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Paved with a tremendous amount of hardship, Black people’s road from the south to the north set the stage for the next cultural revolution. The Great Migration transformed our nation and enmeshed Black genius from all over into concentrated pockets across the country. Examples such as Tulsa, OK, Durham, NC, Chicago, IL, and Harlem, NY stood as evidence that Blacks, given a chance, could thrive–working together for their common good. 

As our society became dominated by the radio and other digital media forms, a new frontier emerged, giving way to a significant number of job opportunities for Black talent. African American vocalists, musicians, and disc jockeys flooded into the major metropolises across the country. Despite the challenges that came with the night-life lifestyle, the development of Jazz, Rock & Roll, and R&B opened the floodgates for African Americans to find the American Dream. Blacks also became more business savvy–developing their own radio stations, production companies, and record labels–catering to their demographic. 

Ladies in Gentlemen, we present to you MOTOWN. We have assembled a collection of key individuals who played a central role in this American icon’s development and sustainability. #LetTheTruthBeTold.

We have chosen to celebrate a select few R&B pioneers from the latter half of the 2oth century for their determination to change the perception of Black peoples contributions and thus change the landscape and future of our country. Today we honor their genius. We must not let their efforts be forgotten or let others bask in the credit of their achievements. Today we change the narrative. #LET THE TRUTH BE TOLD.

“Hitsville U.S.A.”


Barry Gordy had a incomparable friendship with Smokey Robinson. They were best friends.

Early Years

Founded in 1959 by former auto-worker and songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. in Detroit, Michigan, Motown Records would become the most successful black-owned record label in history. After co-writing hits for Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson, Gordy purchased a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and began operating Tamla Records (later Motown). The home served not only as a recording studio but also as label headquarters. “Hitsville USA,” as it was called, would serve as Motown’s headquarters until 1968.

Motown Founder Barry Gordy

The first hit for Motown was Money (That’s What I Want), by Barrett Strong, co-written by Gordy. From there Motown signed many up and coming artists including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. The Supremes, led by Diana Ross, was the most successful Motown group, and in fact was the most successful female singing group in the history of the recording industry.

The popular Motown “sound” and format was openly questioned when performer Marvin Gaye recorded the song What’s Goin On in 1971. Gordy initially refused to release it because of its political lyrics which focused on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.  Gordy, however, relented and the song as well as an accompanying album was released. While What’s Goin On was not Motown’s highest selling record of all-time (that distinction does go to Marvin Gaye with the song I Heard it Through the Grapevine), it was the most critically acclaimed, ranking #6 on Rolling Stones Top 500 albums list in 2003.


“Best of Friends”


Berry Gordy, Jr. was born November 28, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, the seventh of eight children to Bertha Fuller Gordy and Berry “Pops” Gordy, Sr.  The Gordy parents were strict disciplinarians who encouraged their children to demonstrate a good work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit.  Gordy dropped out of high school to become a professional boxer.  He served in the U.S. Army in Korea between 1951 and 1953 and returned to Detroit to open a jazz music store.  When it failed, Gordy worked on the assembly line at the Ford Plant, but by 1959 he quit that job to become a professional songwriter.  In late 1957 Gordy had his first hit record, “Reet Petite,” for popular rhythm and blues artist Jackie Wilson.  Soon afterwards he wrote “Lonely Teardrops,” Wilson’s greatest hit.

In 1959, 30-year-old Berry Gordy Jr. borrowed $800 from his family’s savings to create the Motown Record Company.  Gordy first operated his company out of his apartment until he bought a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard which he named Hitsville USA. Gordy began to attract some of the many young rhythm and blues performers emerging in Detroit during the late 1950s.  They included Smokey Robinson who led The Miracles, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye among other artists.  Gordy also recruited talented songwriters such as Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norm Whitfield and assembled a remarkable group of studio musicians led by Earl Van Dyke.

Singer, songwriter, and record producer William “Smokey” Robinson was born on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. Best known for his association with Motown Records, Robinson served as vice president of the legendary label from 1961 until 1988.  During that period Robinson, either with his group the Miracles or as a solo performer, had 37 Top 40 hits and was, next to founder Berry Gordy, the primary figure associated with Motown Records.

