The Golden Age of the Motown Sound

Vintage Motown: A jam session from the 1960s features Kim Weston (microphone) Stevie Wonder(dark glasses), Berry Gordy Jr. at the piano, Smokey Robinson (center rear) and Marv Johnson, at Gordy’s left.

In 1957 a singing group called the Matadors, who were fronted by a young singer called Smokey Robinson, auditioned  unsuccessfully for Jackie Wilson’s manager. But another young man who watched the audition saw something Wilson’s manager had obviously missed and persuaded the group to change their name to the Miracles and work with him instead. The rest is history.

That man, of course, was Berry Gordy Jr.

Smokey Robinson saw something in Gordy, too, and urged him to start his own recording company. In 1959, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and “Motown” was born.

“It is probably true to say that Motown was as much Robinson’s company as it was Gordy’s, although Gordy was unquestionably the head of the company,” author Sharon Davis wrote in her book, ‘Motown, the History.’

By 1972 Berry Gordy was the richest black man in America with an annual income in excess of $10 million.

Berry Gordy Jr.: The genius behind Motown.

Berry Gordy was born in Detroit in 1929. His parents had migrated to the city in 1922 attracted by the job opportunities.

Berry Gordy Sr.’s grandmother had been a slave in Georgia, his grandfather a slaveowner. Berry Jr. was the seventh of eight children of Bertha and Berry Sr. Love and family ruled for the large Gordy clan.

After attending Northeastern High, Berry Jr. chased a dream of becoming a professional boxer. He even once fought on the same card as Joe Louis.

He served in the Korean War and returned to Detroit to work at Ford’s Mercury plant, earning $85 a week. Bored with his assembly line job, he spent all his free time writing songs.

Later, on borrowed money, he bought the home at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. that later became Hitsville USA. Success came quickly. The Motown Revue at New York’s Apollo Theater in October, 1962, showed the world that the new Motown sound was a major force to be reckoned with.

By 1966, three out of every four Motown releases made the charts. The stars were polished by Motown’s “Motown U pros” who taught them how to dress, stand, wear makeup, and do the motions with style, poise and grace.

The history of Motown is a string of lists — lists of hits, lists of stars, and lists of triumphs and tragedies.

Motown moved from Detroit to California in the mid-1970s, but removed from its roots it was never the same again. The $100 million annual sales slipped to $20 million by 1989, with only two power hitters in the lineup — Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah.

Hitsville USA: The home at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. that became the birthplace of the “Motown Sound” and is now a Motown museum.

      Later, Gordy wrote, “Motown would have been better off with the record thing if we had stayed in Detroit.”

Now under new ownership, with 35-year-old Andre Harrell leading the company, Motown is trying to find new roots by reaching out from California to satellite offices in other cities. Detroit will get an office, possibly in Harmonie Park.

Harrell, the Bronx-born hip-hopper, now looks for natural talent in the same assembly line manner that Gordy used in Motown’s early years. Local talent searches sponsored by the company seek the stars of tomorrow.

“It’s the Same Old Song, with a different meaning, since you been gone.”

Small Businessman of the Year: Berry Gordy accepts the Small Businessman of the Year Award in 1965 from then Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh.

The Motown successes


The Four Tops

The Four Tops

The Four Tops first performed in 1954 and are still together after 42 years. Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, and Lawrence Payton have survived several generations of musical tastes. Currently they can be seen singing the praises of Michigan on a Michigan Travel Agency TV promo. Over the years the group has managed to avoid the tragedies that dogged many other Motown acts. Luck was involved too. A delayed TV taping in England kept them off the doomed Pan Am Flight 103 that crashed in Lockerbie in 1988.

Some of their hits: I Can’t Help Myself, ‘Reach Out, I’ll be there,’ ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love,’ ‘It’s the Same Old Song.’

The Temptations

The Temptations: From left, Damon Harris, Dennis Edwards, Richard Street (seated) Otis Williams and David English.

