Motown: The Soundtrack of a Generation

Berry Gordy founded and presided over the musical empire known as Motown. Gordy endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people. Under his tutelage, Motown became a model of black economic self-determination, black pride and black self-expression. Motown was a repository for some of the greatest talent ever assembled at a single record company. The list of Motown artists include: the Supremes, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the Temptations, the Four Tops the Miracles,  Marvin Gaye,  Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Martha and the Vandellas. His musical dynasty yielded in millions of dollars, but the story of Motown is the story of family and community. Motown’s success was in the concept of the Motown family. The artists, musicians, technicians, business executives, and secretaries all shared an interest in everyone’s success.

The artists alone, however, were not the whole story of the Motown Miracle. Motown’s staff songwriting and production teams (e.g., Holland-Dozier-Holland) and in-house musicians (including such unsung heroes as bandleader/keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and bassist James Jamerson) helped to make the “Motown Sound”. The idea of a self-contained operation exuding soul from its every pore was all part of Gordy’s grand design. The studio musicians, known as the “Funk Brothers”, gave Motown its signature sound.

The organizing genius behind the Motown Miracle was Berry Gordy who oversaw the whole operation from its founding in 1959 to its sale in 1988. Berry insured that Motown’s stable of singers, songwriters, producers and musicians took the concept of simple, catchy pop songs to a whole new level of sophistication and, thanks to the music’s roots in gospel and blues, visceral intensity. At Motown, notions of “formula” were transformed into works of art in the hands of singers like Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick (of the Temptations), Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Stevie Wonder.

Rooted in gospel and blues, Gordy touted Motown as “the Sound of Young America.” At Gordy’s insistence, Motown’s men and women of soul attended in-house finishing school, where they learned how to comport themselves onstage and in social situations. Gordy instituted an internal program of “quality control,” including weekly product evaluation meetings. At the same time, the working environment was sufficiently loose and freewheeling to foster creativity. In Gordy’s words, “Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes.” Motown’s musical legacy is well known and will continue to inspire and instruct. So too will its business and management model. The missing chapter in the Motown story is its entrepreneurial model of business; its participatory production style, and its artist incentive model which motivated Motown artist and musicians to innovate, collaborate, and create. The Motown Miracle to be sure was a collective achievement grounded in the culture of African Americans. Reference: Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go?

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