Detroit may be best known as the Motor City, the birthplace of the automotive industry, but it is also a music-driven city, the birthplace of multi-time Grammy-winning rapper Eminem and multi-time Grammy-winning garage rock outfit The White Stripes. It is also the birthplace of techno music. But before all of that, there was Motown.
“Motown” means a few different things. A combination of “motor” (for the Motor City) and “town,” it was a record label founded in Detroit. But it also refers to “the Motown Sound,” a pop-friendly kind of soul music, which the label made commercially successful across the country and became one of the definitive styles of the 1960s. And as much as that, it also became a new identity for Detroit, which is now referred to as “Motown” just as much as it is “the Motor City.”
Motown Records was a record company started by Berry Gordy, Jr. in 1959 in Detroit, who is said to have modeled the label’s production after the automotive assembly lines. While there were several separate labels under the Motown Record Corporation, they all used the same writers, producers and artists, and are known collectively, simply as “Motown.” The Motown Sound, as it came to be known, was rooted in African American soul music with a heavy pop influence. At the time, Elvis Presley and his radio-friendly mix of rock, pop and blues were already enormously popular, and across the pond the Beatles would soon skyrocket to immortal fame. But while these white artists were getting hugely rich and famous for the music they made that was deeply rooted in black music, black musicians were not seeing the same meteoric rise to success.
That is, until Motown.
While none of the names that made Motown most popular are names that history has treated with the same reverence as Elvis or the Beatles, Motown was hugely significant in other ways. Elvis and the Beatles were single acts, moments in time that were akin to lightning striking. But Motown was a movement. It was its own genre, its own distinct sound. It was a cultural zeitgeist. It put the Motor City on the map for more than just cars. It created a whole new identity for Detroit, but not just the predominantly black city – for black Americans as a whole.
In the 1960s, the African American Civil Rights Movement was peaking, with activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. becoming loud voices on a national scale. A race riot in Detroit in 1943 started what has been known as “white flight,” with whites abandoning the city and fleeing to the suburbs while blacks remained in the urban core. Racial tensions remained high and erupted in another riot in 1967, this one precipitated by police actions against a large group of blacks celebrating the return home of two local GIs from Vietnam. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This was a tumultuous time in American history, perhaps the most violent and turbulent time period in America since the Civil War 100 years earlier.
And during this time, black musicians saw their first moment in the white-dominated spotlight of commercial success, all thanks to Motown. Gordy, a former boxer and autoworker, and fledgling songwriter, established Motown Records, a blackowned and black-focused business that put black artists on the same level as Elvis and the Beatles.
Gordy erected a sign that read “Hitsville U.S.A.” on the front of the Motown Records headquarters at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. While the sign might have been a bit preemptive, it would ultimately prove prophetic: Motown has produced 191 Billboard No. 1 tracks from the likes of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and the woefully overlooked studio musicians the Funk Brothers, who collectively played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. Timeless Motown hits include “I Can’t Help Myself,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” “Baby Love,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Get Ready,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Some say that no other record company in history has exerted such an enormous influence on popular music and culture.
In 1972, Gordy moved Motown permanently out of Detroit to Los Angeles, and in 1988 he sold Motown Record Corporation to MCA. The label has bounced around a few different record companies since then and has continued to produce hits, but has never been as prolific as it was during its golden years in the 1960s.
Today, you can experience Motown as it was at the Motown Museum, housed in the original headquarters of the record label on Grand River Blvd., where the “Hitsville U.S.A.” sign is still displayed out front. Visitors can stop by Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with increased hours in the summer) for guided tours of the museum for only $10 per person. The original house is small but filled with artifacts from the Motown era, including Michael Jackson’s iconic beaded white glove. The knowledgeable and engaging docents will guide you on the tour, loading you up with history, giving you time to explore the old photographs, walking you through the famous Studio A (the garage studio where all the artists recorded their hits), and even leading a few spirited sing-alongs and group dance routines. This is not the usual hushed museum experience; this is a true Motown experience. For more information go to motownmuseum.org.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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