Photo Essay - Motown

2648 West Grand BoulevardMotown headquarters. Courtesy of Wayne State University Motor City Collection.

The origins of the storied "Motown sound" lay in an otherwise unremarkable building in Detroit, Michigan. In 1959, after securing an $800 loan from his family, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. purchased a two-story home at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and converted the first floor into a music studio. Dubbed "Hitsville, USA," the first headquarters of the Motown Record Company would be responsible for an exceptionally disproportionate—given its small size and relative isolation—number of pop and R & B hits throughout the 1960s. (In 1968 the studio moved to a high-rise downtown before decamping for Los Angeles in 1972.) The original house on West Grand Boulevard still stands, and in 1985 was converted into the Motown Historical Museum by Gordy's sister Esther Gordy Edwards.

The MarvelettesThe Marvelettes in 1968 (from left: Ann Bogan, Wanda Rogers, and Katherine Anderson). Courtesy of Photofest.

In 1961 Michigan teenagers and girl-group prototype The Marvelettes recorded "Please, Mr. Postman" for Motown's Tamla label, giving the company its first song to reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. ("Money [That's What I Want]," by Barrett Strong, was the company's first song to make any list, reaching number 2 on the Billboard R & B chart in 1959.) Despite a promising start, the group was quickly overshadowed by more glamorous and sonically versatile acts such as The Supremes, even though they were modeled on the Marvelettes pioneering style. Founding group members consisted of Inkster High School classmates Gladys Horton and Georgia Dobbins; by the time of their disbandment in 1970, members had included, at various points, Wyanetta ("Juanita") Cowart, Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Marie Tillman, Wanda Young, and Ann Bogan, who joined in 1968. Other notable hits include "Beechwood 4-5789" (1962) and "Too Many Fish in the Sea" (1964).

Marvin GayeAlbum cover for I Heard It Through The Grapevine! (1968). Courtesy of Photofest.

By the time Marvin Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 it had already been recorded by two other Motown acts—possibly three, if a rumored studio session with the Isley Brothers is counted—and had reached number 1 on the Billboard R & B chart. The track, created by legendary in-house producer Norman Whitfield and early Motown singer Barrett Strong, was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles in 1966, though was never released due to opposition by Berry Gordy. Gaye's version was recorded next, but was also held up by Gordy; it took the R & B chart success of Gladys Knight & The Pips, a year later, to finally convince the Motown president it was good enough. In 1968, two years after it was originally recorded, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" was released on the album In The Groove. Pressure from Whitfield finally convinced a still-resistant Gordy to release the track as a single, and it immediately ascended the Hot 100, staying at the top for seven weeks. In the Groove was re-launched with the title of its hit track, and Gaye became yet another Motown superstar.

James JamersonJames Jamerson, left, with fellow Funk Brother Uriel Jones, at the Blues Unlimited club in Detroit (1964). Courtesy of Photofest.

Though long considered one of the world's greatest bassists by his music industry peers, it was not until his 2000 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that James Jamerson received widespread recognition. A core member of the Funk Brothers, the Motown studio band responsible for almost every Motown hit from 1959 until the company's 1972 relocation to Los Angeles, Jamerson elevated the bass from secondary instrument to driving melodic force, an achievement that would influence musicians such as Paul McCartney, Bernard Edwards, and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. Jamerson, like most of the Funk Brothers, began his career playing blues and jazz in Detroit clubs, a background that provided technical heft for the complicated arrangements demanded by the "Motown Sound." In fact, so precocious was Jamerson that he played in clubs as a minor after securing police permission. In 1972 Jamerson accompanied Motown to Los Angeles, quickly beginning a successful solo career. He toured with Joan Baez and wrote the theme to Starsky & Hutch, among other efforts, but by the end of the 1970s his alcoholism and deteriorating mental health forced him out of the industry. He died in 1982 due to complications from alcohol abuse.

Little Stevie Wonder"Little Stevie Wonder." Courtesy of James Kriegsmann/Photofest.

"Little Stevie Wonder," as Berry Gordy dubbed Steveland Judkins after his audition at Motown studios, was only 12 years old when he recorded his first hit, "Fingertips, Pt. 2," a seven minute live track of frenzied blues harmonica and call-and-response. (A young Marvin Gaye played drums on the song.) The 12 Year Old Genius, the 1963 album containing "Fingertips," was also a success, becoming Motown's first LP to reach the number 1 position on the Billboard 200 albums chart. For the first time in Billboard history, an album and a single by the same artist were simultaneously at the top of the charts; additionally, "Fingertips" was the first live single to reach number 1 on Billboard since 1952. In 1964 Wonder dropped "Little" from his name, and a year later recorded "Uptight (Out of Sight)," one his most well-known songs. Much more than his earlier work, "Uptight" was a uniquely Motown-sounding track: a simple, repeating melody over a driving beat by studio drummer (Funk Brother) Benny Benjamin. Wonder would go on to become one of the best-selling and highly-acclaimed artists of the twentieth century.

Diana RossDiana Ross in 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Photofest.

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved Motown headquarters to Los Angeles in an attempt to enter the movie business. Motown Productions was born, and within the year the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues was released, written by label executive Suzanne De Passe and starring Supremes frontwoman Diana Ross. (Billy Dee Williams and a not-yet-famous Richard Pryor also had major roles.) Though critiqued for its formulaic—and often embellished—plotline, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Ross. Ross worked with Motown Productions on two other films, Mahogany (1975), which was directed by Gordy, and The Wiz (1978), a reinterpretation of L. Frank Baum's classic also starring Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, and Pryor.

The Temptations, 1966The Temptations, 1966 (from left: Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, and Eddie Kendricks). Courtesy of Photofest.

