A Brief History
On August 21, 1961, Motown Records of Detroit, Michigan released what became their first #1 hit song, “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes. Founded by record making genius Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown was an African-American oriented enterprise with a cross-racial appeal that helped bridge the musical gap between Black and White Americans in the turbulent 1960’s.
A relatively small company, Motown was now on its way to major success, owning the crossover soul to pop market. The 1960’s saw 79 Motown hits make the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Gordy moved the record company to Los Angeles in 1972 and sold it to MCA Records in 1988. Motown currently operates as a division of the Capital Music Group under the larger banner of the Universal Music Group, still producing hits.
Top acts recording under the Motown label during the 1960’s and 1970’s included mega stars The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye. Various other labels owned by Motown completed the Who’s Who of R&B and Soul music, with The Temptations, The Contours, Martha and The Vandellas, The Spiners, Jimmy Ruffin, and Gladys Knight and The Pips, just to name some. Unfortunately, Stevie Wonder is the only artist still with Motown left over from these heady years.
One of the keys to the success of Motown’s records was the extensive use of studio musicians known as The Funk Brothers, a back up band that allegedly appeared on more #1 hits than “The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined” (per the 2002 documentary film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.)
As far as that first #1 hit, it was followed by another 190 over the next 50 years! Question for students (and subscribers): What are your favorite Motown hits? How about your favorite Motown artists? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
George, Nelson and Quincy Jones. Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (Music in American Life). University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Justman, Paul, dir. Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Lionsgate, 2003. DVD.