Robinson’s most famous songs are icons of popular music. Those songs include the 1965 hits, “My Girl,” performed by the Temptations, and “The Tracks of My Tears,” recorded by his group, the Miracles, as well as his solo hits “Cruisin” (1979) and “One Heartbeat” (1987).  During the course of his 50 year career in music, Robinson has written or co-written more than 4,000 songs. Greatly admired by other groups, including the Beatles who first recorded a Robinson song “You Really Got A Hold On Me” in 1963, he was honored by a George Harrison recording, “Pure Smokey” in 1976.  Fellow singer-songwriter Bob Dylan described Robinson as “America’s greatest living poet.”


“Legends of Motown”


Just like Detroit’s automotive assembly line, music executive Berry Gordy approached song production in similar fashion at Motown Records, one of the most culturally influential and successful Black-owned record labels in the music industry.

Launched in 1959 under the name Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan, the burgeoning label officially changed its name to Motown Records and produced some of the greatest soul music artists for the next three decades.

Among Motown’s countless successes, here are some of the label’s most defining hitmakers:


In her five decades as a recording artist, Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul” became a music legend. Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942. Her family soon relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, became a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church. Rev. Franklin was a prominent gospel performer in his own right and his career exposed his daughter to gospel and soul music and to civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and contemporary or future musical icons such as Smokey RobinsonSam Cooke, Clara Ward, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Unfortunately, Aretha’s life was marred by tragedies that included the death of her mother when she was 10, physical abuse by her first husband, and the tragic shooting of her father in 1979.  He remained in a coma until his 1984 death.

Aretha Franklin recorded her first album at the age of fourteen, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, while singing solos in New Bethel and going on tours with her father.  In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records. Despite producing ten albums and her concert performances netting $100,000 in nightclubs and theaters, the Columbia style, featuring Top 40 pop ballads, proved an uneasy fit. Columbia tried to turn Aretha into a jazzy pop singer while she was determined to draw on her background in blues and gospel music. In 1966, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records which gave her more creative control, and she began revolutionizing soul music by creating a sound all her own.

By 1968, Aretha Franklin was considered a symbol of black pride and soul music. Her songs “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and “Think” became anthems reflecting the growing militancy of African Americans in challenging racial oppression. Her Amazing Grace album released in 1970, which returned her to her church roots, sold over two million copies and made her one of the most successful gospel singers of the era. Franklin received an award for excellence from Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 and appeared on the cover of Time magazine on June 28, 1968.


Grammy Award winning artist Stevie Wonder, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, was born May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. An excess of oxygen and a disorder affecting his retina called retinopathy resulted in his being born blind.  In 1954, his mother Lula moved all six of her children to Detroit, Michigan.

Stevie began singing and dancing at a young age in his church. He developed an ear for music rapidly. By the age of nine he was playing the piano, harmonica, and conga drum. When Stevie Wonder was 12 years old he was discovered by Ronnie White, a member of the Motown group the Miracles. White brought young Stevie to a Motown Record Company audition. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, was amazed by his talents and renamed him “Little Stevie Wonder.”

Influenced by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Stevie began working immediately in the studio under record producer Clarence Paul. Wonder’s first number one hit “Fingertips, Part 2”(1963) displayed his skill on the harmonica. Other hits including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Hey Harmonica Man” made this instrument a trademark for Stevie.


“Motowns Biggest Star”


Michael Jackson sold more records than any other Motown Star

Despite his personal and legal problems in the last two decades of his life, Michael Jackson remains one of the most widely known and successful pop stars of all time. Commercially and critically Jackson, both solo and with his brothers in The Jackson Five, dominated pop music charts and award shows for two decades. To this day Michael Jackson still has five of the top 200 best selling albums of all time.

Michael Jackson was born to a poor family in Gary, Indiana on August 29, 1958. At a young age he and his brothers displayed a great musical talent. Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, helped his children form The Jackson Five. The group would become a popular opening act for national pop and rhythm and blues groups like The Temptations and James Brown. In 1969 The Jackson Five signed with Motown Records and released their first single “I Want You Back.” The Jackson Five followed with three more singles which all hit number one on the pop charts.

