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Creator / Motown

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An image celebrating the label's golden anniversary in 2009.

"Once upon a time in a kingdom known as Detroit, there lived a young warrior named Berry … [who] took on the ways of the minstrel, and he began to write songs for others to sing. And a local celebrity, Sir Jackie of Wilson, heard some of the songs and put them on circular platters called “discs.” And the townspeople liked the sounds that emanated from the pressed discs, and turned them into something called “hits.” … So Berry went out on a great quest, and he found Miracles and Wonders and Marvelettes. And he brought the discoveries to a secret place called Hitsville, and there he taught them wondrous things. There was young Smokey of Robinson, and Mary of Welles, and Martha of the Vandellas. Marvin of the Gaye and Tammi of Terrell. And there were Pips and Knights named Gladys. And Temptations and Tops, Contours and Spinners. And before anyone realized what was happening, it happened: Hitsville became like its name."

After a successful stint writing for Jackie Wilson, Detroit-based songwriter Berry Gordy decided that there was more money to be made in the music business as a producer than as a songwriter. Taking out a loan, he founded the Tamla Records label and started signing local talent. Following up early successes with the creation of the Hitsville USA studio, Gordy started a second label to supplement Tamla. Its name was a portmanteau of the Detroit nickname, "Motor City" or "Motown". From there, Tamla Motown (along with such associated labels as Gordy, Soul, and V.I.P.) went out to conquer the world of pop.

This American record company had a huge impact on popular music in general and Soul in particular, so much so that it was revived in 2011 after operating under the Republic Records umbrella for six years; it's noted for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the "Motown sound", which was developed primarily by company session group the Funk Brothers; this was characterized by tambourine-accented percussion, melodic bass lines, gospel-influenced call and response singing and lush string arrangements. The Motown sound was highly influential on subsequent artists, especially those of The British Invasion.

Second, Motown labels were noted for their factory-like production process. Berry Gordy was very keen to see black musicians getting into the upper reaches of the pop charts, so songs were tailored with crossover appeal in mind. Much of the production work was centered around staff songwriters and songwriting teams, the most famous of which was Holland-Dozier-Holland. New tunes were written during the week and then presented at Gordy's quality-control meetings on Fridays, where they were played in a sequence of the top five singles of that week. If Gordy felt that the song lacked promise, he wielded an executive veto. It could be overcome only by artists with enough clout and determination, mostly famously when Marvin Gaye butted heads with Gordy over the socially-conscious song "What's Going On?", which proved a critically hailed smash hit when Gaye got his way and had it published.

Finally, Motown was famous for the sheer number of hugely successful acts they signed. At one time or another, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men and Rick James were artists signed to one of Gordy's Motown labels, while famous acts from the glory days of the label like The Temptations, the Four Tops, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas quickly became household names.

The early years of the label, and the career of The Supremes in particular, were the inspiration for the musical and movie Dreamgirls. The long-overlooked contribution of The Funk Brothers is illustrated in the documentary/concert film, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.

Motown performers with TV Tropes pages:

+ Signed with the now-defunct Universal Motown incarnation that existed from 2005 to 2011


