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Music Business

Motown – History and Famous Singers

Photograph of the blog post author, Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

28.12.2022

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History 

Motown’s style of music originates from rhythm and blues and was named after the record label in Detroit. It secured many record deals for girl & boy bands and solo artists in the 60s and 70s, which found fame under its name. Incorporated within motown music are hooks, layered rhythms, instrumental songs such as strings, brass and organs and full orchestras. There was a moto as KISS principle – which stood for ‘keep it simple, stupid’. 

Motown Records

Motown Records is an American record label owned by the Universal Music Group. It was founded by Berry Gordy Jr. as Tamla Records on June 7, 1958, and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. Motown expanded into film and television production. It was an independent company until MCA Records bought it in 1988. PolyGram purchased the label from MCA in 1993, followed by MCA successor Universal Music Group, which acquired PolyGram in 1999. As of 2021, it became a standalone label once again. Many motown artists walked the corridors of Motown records and you will know many of the songs that made them famous. 

There was a famous writing trio – Holland–Dozier–Holland who were a songwriting and production team consisting of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland. They wrote, arranged and produced many songs that helped define the Motown sound in the 1960s. So we have them to thank for the music these famous singers below performed

Famous Singers

Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and former record executive director. At the age of 82, he is still an example of creativity and artistry in the music industry when it comes to motown songs. He was the frontman of the motown band The Miracles but then chose to stand down and became the vice president of Motown Records in 1972. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and was awarded the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his lifetime contributions to popular music. In 2022, he was inducted into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame. He was invited to attend the reception for the Kennedy Center honorees at The White House, alongside Dolly Parton and Conductor Zubin Mehta. 

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was a singer and songwriter who made a big impact on Motown. Because of this, he is nicknamed the Prince of Soul and the Prince of Motown. His famous songs include ‘Let’s Get It On’, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’. He famously dueted with the likes of Diana Ross, Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and Tammi Terrell. He is also known for later releases like “Sexual Healing” in his 1982 album Midnight Love, leading to an influence over R&B subgenres  and even inspired top neo-soul artist like James Tillman, who offers a sophisticated departure from some of the easier clichés of neo-soul.

David Ruffin 

He was part of the band Temptations as a lead singer and released songs like My Girl and Ain’t Too Proud To Beg. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 for his work with the Temptations. He was credited by another motown singer Marvin Gaye by saying David had the strength in his voice that he (Marvin) lacked.  Ruffin actually met with Gordy who created the Motown label before it came into fruition, and even worked alongside Marvin Gaye as an apprentice at Anna Records, a Chess-distributed label run by Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua and his songwriting partner Billy Davis. I wish I had been a fly on the wall during those conversations! 

In 1964, he joined The Temptations as a lead tenor and his brother was already part of the band, having already been on a Motortown Revue tour with them. A Motortown Revue was the name given to the package concert tours of Motown artists in the 1960s. Early tours featured Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, Barrett Strong, and The Contours as headlining acts gave then-second-tier acts such as Marvin Gaye, Martha & The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips and The Temptations the chances to improve their skills. 

There was controversy in the way Ruffin behaved as part of the band and there was some tension to say the very least. He began his solo career in the year of 1968. After many years with Motown, he left them in 1977 to start recording for Warner Bros. Records. 

Martha And The Vandellas

The American female vocal group who sang the famous song Dancing In The Street were formed in 1957. They found fame in the 1960s and recorded all their singles under the Motown label. Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams were part of the original band and then Martha Reeves joined, who took on the lead vocals when Williams left. Other successful headliners were Come and Get These Memories, Heat Wave, Quicksand, Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack, I’m Ready for Love and Bless You

If you had to categorize their music style, it would be quite hard, as they incorporated blues,  doo-wop, R&B, pop, rock & roll and soul within it. In short, they were a very talented group of women with a dedicated mentor working and supporting them in their music career. 

The Supremes

Diana Ross was part of the band who made up The Supremes and had success in the 1960s. Their songs were mainly written by Holland–Dozier–Holland and they secured 12 number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard ranked the Supremes as the 16th greatest Hot 100 artist of all time. Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown were the original members, but they received most of their fame when Diana Ross was on lead vocals in the mid-60s. Hits like You Can’t Hurry Love, Someday We’ll Be Together, Baby Love and Stop! In The Name Of Love made the world see that they were the dames of motown music and in 2003 they won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award for Group Artist. 

The Supremes were twice nominated for a Grammy Award—for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording – Baby Love and Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Group Vocal Performance – Stop! In the Name of Love but never won an award in competition. Three of their songs were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame: Where Did Our Love Go and You Keep Me Hangin’ On and Stop! In the Name of Love

Stevie Wonder 

Stevie Wonder is an American singer-songwriter, who is a pioneering influence throughout a range of genres; rhythm and blues, pop, soul, gospel, funk and jazz. ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ became Stevie’s biggest-ever hit in 1984, and topped the charts in 19 different countries. 

There are many tracks that made him a household name like the others on this list, such as ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’, ‘For Once In My Life’, ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ just to name a few. When he was young, there was something about him and he was seen as a child prodigy, recording his first album at the age of 12. His single “Fingertips” hit number one on the 1963 Billboard Hot 100 when he was only 13 years old. How about that? His unique implementation of synths and various electronic instruments in his work reshaped the R&B genre in the 1970s. He won 25 Grammys in his career. 

Motown: The Musical

There was a motown jukebox musical that made its debut in 2013 on broadway. I myself saw the west end production in2016 and it was full of jubilation and fabulous songs of course! It was based on Berry Gordy’s autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. It also revealed the relationships Gordy had with Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson.

Closing Thoughts  

What a cracking line-up we have taken you through today and I implore you to listen to music by these greats if you haven’t already. They will have you up and dancing in no time. As in the golden words of Berry Gordy himself, ‘Motown was about music for all people – white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone.’


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