Arguably the most successful—and versatile—of all Motown acts, the Temptations recorded 37 top ten singles throughout their decades-long history, a feat made that much more remarkable considering the group's continuously evolving lineup. The original five-man group formed in 1961 with the merger of two Detroit acts, the Distants—consisting of Otis Williams, Elbridge Bryant, and Melvin Franklin—and the Primes—which included Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks (a third member, Kell Osborne, did not join). Though the group gained a reputation for musical facility, until 1964 their only commercial success was "Dream Come True," which reached number 22 on the Billboard R & B chart. That year marked two important milestones: Elbridge Bryant was replaced by baritone David Ruffin, and Motown producer Smokey Robinson began collaborating with the quintet. Under Robinson, the group had its first Top Ten hit, "The Way You Do the Things You Do." While the Temptations' status as irrepressible Motown hit machine has been rightly celebrated, the group's true legacy may lie in their consistent ability to stay relevant; among the various popular genres they readily adopted include funk ("Papa Was Rolling Stone"), ballads ("My Girl"), psychedelic-soul ("Cloud Nine"), and protest ("Stop the War Now").

The Jackson 5The Jackson 5 (clockwise, from lower left: Marlon, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine, and Michael). Courtesy of Photofest.

The Jackson family's extraordinary rise from hardscrabble local talent to musical mini-empire owed much to Motown even before they were signed to the label. Consisting of brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael, the Jackson 5 was modeled on the layered ensemble technique made popular by superstar Motown quintet The Temptations. Gladys Knight, of the Motown act Gladys Knight & the Pips, discovered the family at a 1967 talent show at the Apollo Theater. Diana Ross became a mentor to the "young" group—Michael was 10 years old when the Jackson 5 signed with Motown in 1968—and they opened for Ross the following year. Knight's instincts immediately proved correct: "I Want You Back," the group's first single for Motown, hit number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R & B chart in 1969. This success was particularly welcome for Motown President Berry Gordy, as his famed in-house songwriting trio of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier (Dozier-Holland-Dozier) had recently left the label; "I Want You Back" was written by a newly-formed corps consisting of Gordy, Deke Richards, Freddie Perren, and Fonce Mizell (later known as "The Corporation"). The group's next three singles—"ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There"—all went to number 1 as well, although by 1972 Michael and Jermaine were focusing more on solo careers. In 1976 the Jackson 5 left Motown.

The WizPoster for The Wiz, 1978. Courtesy of Photofest.

The grandiose 1978 film The Wiz may be seen as the most ambitious project of Berry Gordy's career. A big-budget screen adaptation of the 1975 Broadway hit by the same name—itself an African American take on Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—The Wiz featured an all-star cast including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, and Richard Pryor working under acclaimed director Sidney Lumet. The movie, like the play, was hailed as the first of its kind to feature a predominately African American cast. The Motown Productions version, however, was a dramatic departure from Baum's story; Diana Ross's Dorothy was now a Harlem schoolteacher and Oz a skyscraper-ringed New York City lookalike. Despite its unique premise, the film was received as a disappointment (its Jackson and Ross-dominated soundtrack notwithstanding) and failed to break even. The 34-year-old Ross, Gordy's second choice to play Dorothy, and Lumet, who made his career on hardnosed crime dramas such as Dog Day Afternoon, were considered poor fits for the film; nevertheless, it received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Score.

The CommodoresEarly 1980s photo of the Commmodores; Lionel Richie is third from left. Courtesy of Photofest.

The last of Berry Gordy's breakout solo stars, Lionel Richie began his Motown career with The Commodores, a musically omnivorous group formed at the Tuskegee Institute in the late 1960s. After opening for the Jackson 5 on their 1971 tour, The Commodores signed with Motown a year later. Early Commodores leaned toward dynamic, funk-infused numbers such as "Machine Gun" (1974)—the group's first single and a top ten Billboard pop hit—whereas later songs ("Just to Be Close to You," "Easy," "Three Times a Lady") often took on a lighter, serenading feel. Richie's ensuing work would largely continue this trend. In 1982, on the heels of his enormously successful self-titled debut, Richie formally left the band. His follow-up album, Can't Slow Down (1983), was an even bigger hit, and—having sold over 10 million copies—is one of the bestselling albums of all time. In 1985, "Say You, Say Me", featured in the movie White Nights, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. "Dancing on the Ceiling", a ballad-laden production released in 1986, was Richie's last album with Motown; he did not record a new album for ten years.

Boys II MenBoyz II Men and longtime host Dick Clark at the American Bandstand 40th Anniversary Special, 1992. Courtesy of Photofest.

After a stretch of profit-losing years, the Motown Record Company was sold to the Music Corporation of America in 1988 for $61.9 million. Despite its decline, the brand was not yet exhausted: R & B outfit Boyz II Men's 1991 debut, COOLEYHIGHHARMONY, sold over nine million copies, making it the fourth bestselling album under the Motown label. No doubt influenced by the success of COOLEYHIGHHARMONY, the label was sold to PolyGram in 1993 for $301 million. 1994's II sold over 12 million copies, making it "Motown's" bestselling album of all time and one of the top-selling albums in recording history. (The label's other two bestsellers are Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key Life [1976] and Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down [1983], each of which has sold over 10 million copies.) Remarkably, even with two multiplatinum albums within three years, Boyz II Men still hadn't peaked: "One Sweet Day," the group's 1995 duet with Mariah Carey, remains to this day the longest-running number 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, having spent 16 weeks in top position. Boyz II Men's relationship with Motown began to sour, however, as the label continued to change hands—it was sold to the Universal Music Group in 1998, subsequently merging to form Universal Motown in 2005—and in 2001 they signed with Arista Records.