COVER STORY: Breaking Down Motown


A visual guide to this year’s special AmCham 50th Anniversary Ball theme

Motown Records was the most successful black-owned record label in the United States, and also later became its own genre of music. It started as a rhythm and blues label, going on to sign legendary artists such as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Motown music remained in fashion from 1960 until the 1980s, reaching peak popularity during the civil rights movement and ultimately becoming a major cultural bridge between blacks and whites at the time.


Motown started out as Tamla Records in January 1959 in Detroit, Michigan. Founder Berry Gordy, inspired by Detroit’s Motor City nickname, folded Tamla into the new Motown Record label little more than a year later – with Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around” becoming their first million-selling hit around the same time.


Motown Records started off recording mainstream R&B music, which over time evolved to incorporate elements of soul and pop. Gordy called this trademark genre the “Motown sound.” A typical Motown song consisted of an upbeat rhythm in a 2/4 shuffle or a solid 4/4 beat, with lyrics of a romantic theme. Although Motown was thought of as the sound of the civil rights movement, the standard fare of its songs tended to steer clear of some of the overtly politicized tracks of the times. Motown did, however, release recordings of several Dr Martin Luther King sermons, including the “I Have a Dream” speech.




The birth of Hitsville U.S.A.

Berry Gordy Jr takes out a loan from his family to start Tamla Records. He buys a house on 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan which would become the now-iconic home of the “Motown sound”




An eye for talent

Gordy discovers up-and-coming artists The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. All sign with Motown Records. Miracles’ “Shop Around” tops the R&B chart



The first of many chart toppers

“Please Mr Postman” by The Marvelettes is Motown’s first disc to top the Billboard Hot 100 pop songs. The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Primettes sign with Motown Records




The Motortown Revue is born

Motown leaves Detroit to tour the South for the first time. These live concert tours became known as the Motortown Revue and showcased artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Marvelettes



Cornerstone in the civil rights movement

Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech is recorded with Motown Records



(Twenty) Million dollar sound

Motown grosses US$20 Million



Motown sound goes international

Stevie Wonder tours Europe. Diana Ross and the Supremes sign with Motown. By this time Motown already has five major record labels: Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul and V.I.P.




Introducing... The Jackson 5

Motown has five out of the top 10 on Billboard's Top 100 Songs. The Jackson 5 sign with Motown



Hat trick

Jackson 5 have three consecutive No1 chart hits – “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “I'll Be There,” one year after the Apollo moon landing



A worldwide sensation

Michael Jackson appears on cover of Rolling Stone



Cross-country move

Motown moves its headquarters from Detroit to LA



Moving on

Berry Gordy resigns as President of Motown Records



Next generation of talent

Motown signs Lionel Richie



Cashing in

Berry Gordy sells Motown Records for US$61 million