(November 27, 2019). It all started with $800 and a dream. With a loan from his family, Berry Gordy launched his first label, Tamla Records, in January 1959.
Tamla would soon lead to Motown and the rest, as they say, is history.
This week Berry Gordy turns 90 years old (Nov. 28), and DJROBBLOG is celebrating the American icon with a special list of Motown’s 12 greatest moments under his time as the label’s owner, CEO and president.
Given Motown’s undeniable legacy – not to mention its many contributions to music and to American society in general during the turbulent 1960s and beyond, it’s pretty hard to narrow Gordy’s and Motown’s greatest achievements down to a list of twelve. And this blogger realizes that any such list is likely to leave a few equally as important milestones on the chopping block.
That said, I believe you’ll agree it would be pretty hard to top many of the milestones the blog has chosen to represent Gordy’s and Motown’s finest.
After Tamla Records was established as the first in Motown’s independent family of labels in 1959, the company grew to include major subsidiaries like Gordy, Soul, V.I.P., Rare Earth, and, of course, the famous blue-and-white Motown imprint itself.
The different subsidiary labels no longer exist (they were mostly folded into Motown when Gordy sold the label to MCA in 1988), but the namesake label is still active and has gone on to prosper post-Gordy with a roster of hit-making artists including ‘90s superstars Boyz II Men and more current acts like R&B singer/songwriter Ne-yo and the most recent chart-topping example, the Atlanta rap act Migos.
However, Motown is no longer the musical force it once was, nor is it independent. Today the label is owned and distributed by Universal Music Group, which acquired Polygram – the label to which MCA transferred its Motown ownership in the 1990s.
Still, what Gordy accomplished during his tenure is the stuff of dreams. Before his vision became a reality, no one could have imagined that a young, black, high school drop-out and former professional boxer would achieve the heights that the Detroit native did – not only musically, but as a black businessman during the racially turbulent 1950s and ‘60s.
What he accomplished in just Motown’s first decade alone is the true embodiment of the American dream, and I know this blogger’s love for music would not have been the same without Gordy and the amazing artists he brought to the world.
This year, Motown has been celebrating its 60th anniversary, including a special Grammys tribute last winter, and a benefit held in Detroit earlier this fall to both honor Gordy and commemorate the planned expansion of the famous Motown Museum at the address on West Grand Blvd where many of the label’s earliest hits were recorded.
To cap his extraordinary career, Gordy announced his well-deserved retirement from the entertainment business after more than six decades of contributions to American film, television and, of course, music.
So with this triple tribute to commemorate Berry Gordy’s 90th birthday, his retirement, and Motown’s 60th anniversary, here are what DJROBBLOG considers Motown’s 12 greatest moments during the Gordy era — from 1959 to 1988 — in chronological order from earliest to latest…
One. Motown starts and hits with “Money” by Barrett Strong (1959).
The Motown Records building is established at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, MI; it is now home to the Motown Museum. Tamla Records – Motown’s first label – is established the same year. The song “Come to Me” by Marv Johnson (catalog no. Tamla 101) was the first record released by the label in January ‘59.
But Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” is the label’s first true hit. The song would reach the national charts – thanks to a distribution deal with Anna Records (through the Chicago-based label Chess Records). “Money” is still considered Motown’s earliest classic and has been covered by dozens of artists since then.
Two. Smokey Robinson/Miracles achieve the label’s first million-selling single (1960).
In Tamla’s second year, future label VP Smokey Robinson with his group The Miracles scored Motown’s first million-seller with “Shop Around,” and Motown was off and running. The song was co-written by Robinson and Gordy and would top the R&B chart and the Cashbox pop chart. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Smokey would go on to either write or record dozens of other major hits for the label, including pop or soul chart-toppers like “The Tears of a Clown,” “I Second That Emotion” and his biggest solo hit “Being With You.” Smokey was among the first Motown artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the Supremes in 1987.