At least 14 singers sang at one time or another as Temptations. Only Otis Williams survives as the remaining member of the classic 1960s group of David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin. Franklin died at age 52 of diabetes. Paul Williams killed himself in 1973. David Ruffin overdosed on drugs in 1991 at age 50. Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer in 1992.

Some of their hits: ‘Shotgun,”The Way You do the Things You Do,’ ‘I’m Losing You,’ ‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ ‘I Can’t Get Next To You,’ ‘My Girl, ‘ ‘Since I lost my Baby,’ ‘Get Ready,’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone.’

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Smokey Robinson, a pillar of Motown and a vice-president, finally quit in 1991, a few years after the 1988 sale of the company to MCCA and Boston Ventures. But he was there at the beginning, and his history there helped shape the history of the music industry. He won entrance into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as winning a Grammy Living Legend Award. His songs prompted Bob Dylan to call him “America’s greatest living poet.” ‘Shop Around’ in 1960 started a string of 38 more hits before Robinson quit the Miracles in 1972.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

In 1994 Robinson spoke to a Florida group of students at an anti-drug rally and mentioned religion, touching off a firestorm of controversy went all the way to the Supreme Court. Robinson had said that he believed that God saved him from a bout with substance abuse. He recited a Psalm and referred to the Hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. He was not invited back for the second day of the rally. School officials said he violated his agreement to keep religion out of his speech.

I’ll Try Something New

I will build you a castle with a tower so high
it reaches the moon.
I’ll gather melodies from birdies that fly
and compose you a tune.
Give you lovin’ warm as Mama’s oven
and if that don’t do,
Then I’ll try somethin’ new.
I will take you away with me as far as I can
to Venus or Mars.
There we will walk with your hand in my hand
you’ll be Queen of the stars.
And every day we can play on the Milky Way and if that don’t do,
Then I’ll try somethin’ new.

I will bring you a flower
from the floor of the sea to wear in your hair.

I’ll do anything and everythin to keep you happy girl
to show you that I care.
I’ll pretend I’m jealous of all the fellows and if that don’t do,
Then I’ll try somethin’ new.

I’ll take the stars and count them and move a mountain
and if that don’t do,
Then I’ll try somethin’new.
(c)1961 Jobete Music Con, Inc. William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr.

Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1965

Diana Ross

Slinky, skinny with spidery eye lashes, her singing defines the 60s. After a successful streak with Motown and a close personal relationship with Berry Gordy, she left Motown and the Supremes to try a new career in movies. She left after the hit, ‘Someday We’ll be Together,’ and headed for California. Gordy and Motown followed her to California a few years later, hoping for more and different successes. Diana recently announced on television that one of her daughters is Berry Gordy’s.

Some of her hits: ‘Where Did Our Love Go?,’ ‘I Hear A Symphony,’ ‘Nothing But Heartaches,’ ‘Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart,’ ‘River Deep, Mountain High,’ ‘Love Child.’

Michael Jackson, center, with the Jackson 5.


Michael Jackson

Diana Ross was instrumental in introducing child prodigy Michael Jackson to Motown when he was only 11. He soon topped the charts with four singles in a row. Later he left the family group the Jackson 5 and now, as a world superstar, he continues to top the charts with his shocking and innovative videos, while at the same time trying to deflect rumors and charges of child molestation. His strange marriage to Lisa Presley ended recently.

Some Jackson 5 hits: ‘ABC’, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye,’ ‘Ben.’

Stevie Wonder in 1968

Stevie Wonder

Little Stevie Wonder, who began recording at age 11 in 1963, grew up and dropped the ‘Little’. He not only sang his own hits, but he wrote hits for other artists as well. He earned total artistic control and the rights to his own songs.

His early hits: ‘Fingertips, Part 2,’ ‘Uptight,’ ‘I Was Made to Love Her,’ ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,’ ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.’ His song ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ won an Oscar.

