The 2002 musical documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown blended modern performances of the label's classic hits with a long-overdue homage to the largely anonymous Detroit-bred musicians who formed the grooves behind the classics we've come to know and love. In the same years that the seeds of American folk-rock and the British Invasion were being sown, the popularity of the classic pop-soul "Motown sound" brought black music into the mainstream of popular music. The list of artists who were discovered and thrived at Motown includes the Supremes, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and Martha and the Vandellas. But there was more to the legendary story than the artists.
Motown's staff songwriting and production teams (e.g., Holland-Dozier-Holland) and in-house musicians (including such unsung heroes as bandleader/keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and bassist James Jamerson) contributed immeasurably to the Motown sound. The idea of a self-contained operation exuding soul from its every pore was the design of Berry Gordy, Jr., founder and president of the musical empire.
Gordy's rags-to-riches story begins in Detroit, where stints in the army, as a boxer and as a record-store manager, preceded his entree into the creative and entrepreneurial side of the music business. In the mid-Fifties, Gordy began writing songs for local R&B acts and quickly acquired a local reputation as a songwriter, producer and hustler. His first break came in 1957, when Brunswick Records bought a song of his called "Reet Petite" for Jackie Wilson. Gordy discovered and started managing the Miracles, and produced their 1958 single "Get a Job" on the End Records label.
In 1959, Gordy ventured into independent production with singer Marv Johnson, enjoying a few modest hits such as "Come to Me." In 1960, Gordy leased another hit single - "Money," by Barrett Strong - to Anna Records, a label owned by his sister. His handful of small royalty checks convinced him to form his own label. Motown and its subsidiaries Tamla, Gordy and Soul, were stationed in a small Detroit house known as "Hitsville U.S.A." The first hit of any size for the fledgling company belonged to the Miracles, a vocal group led by Smokey Robinson. "Way Over There," released on Tamla in 1960, sold a respectable 60,000 copies. It's follow-up, "Shop Around," reached #2 on the pop charts and launched Motown into the national market. Gordy touted Motown as "the Sound of Young America." The Motown sound had broken the American race barrier and rapidly worked its way worldwide. Paul McCartney was touting the Miracles as a major influence as early as 1963.
By the mid-1960s, Gordy had assembled a Motown team that could take musically talented young black men and women, and teach them to talk, walk, dress as successful members of society. They were choreographed, mercilessly taught hw to put a song over successfully and, without compromising their cultural integrity, to appeal to the white teen market, thereby doubling their sales base. Gordy and his team successfully combined the polished images of the Motown acts with a rhythmic gospel-based music that would appeal to mainstream teen America. In place of the blues and R&B, Gordy favored a distinct music grounded by an insistent pounding rhythm section, punching up every beat in the bar, punctuated by horns and tambourines and featuring shrill, echo-laden vocals that bounced back and forth in a call and response of gospel. It was irresistible and infectious. Coupled with intelligent lyrics and strong melodies, the Motown sound cut through to the music-buying public like a hot knife through butter.
Motown generated literally hundreds of hits. In 1966, the company's "hit ratio" - the percentage of records released that made the national charts - was 75%, an awesome figure. In its Sixties heyday, Motown's parade of hits revolutionized American popular music. After Motown, black music would never again be dismissed as a minority taste or referred to as "race" music. For more than a decade, Berry Gordy and his talented cohorts translated a black idiom into the sound of young America. It was a success in integration that politicians and other leaders still struggle to attain.
Gordy relocated Motown operations to Los Angeles in 1970. He became active in the motion-picture industry while still heading the Motown team. . Gordy directed the movie Mahogany (1975), starring Diana Ross, and produced the films Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1975), and The Last Dragon (1988). Motown also produced the movie musical The Wiz (1978). Gordy sold Motown Records in 1988. Like Walt Disney, his original vision for the label still continues.