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After a successful stint writing for Jackie Wilson, Detroit-based songwriter Berry Gordy decided that there was more money to be made in the music business as a producer than as a songwriter. Taking out a loan, he founded the Tamla Records label and started signing local talent. Following up early successes with the creation of the Hitsville USA studio, Gordy started a second label to supplement Tamla. Its name was a portmanteau of the Detroit nickname, "Motor City" or "Motown". From there, Tamla Motown (along with such associated labels as Gordy, Soul, and V.I.P.) went out to conquer the world of pop.
While it's now defunct, this American record company had a huge impact on popular music in general and Soul in particular, and it's noted for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the "Motown sound", which was developed primarily by company session group the Funk Brothers; this was characterised by tambourine-accented percussion, melodic basslines, gospel-influenced call and response singing and lush string arrangements. The Motown sound was highly influential on subsequent artists, especially those of The British Invasion.
Second, Motown labels were noted for their factory-like production process. Berry Gordy was very keen to see black musicians getting into the upper reaches of the pop charts, so songs were tailored with crossover appeal in mind. Much of the production work was centred around staff songwriters and songwriting teams, the most famous of which was Holland-Dozier-Holland. New tunes were written during the week and then presented at Gordy's quality-control meetings on Fridays, where they were played in a sequence of the top five singles of that week. If Gordy felt that the song lacked promise, he wielded an executive veto.
Finally, Motown was famous for the sheer number of hugely successful acts they signed. At one time or another, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men and Rick James were artists signed to one of Gordy's Motown labels, while famous acts from the glory days of the label like the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas quickly became household names.
The early years of the label, and the career of the Supremes in particular, were the inspiration for the musical and movie Dreamgirls.
- Album Filler: Motown was notorious for releasing albums which were essentially hit singles surrounded by cover songs. This policy prompted Marvin Gaye to record the Concept Album What's Going On?
- Boy Band: The Four Tops, the Temptations and the Jackson 5 are among the earliest examples.
- The Chessmaster: Berry Gordy.
- Cover Version: Songs were often covered by different artists within the company. Marvin Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", for example, wasn't even the first one recorded.
- Executive Meddling: Berry Gordy was obsessed with quality control and tried to veto the release of successful songs like "What's Going On" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" because he thought they wouldn't cross over well enough. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both ended up threatening to stop recording unless their demands were met.
- Girl Group: The Supremes were the most successful, achieving nine number one hits and becoming arguably the second biggest pop group in the world next to The Beatles during the 1960s. Others included the Marvelettes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
- Lead Bassist: James Jamerson, routinely considered one of the best bass players in history.
- Music Is Politics: Taking into account Gordy's iron-handed control of the company, Motown was absolutely awash with it. For example, Diana Ross was never thought of as the best singer in the Supremes, but she was the most marketable as a leader, so she was brought to the front and given the big solo push when the group broke up.
- The Rival: Stax Records qualified stylistically, because it specialized in tougher, harder-edged soul music in contrast to the more commercial pop sound produced by Motown. Ironically, although Stax specialized in music that sounded more "black" than what Motown offered, the label was actually owned by a white country fiddle player, Jim Stewart, and featured several white musicians (including ace guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn) on its recordings (not to mention distributing Big Star through its subsidiary Ardent). Atlantic Records, a New York-based jazz and blues label, is another commonly cited rival.