Gladys Knight and the Pips

Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Gladys Knight and her brother and two cousins, the Pips, had performed together 14 years before they joined Motown in 1966. There they turned out a string of hits. They left Motown for Budda Records in 1973. The 1967 ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is considered a classic.

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Martha and the Vandellas.

Martha Reeves worked as a secretary at Motown and occasionally did some background singing. Finally the earthy singer hit with ‘Heatwave,’ ‘Dancing in the Street,’ and ‘Jimmy Mack’ party music. She later moved to MCA.

The Marvelettes

The Marvelettes, a group of 16-year-old tee-nage girls from Inkster, hit No.1 on the charts with ‘Please Mr. Postman.’ Smokey Robinson guided the girls’ career through the 1960s until they disbanded in 1970.

The Marvelettes

The Contours

The Contours, early rough singers of ‘Do You Love Me?’ and ‘First I Look at the Purse’ featured the gravelly Billy Gordon. They gave up member Dennis Edwards to the Temptations to replace David Ruffin.

The Motown tragedies


Mary Wells

Mary Wells

Mary Wells arrived at Motown at age 17 and her star rose brightly from 1961 to 1964 under the production genius of Smokey Robinson. She later left Motown and much of the plans for her career were switched to Diana Ross. Destitute, she died in July 1992 of throat cancer at the age of 42.

Her hits: The One Who Really Loves You, “You Beat Me to the Punch” “Two Lovers” “My Guy”

David Ruffin

David Ruffin died at age 50 on June 1, 1991 of a drug overdose. An ex-Temptation, he had once been fired by Motown for trying to change the Temptations, but was later rehired as a solo.

Flo Ballard

Flo Ballard

Flo Ballard sued Motown over her ouster from the Supremes. Later on ADC with her five kids in 1976, she died at age 32 of cardiac arrest. The Supremes attended her funeral.

Tammi Terrell

Tammi Terrell, 25, collapsed and died of a brain tumor on stage in Cleveland, in the arms of Marvin Gaye.

Her hits: ‘You’re All I Need to Get By.’

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye started with backup singers who later became Martha and the Vandellas. He broke through in 1962 using his gospel and R&B background to offer romantic dance/make-out music. He married Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna, who was 17 years older. In April 1984, at age 44, after a string of marital and financial woes, he was shot and killed by his father in a dispute over money.

His hits: ‘I’ll Be Doggone,’ ‘Ain’t That Peculiar,’ ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,’ ‘What’s Going On,’ ‘Mercy, Mercy Me,’ ‘Inner CIty Blues.’

Junior Walker Jams with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1987 at the National Governors’ Conference in Traverse City.

Junior Walker

Junior Walker, a Motown background saxophonist, once jammed with then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1987. Born Audrey Dewalt, he died of cancer in his Battle Creek home in Nov 1995.

His hits:‘Shotgun,”Road-Runner.’

Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson, ‘Mr. Excitement’ was incapable of making a bad record, according to his devotees. His ‘explosive falsetto and his downright weird phrasing made him utterly unique,’ said Rob Bowman in a 1992 review. The magnetic performer, who sang a few of Berry Gordy’s early songs, hit the charts more than 50 times.

In private life he was not so blessed. In 1961 he was shot and wounded by a fan in New York. In 1965 he divorced. His son, age 16, was killed in 1970. In 1975 he had a heart attack, suffered brain damage and was left in a coma. He died at age 49 in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Fans later purchased a grave marker for him. In 1987 his daughter age 37 was also killed.

Berry Gordy wrote ‘Reet Petite’ for Jackie Wilson in the late 1950s and it quickly topped the U.S. charts. The next song Barry wrote for Jackie, ‘To Be Loved,’ thrilled Berry. He later titled his autobiography with the same name.

Berry said, “Jackie Wilson was the epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I would be looking for in artists forever. Watching this man perform ‘To Be Loved’ was always a thrill.” Barry also wrote Lonely Teardrops for him. But Jackie never became part of Motown, only part of the legend.By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News