Three. Motown’s gets its first No. 1 with “Please Mr. Postman.” (1961)
Only three years into its existence, Motown achieves its first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with this upbeat dance classic by the Marvelettes (although the Miracles had topped the pop chart in rival trade magazine Cashbox a year earlier).
The Marvelettes would eventually be overshadowed by the Supremes, but “Please Mr. Postman” was historic in its own right. A remake of the song by the Carpenters would top the chart 13 years later (February 1975), making it the first Motown song to top the Billboard pop chart twice (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” would be the second years later).
Four. Holland-Dozier-Holland begin creating a slew of hits for Motown Records (1962-67).
Motown may be one of the few record labels to be almost as well known for its songwriting and production teams as it was for its recording artists. Who among the Motown faithful don’t know famous names like Ashford & Simpson, Norman Whitfield and Henry Cosby…not to mention Gordy himself.
But the songwriting and production team that was arguably the label’s most important was Holland-Dozier-Holland, consisting of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, and their partner Lamont Dozier. Between them, they wrote and/or produced dozens of top ten pop and soul classics, including 12 No. 1 songs on the Hot 100.
A legal dispute resulted in H-D-H leaving Motown in 1967 and creating their own labels and production companies, but their music helped define the Motown sound and left an indelible mark on the label’s legacy and on American music.
Five. Supremes break records with 12 No. 1s and knock down barriers for black women in pop music (1964-69).
Although they hailed from Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass public housing projects, the Supremes – through Motown’s meticulous honing and charm schools – became the epitome of elegance and sophistication and arguably paved the way for many black artists – especially females – to enjoy mainstream success.
To this day, the Supremes, originally consisting of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and the late Florence Ballard, still hold the record for most No. 1 singles by any group besides the Beatles, with twelve.
In 1987, The Supremes joined Smokey Robinson as Motown’s first acts to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and were the first girl group to do so. Fifty years after Diana Ross left to go solo (and 43 years after their ultimate breakup), the Supremes’ chart success still hasn’t been matched by any other female group.
Six. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder combine with the Temptations and Supremes to dominate the pop charts in 1968/69.
Arguably Motown’s hottest acts in 1968, Gaye, Wonder, the Supremes and the Temps owned half of the pop top ten for several weeks from December 1968 to January ‘69.
The five songs involved were “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Gaye); “Love Child” (Diana Ross & the Supremes); “For Once in My Life” (Wonder); “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (Ross/Supremes & Temptations) and the Norman Whitfield-produced “Cloud Nine” (Temptations). “Cloud Nine” – ironically the lowest peaking of the five singles at No. 6 – became Motown’s first to win a Grammy award in 1970 (for R&B performance by a duo or group).
The Temps would go on to win four more Grammys plus two songs that were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “My Girl”).
Seven. Jackson 5 explode onto the scene and make history with four straight No. 1s to start career (1970).
Not resting on his 1960s laurels, Gordy signed the family act of five brothers from Gary, Indiana – Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Michael – to usher Motown into the 1970s. The Jacksons returned the favor with hit after hit, including four No. 1s to kick things off: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.”
But not being content to merely follow in the footsteps of their ‘60s Motown forefathers the Temps, Miracles and Four Tops, the J-5 took their successes even further by getting their own TV cartoon and later their own family variety show, where the world was introduced to three sisters Rebbie, La Toya and Janet, plus little brother Randy who would later replace Jermaine in the group when they left Motown for Epic Records in 1976.
Both on and after Motown, the Jacksons would go on to become the most accomplished family in pop music history, with Michael leading the way.
Eight. Marvin Gaye releases the revolutionary album What’s Going On (1971).
Social commentary wasn’t Motown’s thing during the 1960s, and it certainly wasn’t Marvin Gaye’s – their top male solo artist at the time. However, after experiencing personal loss with the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell, plus hearing accounts of his brother Frank’s experiences during his Vietnam War deployment – not to mention police brutality against war protesters occurring here in the states – Marvin felt his love songs were not relevant at the time.
