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Flashback:Motown- Civil Rights and Automobiles

The two previous editions of Flashback have looked at musical scenes that were intrinsically linked to the cities where they originated from: the Summer of Love with San Francisco, and Punk with New York and London. Yet perhaps no movement has been so linked to a city as Motown was with Detroit, even taking its name from the city’s reputation for car production (“Motor town”). Motown was important not only musically, but also culturally, as an African-American label, genre and company, peaking at the same time as the US civil rights movement.

Image: tomovox @ Flickr

The Motown record label was formed in early 1959, after former boxer, car factory employee and songwriter Barry Gordy Jr was loaned $800 to start a record company. As a songwriter he penned well known hits such as “Reet Petite”, The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and “Do You Love Me”. Motown scored hit singles with it’s unique mix of Soul and Pop, firstly as Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, reaching number 2 on the US R&B Billboard chart. This was followed by their first US number one single in The Marvelettes classic “Please Mr. Postman”, following the merger of Tamla and Motown labels in 1960, on which Marvin Gaye played the drums.

Between 1961 and 1971 the Motown label had 110 top 10 US hits for artists such as The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops. Crucial to this was the songwriting and production team of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, who took inspiration from gospel music written with secular lyrics. The “Funk Brothers” provided the backing music for most Motown's hits until 1972, and is portrayed in the 2002 film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”, which claimed that they played on “More number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined."

The Four Tops on Soul Train. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There was also a finishing school, designed to train young stars in how to perform and present themselves. This streamlined operation was highlighted by the “Hitsville USA.” nickname given to Motown’s headquarters. The volume and process of the hit singles being produced had many likenesses to a factory, especially as Motown was situated in the motor city of Detroit. This lasted until 1972, when Gordy moved the label to Los Angeles, at which point the label significantly changed. Gordy aimed at branching out from music into television and film, such as “The Wiz” and “The Last Dragon”. Although Motown’s successful period was over, they still made very successful albums in LA such as Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book”. These albums were largely due to the artists being allowed greater control over songwriting and production than they were previously afforded. Even later than this came Motown’s two biggest selling UK singles, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. However, Motown will forever be associated with its original and unique sound from it’s initial Detroit period. MCA Records bought the Motown label from Gordy in 1988.

View of Downtown Detroit, now a bankrupt city. Image: puzzleboxrecords @ Pixabay

Motown was the highest earning African American business in the United States for many decades. At its peak, it operated in an era of racism and segregation in the US, and even success couldn’t protect Motown’s stars from the impacts. The Motortown Revue, a touring showcase of Motown’s artists, encountered waves of racism, particularly in the southern states, most commonly in the form of segregation in restaurants. Their touring bus was similar to that of the “Freedom Rides” civil rights campaign, which was regularly harassed and attacked, even being shot at. One example of the racism that Motown faced was the fact that The Marvelettes single “Please Mr. Postman” had a letterbox on its cover, due to the fact many record shops wouldn’t sell records depicting black faces. Some, such as Stax records, accused Motown, of pandering to white audiences, and Gordy was against overtly political musical messages, as they could be divisive. Motown's ability to appeal to both black and white audiences was remarkable at the time, and after artists were given more license to write their own music the lyrics often became more political, such as Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”, which became the Motown label’s best selling album.

Today Motown is a subsidiary of the Capitol Music Group. Although it's golden years are long gone, the music lives on in club nights everywhere, and it is currently the subject of a West End musical. It was influential to music both at the time and even today, with artists from The Beatles to Taylor Swift citing Motown as an influence on their own music. Incredibly, its huge success was able to transcend racial and geographical differences, even reaching beyond the “Iron Curtain” into the USSR.

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