The Birth of Motown

On January 13th, 1959, with an $800 loan from his family, 29-year-old Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records; Motown was born and Detroit would make its indelible mark on the known universe yet again.

Gordy’s first successful act was signed as The Matadors, with their name quickly changed to The Miracles, featuring Smokey Robinson. Later that year, Gordy purchased the property on Detroit’s famed West Grand Blvd. that would eventually become known as Hitsville USA. A photography studio near the back of one of the buildings on the property was converted to a recording studio, while administrative offices were set up in other structures. In 1960, Gordy officially incorporated Motown Records as a sister label to Tamla, housing both under the Motown Record Corporation name.

The music labels enjoyed quick success, scoring their first #1 R & B hit, “Shop Around” by The Miracles, in 1960; the single was Motown’s first million-seller. From 1961 to 1971, Motown Record Corporation enjoyed 110 Top Ten hits, from artists including Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, and The Four Tops. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and The Temptations were signed by a third label, which Gordy named after himself, and with the gifted writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland in the house, Motown’s growing family could do no wrong.

Gordy’s pioneer minority-owned company specialized in a type of soul music that took the moniker of the label, the distinct “The Motown Sound,” finding enormous success crossing over and appealing to multiple demographics. “I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles… I wanted everybody to enjoy my music,” said Gordy, as the sound saturated radio and television, with acts travelling the world to entertain enthusiastic fans.

Motown Records also created an “artist development” program that helped talented but inexperienced young singers hone presentation styles that would endear them to audiences, with a serious eye on “white” appeal as well. Motown artists, many under the tutelage of Miss Maxine Powell, learned to walk, talk, think and act like royalty.

With growth unabated, soon Gordy headed an independent empire that would seal its genuinely iconic status, signing new acts including The Temptations, Marvelettes, Jackson 5, Spinners, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Rare Earth. Motown had established offices in both Los Angeles and New York during the 1960’s, and in 1972 the company officially moved its headquarters to L.A.

With all great things passing into legend, Gordy sold his stake in Motown Records to Music Corporation of America (MCA) in 1988 for $61 million. Five years later, Polygram would purchase Motown for $301million; not a bad return for Gordy’s original 800 bucks.

And here, the story of 62 years of soul endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.