Gordy famously rejected the idea initially, but Gaye fought to have What’s Going On released as his eleventh album in May 1971 and the rest is history. The landmark album was Gaye’s deepest personal statement and went on to generate three top ten pop and No. 1 R&B singles – becoming the first by a male solo artist to do so.
It’s since sold millions of copies on various formats and is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time by many notable industry critics and trade magazines.
Nine. Motown ventures into cinema; produces the Oscar-nominated Lady Sings the Blues, the comedy Bingo Long, and the musical The Wiz – among others (1972-78).
Motown Productions was created as a film company for Berry Gordy’s label in the late 1960s, but it was originally focused on TV specials like the joint ventures by the Supremes and Temptations or the Jackson 5’s cartoon. It wasn’t until the 1972 Billie Holliday biopic Lady Sings the Blues featuring Oscar-nominated Diana Ross in the lead role that Motown movies became a thing. Blues received five Oscar noms in all, including Ross for Best Actress, and would be followed by another Ross vehicle – 1975’s Mahogany – whose soundtrack produced a No. 1 pop hit in its title theme.
Motown Productions would follow that with its most successful box office film, The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings (1976), starring Richard Pryor, plus a joint venture with Casablanca FilmWorks – Thank God It’s Friday – which included a No. 1 R&B hit by Motown act the Commodores (“Too Hot Ta Trot”) and later the film adaption of the Broadway musical The Wiz – also starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and ex-Motown star Michael Jackson as Scarecrow.
Motown Productions, which produced ten feature films under that name, was headed by Suzanne de Passe who later founded successor company de Passe Entertainment.
Ten. Stevie Wonder gets his artistic freedom – and creates a string of classic albums in the 1970s (1971-76).
It started in 1971 with Where I’m Coming From – Wonder’s first socially conscious album – and culminated with the landmark masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life (1976), the first LP by an American artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts (Britain’s Elton John was the first overall).
For the first time in his career, Wonder had full creative control on all his albums. Accordingly, he wrote, produced and played most of the instruments on every album beginning with Music of My Mind and continuing with Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Finale and Songs were both No. 1 LPs on the pop and soul charts, Stevie’s only albums to top both lists. Those two, along with Innervisions, won Wonder Grammys for Album of the Year – the only artist ever to do that with three consecutive releases.
While the musical genius would continue releasing huge hit albums for Motown beyond Songs, including Hotter Than July, In Square Circle, and soundtracks for The Woman in Red and Jungle Fever – along with the under-appreciated Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants – Wonder’s classic album period (Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life) will always be considered Motown’s best in album achievement – commercially and critically.
Eleven. Rick James brings Motown into a new era with his punk funk sound (1978).
When the future King of Punk Funk Rick James released his debut single “You and I” on the Gordy subsidiary in 1978, the R&B and pop worlds – which were both immersed in a sea of disco and yacht rock – didn’t know what hit them. It was as bold a move for Motown as had been their own (late) foray into disco a few years earlier with songs by Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
James straddled the line between safe and inappropriate with his brash lyrics and thinly veiled references to sex and drugs, and fans ate it up. “You and I” would hit No. 1 R&B and top-20 pop, followed by “Mary Jane,” which just missed the pop top 40 (No. 41) but peaked at No. 3 R&B. His landmark LP Street Songs was Motown’s biggest album of 1981 and included the top-40 singles “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” along with the classic duet ballad “Fire & Desire,” with Teena Marie.
James used his star power to introduce the world to Motown protégés Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls, who went on to have big hits in their own right – mostly under James’ creative wing. James died in 2005.
Twelve. Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV Special (1983).
Nearly all of Motown’s surviving superstars – past and present – turned out for a made-for-TV celebration of the label’s first quarter-century. Most notable among the performances were Michael Jackson’s reunion with his brothers, including Jermaine; Diana Ross’ reunion with the Supremes; and the Temptations and Four Tops in an old-school Motortown Review “battle of the bands.”
