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The Musical Legacy Of Motown Records

A closeup of a vinyl player

Music has enjoyed unprecedented growth and development over the course of human history, and as with everything popular, music too is regulated by published under various names. There is no shortage of record labels out there, but often only the biggest ones are actually really known about. One record label that has had an eventful past is Motown Records, and in this post, we will be going over its interesting history from its humble beginnings to its current modern-day state.

What Is Motown Records

Motown Records, as mentioned earlier, is a record label situated in the United States and currently owned by Universal Music Group. Motown Records was originally founded and headquartered in Detroit, Michigan by Berry Gordy Jr. in the year 1959. Originally called Tamla Records, it was later incorporated under the name Motown Record Corporation the following year. It is widely believed that Motown Records, owing to the fact that it was an African American record label, played a huge role in the desegregation and integration of different cultural music in American society at the time. This is largely in part thanks to the success that Motown Records enjoyed during that time.

The Beginnings Of Motown Records

Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, had always had a thing for business in the music history. After having to close his failed record store that dealt in Jazz music, Berry Gordy joined a team of songwriters and wrote songs for Wilson. The first song Gordy wrote and produced that he published on his own startup as well was “Come to Me”. Gordy planned on naming his label “Tammy Records”, but due to the name already being in use, he settled for “Tamla Records”. The following months, Berry Gordy worked with many studios in Detroit, but because of the taxing nature of this practice, decided to open up his own facility. After purchasing a photography studio and converting it into a recording studio, he finally incorporated Motown Records. Smokey Robinson, another popular songwriter Gordy had first met in 1957, became the vice president of the company.

The First Decade Of Motown Records

The photography studio Berry Gordy had bought and converted became Motown Records’ first headquarters. Today, it is known for its historical significance in Motown Records’ history, and attracts visitors and tourists each year. The first few musical artists that worked with Motown Records included Eddie Holland, Mable John, and Mary Wells. The studio’s first million-selling record was “Shop Around”, and hit the number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. It did not take long for Motown Records to rise in popularity, and by the mid-60s, it had become a major player in the music industry. By the end of the decade, Motown Records had over a hundred top 10 hits under its name and included music groups like the Four Tops, the Supremes, and the Jackson 5.

Motown Records also had five other labels, each with hit songs and famous artists of their own. Some of these artists were Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Edwin Star, the Contours, the Temptations, the Spinners, Chris Clark, the Monitors, Shorty Long, Jimmy Ruffin, the Originals, Gladys Knight, and the Pips. In 1967, Berry Gordy purchased the Motown Mansion in Detroit as a new home for himself. The year after, 1968, Gordy bought the Donovan Building on Woodward Avenue, and promptly relocated Motown Records’ Detroit headquarters to this new location. The same year, Gordy bought Golden World Records as well and made its studio Motown’s Studio B.

The Following Decades, Motown’s Growth, And Its Decline

Motown Records’ Expansion

Because of the riots in Detroit around 1967, Motown Records had opened branches in Los Angeles and New York, and Berry Gordy thought about moving operations out of Detroit for good. Gordy’s plan came into action in the month of June of 1972, when Motown Records moved all of its operations to Los Angeles. This resulted in a lot of the company’s major artists and music groups leaving the company, many choosing to stay behind in Los Angeles. In 1973, Ewart Abner became the president of the company.

After having relocated to the birthplace of Hollywood, Motown branched out into the film industry and released its first two films in the years 1972 and 1975, “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany” respectively. Motown Productions would go on to release further films like “Thank God It’s Friday” in 1978 and “The Last Dragon” in 1985. Although the loss of its previous artists and bands had hit rather hard, Motown went on to acquire other great figures like Lionel Richie, Rick James, Jose Feliciano, and Teena Marie. Some of the music groups that worked for Motown during this time included the Commodores, the Dazz Band, and DeBarge.

Motown Records’ Fall

Although it had achieved commercial success up till now and produced some chart-topping hits, Motown eventually started to go into loss around the mid-80s. In 1988, Berry Gordy was resigned to sell his ownership in Motown to Boston Ventures and MCA Records for $61 million. The following year, Gordy had to sell Motown Productions as well, and did so to Motown executive, Suzanne de Passe. She renamed the company to “de Passe Entertainment” which still continues TV/film operations to this day.

Though Motown produced some successful artists in the early 90s, the company’s running remained rocky and tumultuous. Motown sued MCA Records in 1991, in an attempt to free itself of the distribution deal it had had with the company since the 1960s. Motown began to release its work through PolyGram, which ended up purchasing Motown from Boston Ventures. The following few years saw short-lived tenures in Motown’s management, which resembled the rather chaotic running of the company.

The Last Years Of Motown And Its Recent Return

The End Of The Motown Label

Another company, a multinational conglomerate originating from Canada under the name Seagram, purchased MCA Records in 1995, and then PolyGram in 1998. Consequently, the Motown label was absorbed into the Universal Music Group and restructured. Kedar Massenburg, became head of the new restructured label, and oversaw many new successful recordings. The coming years saw some remaining artists and music groups from Motown’s early days leave the label to pursue other projects, while many who had left long ago returned for a few more years or just one more recording.

In 2005, Motown merged with Universal Records which gave birth to the Universal Motown Records. Universal Motown Records was put under the new umbrella division created at that time named Universal Motown Republic Group. Motown saw quite a few successful artists in the following years like, Ryan Leslie, Drake Bell, Melanie Fiona, and Kelly Rowland. Music groups including Four Year Strong, The Veer Union, and Forever the Sickest Kids also saw success under Motown. 

The Recent Resurgence Of Motown

In the year 2011, two years after Motown had turned 50 years old, Universal Motown transitioned back into the Motown brand after separating itself from Universal Motown Republic Group. Artists were transferred to the reborn Motown label as managerial changes followed in the next few years. Motown became a subsidiary of Capitol Records, and in late 2018, celebrated its upcoming 60th anniversary by reissuing albums from their rich catalog.

Conclusion

Companies, corporations, brands, almost every single one has a long and rich history behind it. Many go through a plethora of changes and face a multitude of difficult challenges before they reach the point where they are at now. Some are not able to handle the difficulties of the industry, and slowly fade away into nothingness, while others persevere and come out on top. It is quite the fascinating process all these companies go through, and it makes for some interesting light reading. For example, just a beer brand like Tsingtao Beer. Of course, these companies and brands don’t just stand up on their own. Oftentimes it is the strong individuals behind a company that lift it up. Though Mr. Rogers isn’t particularly known for running some company, he is still a fascinating man to read about in case you’re looking for something like that.

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