  • Album Filler: Motown was notorious for releasing albums which were essentially hit singles surrounded by cover songs. This policy prompted Marvin Gaye to record the Concept Album What's Going On?.
  • Boy Band: The Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5 are among the earliest examples.
  • The Chessmaster: Berry Gordy.
  • Christmas Songs: Plenty of their artists released Christmas singles and albums over the years.
  • Classically-Trained Extra: That lush string sound? Provided by moonlighting members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
  • Cover Version: Songs were often covered by different artists within the company. Marvin Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", for example, wasn't even the first one recorded.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" by Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, produced by Berry Gordy himself, was a standard 1968 sweet Motown ballad. It was co-written by the band's guitarist, Tommy Chong.
  • Girl Group: The Supremes were the most successful, achieving nine number one hits and becoming arguably the second biggest pop group in the world next to The Beatles during the 1960s. Others included the Marvelettes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Lots and lots of them. In fact, it's possible that they've released more of these than any other label.
  • Idol Singer: Codified the idea of this style of pop singer long before it reached Japan. Gordy recruited many singers from local bands, churches, and youth groups in the Detroit area, and sent them to finishing school in order to clean up their images for the public.
  • Lead Bassist:
    • James Jamerson, routinely considered one of the best bass players in history whose highly complex and dynamic basslines typically carried the melody.
    • Jamerson's essential replacement, Bob Babbitt, also fits this trope, as he was the go-to bassist for Motown producer Norman Whitfield.
    • This even applied to cases where Motown outsourced their music. Most of the Jackson 5's hits were recorded in Los Angeles, but Wilton Felder's bass work was very much in line with what Jamerson and Babbitt had done.
  • Music Is Politics: Taking into account Gordy's iron-handed control over the company, Motown was absolutely awash with this. For example, Diana Ross was never thought of as the best singer in the Supremes, but she was the most marketable as a leader, so she was brought to the front and given the big solo push when the group broke up.
    • It was noted by Berry Gordy, while he worked at a local music store, that jazz music sold far less than pop music. Gordy, keen to make an R&B/pop crossover style that appealed to whites and blacks, with a sophistication and elegance not usually found in R&B but not too sophisticated or uncommercial that it would alienate pop audiences ("Don't Bore Us, Get To The Chorus" was reputedly a popular motto of his when auditioning new songs), insisted that the Funk Brothers not play anything too jazzy. As the Funk Brothers were jazz musicians determined not to become too bored playing formulaic pop-R&B, and as Berry often kept the musicians interested by promising them they could make jazz music at some point and time, the musicians were limited by what they could play, but often did their best to sneak jazz into their accompaniment without Berry losing his patience with them. One might classify the "Motown Sound" as a compromise between the two worlds, to some degree. This, along with the sociopolitically charged/uncompromised lyrical content, might explain Gordy's hesitance to allow concept albums like Music of My Mind and What's Going On? to be released. note 
    • Equally, though Gordy cultivated a strong, independent black image for the label, he established a grooming system for his artists which instructed them on how to "properly" look, act, walk, talk, dance, and conduct themselves, partly so as not to alienate the pre-Civil Rights movement white market and the older black market he hoped to entertain. He also tried to incorporate universal themes in the lyrics and images, and was reluctant to allow blatant racial or political statements in Motown music (or overtly, militantly black musical styles or imagery) for many years.
  • New Media Are Evil: They were infamously slow to embrace CDs in The '80s, figuring they wouldn't overtake vinyl. They were similarly dismissive of music videos as well in the same time frame.
  • The Rival:
    • Stax Records qualified stylistically, because it specialized in tougher, harder-edged soul music in contrast to the more commercial pop sound produced by Motown. Ironically, although Stax specialized in music that sounded more "black" than what Motown offered, the label was actually owned by a white businessman, Jim Stewart, and featured several white musicians, including ace guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, on its recordings (both featured in The Blues Brothers), not to mention distributing Big Star through its rock subsidiary, Ardent.
    • Atlantic Records, a New York-based jazz and blues label (and erstwhile Stax distributor) which eventually released other genres such as rock and country, is another commonly cited rival.
  • Signature Style: The Motown sound was extremely distinctive, with minimal guitar (often solely textural), highly complex and melodic basslines that almost invariably took a lead role, a call-and-response vocal structure, lush string sections, and a steady backbeat with prominent tambourine accents. In general, the style focused much less on groove than the Stax and Atlantic artists, and was heavily driven by melody.
  • Silly Love Songs: They came to specialize in an eloquent, rhapsodic version of these, with "My Girl" probably being the epitome.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: They inevitably overshadow all other R&B and soul music recorded in The '60s. This was particularly true when it came to '60s-focused oldies radio stations. At least one station actually used "Motown, Soul, and Rock 'n' Roll" as a slogan.


Video Example(s):


The Motown 25 Moonwalk

Widely cited as his breakthrough performance as a solo artist, Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk to millions watching live around the world at Motown's 25th anniversary special; simultaneously starting a dance craze, and cementing his status as a pop superstar.

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Main / MoonwalkDance

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