Jackson’s performance of post-Motown hit “Billie Jean,” which included his famous moonwalk dance, propelled the album Thriller to even faster sales than it was already achieving, helping Jackson to become the biggest music star in the world at the time.
While Jackson may have been the biggest star onstage, more important was the Motown legacy and the fact that stars past and present from Smokey Robinson/the Miracles to Martha Reeves, and from Marvin Gaye to the Commodores graced the stage for what was a true celebration of Gordy’s dream. Never before had their been such a celebration of black music history and the businessman who made it all possible.
Motown’s list of accomplishments seems endless, and we could have easily included these chart milestones in the list of twelve above:
Gladys Knight & the Pips scores the first of three No. 1 versions of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968). Having recorded for many labels throughout their legendary career, Gladys Knight & the Pips were Motown stopovers from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s. During that time they recorded one of the label’s most iconic songs. “Grapevine” topped the soul chart and peaked at No. 2 pop in late 1967. More notably, the song would become a No. 1 smash on both charts by Marvin Gaye a year later. A recording by ‘80’s funk legend Roger Troutman of Zapp would top the soul chart again in 1981, making “Grapevine” the only song ever to do that in three different versions. Another version by Creedence Clearwater Revival is also considered by many to be a classic.
Tamla Records re-establishes itself as Motown’s premier label with four No. 1 pop singles in 1977 (the entirety of Motown’s No. 1 singles that year). The four No. 1 classics include two by Wonder (“I Wish” and “Sir Duke”), the disco smash “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston, and Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Got to Give It Up.”
Diana Ross becomes first female to get six No. 1s with “Endless Love” (1981). At the time, female artists still weren’t achieving No. 1s at the rate their male counterparts were. In two of the years – 1970 and 1976 – Ross was the ONLY woman to get a No. 1 hit, including two in ‘76. Ross, who had already set records with the Supremes (12 No. 1s), would add six more after leaving the group – giving her a total of 18. Capping her run was “Endless Love,” the duet with Lionel Richie that spent nine weeks at No. 1 in ‘81 and sold two million copies, making it Motown’s biggest hit at the time. Ross’s 18 total No. 1s rank her behind only the four Beatles and Elvis Presley. Mariah Carey tied Ross’s mark in 2008.
Lionel Richie pens No. 1 hit for ninth consecutive year (1986). Beginning with 1978’s “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores and ending with “Say You, Say Me,” which finished its 4-week No. 1 run in January 1986, at least one of Richie’s compositions occupied the No. 1 spot in nine consecutive years, with seven of them on the Motown label. He also spends an entire year (1984) in top ten with one album (Can’t Slow Down) – becoming the first artist to do so. By a quirk of the calendar, Michael Jackson’s Thriller just missed accomplishing the same feat a year earlier when Thriller entered the top ten on the chart dated a January 8, 1983 (after being at No. 11 on the Jan. 1 list).
Of course, the golden age of Motown came to its official end when Berry Gordy, who started Motown by using an $800 loan from his family’s co-operative, sold the label to MCA for $61M in 1988.
But the Motown name would carry on and continue to be synonymous with hit records. Consider the following post-1988 milestones associated with the label:
- Boyz II Men carry Motown into 1990s; break chart records (1992-96)
- Motown Productions continues its stellar work with made-for-TV movies about its two biggest male singing groups the Temptations (The Temptations, 1998) and the Jackson 5 (The Jacksons: An American Dream, 1992)
- Standing in the Shadows of Motown – The Funk Brothers – Motown’s in-house band who played on hundreds of hits, including more than 40 No. 1 hits – finally get their due. (2002)
- Motown – The Musical (2014). It was a show like no other.
- Migos becomes Motown’s latest act to have a No. 1 Hot 100 hit with “Bad and Boujee.” (2017)
None of those would have happened without the label Berry Gordy started and honed to become one of the greatest American institutions of the 20th century and beyond.
To Mr. Berry Gordy we say congratulations on your retirement, and Happy 90th birthday!
And most of all, thank you for the music and the memories!
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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