“Please mister postman, look and see if there’s a letter in your bag for me,” sang The Marvelettes. “Do you love me, do you love me, now that I can dance,” sang The Countours. These were just two of the bands produced by Motown Records in the 1960s.
Berry Gordy Jr. started Motown in 1960. Gordy, the first African American man to start a record label made a name for himself by producing artists who composed music for everyone.
“Berry Gordy understood what would sell and he understood his artists. He applied good production techniques to create music that was clear, unique and ... good for dancing,” said Dr. James Payne, professor of music, director of jazz and rock ensemble, and coordinator of instrumental studies at UNK.
In the 60s many people saw music as a way to free their spirits and saw radio as a lifeline to the world, which defined Motown as a way about the community.
“During that time 8-tracks were out and people were able to listen to them in their cars, and it was common for people to buy just singles from artists,” Payne said.
During the middle and late 60s, Motown rose to the top of the Top 100 Billboard charts, and their music became known as the sound of young America.
“Berry Gordy was aiming towards that demographic. He wanted it to be in the line of the younger rock demographic because in the 60s the only white kids listening were teens; white kids did not listen to soul or blues,” Payne said.
During this time in the Civil Rights Movement racial segregation was a hot topic, and Motown artists like Marvin Gaye wrote songs with lyrics that raised the issue of integration.
“Berry and Motown were not involved in the political matters. Berry’s artists would aim music at the issue, but Barry Gordy wasn’t about that, he wanted to make his record company a success,” Payne said.
Smokey Robinson’s success as a rhythm and blues soul singer/songwriter, a record producer and record executive during the 60s earned him the title “King of Motown.”
Robinson was one of the artists who was aware of Motown’s cultural impact. In an interview with Pop Culture Classics in 2009, Robinson said, “We wanted to make music that would stand the test of time, and that’s what we did. And music that would break down all kinds of barriers— racial, intercontinental— all of that. And we did. We always had a very high standard.”
In 1975, Gordy was honored with the American Music Award of Merit. Diana Ross, Robinson, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder participated in the ceremony. Wonder said, “When I came to Motown, I was an amateur. Berry turned me into the artist I am today.” Another well-known Motown artist, Michael Jackson, left Motown in 1979.
The glimmer of Motown had dimmed. “Music today is so different and the influence of Motown is historical. Motown had an impact in the 60s but it didn’t carry on in the 70s. The next step in black music was funk, which came from soul,” Payne said.
Gordy relocated Motown Records to Los Angeles in 1972 but eventually sold the company June 28, 1988.