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Calling Out Around the World: Motown Turns 50

PopMatters concludes our week-long celebration of Motown at 50 with Diane Leach’s essay on living in the Detroit of the ‘80s in What It Was Like and a couple more album gems with Needles in the Haystack.

Edited by Zeth Lundy and Christian John Wikane and Produced by Zeth Lundy and Sarah Zupko

The first thing you see is a map of Michigan, cushioned by a half-sphere of blue. An orange star bursts through the grey terrain of route numbers, city junctures, and Lake Erie. That star represents Detroit, home to a certain “Hitsville USA”. Sprawled across the map, the word “MOTOWN” is colored by shades of red, orange, yellow, and green.  This illustration is not only an icon, it signifies the greatest legacy any single record label has ever left in popular music.

How quickly 50 years pass when a soul-infused Camelot is being created. It was that many years ago that a man named Berry Gordy introduced “The Sound of Young America” to a worldwide audience. The impact of this sound cannot be underestimated. Motown (or Tamla-Motown, as UK audiences know the label) produced some of the most heralded icons to emerge from the rock ‘n’ roll era: Smokey, Marvin, Diana, Stevie, and a certain self-styled “King of Pop”. The biggest hits are recognizable in mere seconds—the handclaps on “Where Did Our Love Go”, the bassline of “My Girl”, the softly strummed guitar on “The Tracks of My Tears”—and summon a distinct soundtrack to a half century of history, both personal and global.

The birth of Motown in 1959 paralleled the Civil Rights movement. Not insignificantly, the label bridged black and white audiences during the social upheaval of the 1960s. Gordy had a vision that his artists would appeal to as large and inclusive an audience as possible. Though the spectacle of Gaye at the Copacabana might have bewildered the most ardent soul music fans, Gordy succeeded in erasing the lines between “race music” and black and white audiences. The Temptations and the Supremes battled out the British Invasion on the pop charts while performing the unique choreography of Cholly Atkins for an audience glued to their suburban television screens watching The Ed Sullivan Show. The sound of young America became the sound of all America.

Search the back covers of Motown LPs from the ‘60s and you’re likely to see “The Motown Sound” printed in black typeface. What is the Motown Sound? It’s a question that even confounded label founder Gordy on the Motown 25 (1983) special. To contemporary listeners, the Motown Sound—at its purest—reflects the first ten years of the label, before the Detroit-based company relocated to Los Angeles. It was an era when, as Gordy famously said, “rats, roaches, soul, guts, and love” were the foundation of the label. The prolific William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. and the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland furnished an arsenal of hits, the Funk Brothers tirelessly laid down tracks, and acts like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas blared from transistors on front-porch stoops and convertible car radios alike.

Of course, Motown has long ceased to be the independent operation it once was, due to a series of lucrative sales to label conglomerates beginning in the 1980s. “Hitsville USA”, which housed the label’s original Detroit headquarters at 2648 West Grand Blvd., is now a museum. The fate of Motown artists and groups is divided. Sadly, many have died while most have faded into obscurity and only a handful still pack concert halls. Stevie Wonder is the sole Motown artist who’s remained with the label since the 1960s.

Yet, the music of Motown remains gloriously alive and relevant. It is a testament to Gordy that no matter where you live or what generation you belong to, “The Motown Sound” figures somehow in your life, whether it’s the sweet sound of Mary Wells, the raspy growl of Edwin Starr, or Amy Winehouse borrowing the original track of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. To its credit, Universal continues to excavate the golden vaults of the label and burnish forgotten tracks and unreleased gems.

As Motown celebrates its golden anniversary this year, PopMatters submit its choices for our favorite Motown singles of all time, a difficult task to be sure. We present the best of the best on our Top 25 list. We also suggest a few choice “Bonus Tracks” of lesser known work by some of the label’s biggest stars, as well as acts who flew just beneath the radar. A series of essays explore Motown’s significance as a political, cultural, and musical force whose reverberations have traveled across the vinyl grooves of 45-rpm singles and into megabytes stored on MP3 playlists.

While you reminisce about these songs, consider that someone is hearing the Marvelettes, Rick James, Gladys Knight & the Pips, or the Commodores for the first time. There is joy in remembering and there is joy in discovery. There may even be joy inside your tears (to paraphrase Steve Wonder) as you listen to these voices. Happy Golden Anniversary, Motown! The orange star of Detroit shines brighter than ever.

Christian John Wikane

Thursday, January 29 2009

What It Was Like

In the early '80s Detroit, Motown was as unquestionable as air. Who didn't like air?

Needles in the Haystack

To supplement our list of favorite 25 singles, we offer a quick look at a handful of under-appreciated gems in the Motown catalog.

Wednesday, January 28 2009

What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Liberation from the Motown Sound

When Obie Benson of the Four Tops brought him a song he had co-written with Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye found something that had reflected the way he had been feeling ever since Tammi Terrell's death -- anger, sadness, and disillusionment about his friend's death and the chaotic world around him.

Yesterday’s Dreams: Motown in the 1980s

The music of Motown's third decade does not quite deserve the close attention that the label's first two decades warrant, but even a cursory look at the label in these years reveals that things weren't all bad.

Tuesday, January 27 2009

Twirling the Dial: My Motown Memories

For those of us in tune with the sounds of the genre-redefining decade, a transistor radio was the seminal social sidekick. We loved listening to that little mono wonder, its tiny shrill speaker sparking a hundred journeys directly into the center of our mind.

These Are the Breaks: The Motown Sound’s Influence on Hip-Hop Sampling

For any influential group in the hip-hop game, specifically in the early 1990s, Motown's stamp of approval and its variety of subsidiaries were undeniably influential.

Monday, January 26 2009

Manufacturing Motown

Like the nameplates on the auto industry's productive output, Motown's headline acts were brand identities under which cultural commodities were sold.

Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead

If "I've Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying" could work as a slogan for Motown, the song itself works as both a dance song and a tearjerker.

Sunday, January 25 2009

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

From the Four Tops and the Temptations to the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes, we narrow down our favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America" era to 25 indisputable picks.

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