of this sound from artist to artist, there were a number of important general characteristics. While the basic pulse was always articulated by a variety of instruments (sometimes aided by handclaps and foot stamping rooted in gospel music) and featured prominently in the mix, the backbeat was often minimized. The lead instrument was commonly a non-rock or rhythm and blues instrument such as a bassoon, english horn or vibraphone. The production tended to emphasize the lead singer in the mix with the instrumental accompaniment, blended in a fashion clearly influenced by the dense ‘wall of sound’ productions of Phil Spector. The high end of the sound register was often favoured as were composite timbres frequently produced by combining up to four sound sources. James Jamerson’s bass lines were more tonally developed (involving a high level of chromaticism and passing notes) than many of the time. Lyrics tended to be rich in internal rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and other poetic devices, and songs tended to have multiple hooks.
In 1971 Motown moved to Los Angeles in order to expand into films and enjoyed continued success with Gaye and Wonder, as well as the Commodores, the Jackson 5, Rick James and Lionel Ritchie. However the relocation contributed to the company’s losing its focus and consequently, as performers recorded in whatever style was popular at the time, its characteristic sound. In 1988 Gordy sold Motown to MCA records.
P. Benjamin: The Story of Motown (New York, 1979)
G. Hirshey: Nowhere to Run: the Story of Soul Music (New York, 1984)
N. George: Where did our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (New York, 1985)
D. Waller: The Motown Story: the Inside Story of America’s most Popular Music (New York, 1985)
J.R. Taraborelli: Hot Wax, City Cool and Solid Gold: Motown (New York, 1986)
S. Davis: Motown: the History (London, 1988)
B. Fong-Torres: The Motown Album (New York, 1990)
R.G. Singleton: The Untold Story: Berry, Me, and Motown (Chicago, 1990)
B. Gordy: To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown (New York, 1994)