After more successful records and a label change from Motown to Epic, Michael Jackson launched an acting career, starring in the all-black remake of The Wizard of OzThe Wiz. While filming The Wiz, Jackson met producer Quincy Jones. Together they recorded Jackson’s solo debut for Epic Records, Off The Wall. This album, which sold seven million copies, became the most successful of any black recording artist.


“Tempations and Supremes”

Diana Ernestine Earle Ross is an American singer and actress. She was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 26, 1944 to Fred and Ernestine Ross, who lived in the low income Brewster Housing Project. Growing up, Diana, who was referred to as “Diane,” studied design and seamstress skills in hopes of becoming a fashion designer. However, she got her start in singing in 1959 when Ross was brought to the attention of Milton Jenkins who managed a local doo-wop group. Jenkin’s group was called “The Primes,” and Diana enlisted in their sister group, “The Primettes.” In 1962, soon after graduating from Cass Technical High School, Ross and her group were signed by Motown records founder Berry Gordy.


During the 1960s, Diana helped to shape the Motown sound as the lead singer of “The Supremes;” Gordy changed their name after signing the teenagers.  Gordy felt Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Ross as the Supremes could be groomed to be the first black female cross over from Rhythm and Blues to the pop charts.  By 1964 they achieved that feat with their first number one hit “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Between 1964 and 1967 the three women had twelve number-one singles, becoming the most successful pop vocal group of the era after the Beatles.  In July 1967 Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong and the group’s name was changed to “Diana Ross & the Supremes.”

Between 1964 and 1967 the three women had twelve number-one singles, becoming the most successful pop vocal group of the era after the Beatles. 


Formed in 1960, The Temptations were an American vocal group widely recognized for their blended harmonies and detailed choreography. As one of the most popular performers of soul music in the 1960s and 1970s, the Temptations recorded almost exclusively for Motown Records. Although the group went through personnel changes over the years, at the height of their popularity, the key members of the group were Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, and Dennis Edwards.

Signed to Motown in 1961, the Temptations, originally called the Elgins, were formed from the synthesis of two vocal groups based in Detroit, the Primes and the Distants.

Their early hits were dominated by the pen and production of Smokey Robinson and by the smooth falsetto of Eddie Kendricks. With the addition of David Ruffin in 1964, the Temptations churned out a string of smash hits beginning with “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (1964), and including “My Girl” (1964), “Get Ready” (1966), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1966), and “I Wish It Would Rain” (1967).

Robinson eventually stepped aside as principal songwriter, as the Temptations began to work consistently with writer-producer Norman Whitfield. Ruffin would then emerge as the lead vocalist on a string of hits, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” before the group fired him in 1968 for drug use and multiple missed engagements. At that time, soul music was giving way to the more popular sound of funk, and the group shifted to more socially-conscious material through this sound. Whitfield evolved the recording process accordingly by pushing the bass high in the mix and adding full-bodied orchestral arrangements.

“Other Notable Performers”

Born on April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C. Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr. was named after his father, a minister of the apostolic church.  From a young age, the church played a large role in Gaye’s music career.  He began his musical profession in his father’s church choir and began playing the organ and drums.  After several years in the church, in 1957 Gaye left his father’s church and joined a group known as the Marquees.  After a year, the group was guided by the producer and singer Harvey Fuqua who inspired Marvin’s musical career.  When Fuqua moved to Detroit to further pursue his music, Gaye went with him.  In Detroit, Harvey was able to join forces with another music talent, Berry Gordy, where Gaye became a session drummer and soloist for the Motown Records label.

Shortly after in 1961, Gaye married Berry Gordy’s sister Anna Gordy.  During this same year, Gaye was also offered a solo recording record with Motown Records.  In the first year of his solo contract, Marvin was a jazz singer, but was soon persuaded to sing Rhythm and Blues (R&B).  His first hit single was “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” which became a top 10 selling hit on the R&B charts.  By 1965, Gaye became known as Motown’s best selling male vocalist and had added to the charts the famous song “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” followed by two more number one selling R&B hits, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.”


By 1965, Gaye became known as Motown’s best selling male vocalist and had added to the charts the famous song “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”


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