8/26/2010

50 Years of Motown

2009 marked the 50th anniversary of Motown, the recording company also known as "Hitsville U.S.A." At the beginning of 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. borrowed the sum of eight hundred dollars from his family and used it to found the Tamla Record Company (soon to become famous as the Motown Record Corporation) in Detroit, Michigan, establishing its headquarters in a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. In August of the same year, with the release of "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong, a song written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, the company had the first of its many hits.

The music of Motown was everywhere in the 1960s. When I listened to the radio during those years, along with millions of other teenagers around the world, it seemed that every other song on the airwaves was from Motown. At a time when racism in the United States still was overt and widespread, Motown gave us a batch of danceable records that delivered "The Sound of Young America," the exciting sound of a youthful generation of black performers at the peak of their abilities, filling countless ears with a polished combination of melody, rhythm, and soul. The singers, musicians, and songwriters of Motown were able to break through all barriers, creating universally appealing songs that transcended any differences of color.

Berry Gordy built a tuneful empire in Detroit, bringing together an assembly of musical performers that was truly outstanding: The Marvelettes, The Supremes, Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway, The Velvelettes, Jr. Walker and The All Stars, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and many others. Motown turned out hit after hit, from "Please Mr. Postman" to "Dancing in the Street" to "You Can't Hurry Love" to "The Tracks of My Tears" to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," conquering the charts with heartfelt songs that, once heard, could never be forgotten. It is not likely that so many performers of such exceptional quality will ever be heard again.

Although the company remained quite active during the 1970s, continuing to record and release hits with Stevie Wonder ("Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Higher Ground," "Living for the City," "Sir Duke"), The Jackson 5 ("ABC," "The Love You Save" "I'll Be There," "Never Can Say Goodbye"), Edwin Starr ("War"), Marvin Gaye (What's Going On"), and other performers, it seemed that the true sound of Motown was rooted in the bygone days of the 1960s. The company moved its headquarters from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, and when Berry Gordy finally sold Motown to MCA for millions of dollars in 1988, his formerly peerless organization was far removed from the soulful glories of its heyday.

Five decades is a long time, and the business of music, which now appears to contain more business and less music than in past years, has lately entered a period of decay and decline. Musical styles currently tend to come and go in a flash, without leaving any worthwhile traces, and Motown's fruitful activities of the 1960s have passed into history, but the vital music that was created by Berry Gordy and his fellow citizens of "Hitsville U.S.A." will remain, and will resound, forever.