A Brief History Of...Motown


Jan 28 2008, 2h35

The description and playlist below are from the weekly radio show (A Brief History Of…) that my friend and I host on WSUM 91.7fm Madison. We selected songs we felt were either historically important or just representative of each specific topic. Please comment if you feel we missed something or just to give your opinion. Remember, however, that we do this show in an hour (about 50 minutes of music). Track length is a major factor in our decisions (shorter is usually better). Thanks!

A Brief History of…Motown examines the conflicts over style and lyric content between Berry Gordy Jr., the avaricious founder of Motown, and his artists. Gordy found a successful style in the early 1960s as the first person to market African-American rhythm and blues to a primarily white audience. Throughout the tumultuous decade that included the peak of the civil rights era, many artists became famous with Gordy’s musical formula, but with tight lyrical constraints. The first portion of this show establishes what exactly Gordy’s formula was and which artists succeeded with it. The final segment of the show is devoted to explaining the social changes in American culture around 1970 to which Motown’s artists were responding once they finally forced Gordy to yield.

WSUM is technically an "alternative" radio station. This is the show in which we pushed the boundary of "alternative" since a majority of these songs were hits and most are still being played on other radio formats. On the other hand, no station would play only Motown, so I guess we're OK, technically. In any case, here is the playlist from this show:

The First Hits:
Money (That's What I Want) by Barrett Strong (1959). Berry Gordy shared the writing credits for this song. It might as well be called his personal anthem.
Shop Around by The Miracles (1960)
Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes (1961). The drummer on "Please Mr. Postman" was Marvin Gaye. This shows that even beyond The Funk Brothers Motown was a family of songwriters and musicians in its early years.

Growing Success/The Formula Is Set:
According to the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Funk Brothers played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones & the Beach Boys combined. They were never credited on albums or singles until Marvin Gaye's 1971 What's Going On. Individually, James Jamerson's melodic bass technique revolutionized bass-playing across genres. The Funk Brothers played on each of these tracks that furthered Motown's popularity and helped establish Gordy's formula:
(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave by Martha & The Vandellas (1963)
Baby Love by The Supremes (1964). The Supremes had been at Motown since 1960, but did not score their first hit until 1964. But from 1964 to 1966 they ran off five consecutive number-one’s.
The Way You Do The Things You Do by The Temptations (1964)
It's the Same Old Song by The Four Tops (1965). "It's the Same Old Song" is effectively the defining song of Motown's first decade of Gordy-controlled success.

Everbody and His Brother Has a Hit with the Funk Brothers:
Cool Jerk by The Capitols (1966). The Capitols recorded "Cool Jerk," but the Funk Brothers re-recorded the backing track (without the Capitols' consent). The Funk Brothers version was a huge hit. Also, "Cool Jerk" was originally titled "Pimp Jerk," but that obviously wouldn’t get any radio play.
This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You) by The Isley Brothers (1966). The second part of The Isley Brothers' multi-stage decades-long career was a brief stint at Motown that spawned the hit "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)."
What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted by Jimmy Ruffin (1966). Literally everbody and his brother had a hit with Motown. Jimmy Ruffin was the brother of David Ruffin of the Temptations.

More of the Same:
Notice that social commentary remained absent from Motown hits in this period, despite the fact that mid-60s marked the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.
Uptight (Everything's Alright) by Stevie Wonder (1966)
I Second That Emotion by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (1967)
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1968)

New Directions for Motown / Finally Social Commentary from Motown:
By 1970, the Civil Rights Movement had proven only partially successful and the Black Power movement, with its different set of African-American values, had replaced it. In addition, anti-Vietnam War sentiments boiled over in 1968 and continued through Nixon's slow, bloody withdrawl in the early 70s. These were the issues Motown's artists dealt with once they were finally free (only relatively, of course - Gordy still ran Motown) from Gordy's opposition to provocative lyrics. But first, a new sound at Motown!:
I Want You Back by The Jackson 5 (1969)
Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today) by The Temptations (1970).
Way Back Home by Jr. Walker & The All Stars (1971)
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) by Marvin Gaye (1971). Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" was the first Motown single to break the Gordy mold, but his magnum opus was What's Going On. Gordy thought the style of the album would doom it commercially. He was clearly starting to lose touch with his audience. As much as the album makes generalizations about society as a whole, Gaye said it was written to articulate the severe lack of re-integration experienced by his brother after returning from the service in the Vietnam War. This was an experience shared by many veterans, especially black vets, as the country tried to forget the war ever happened.

The End of Classic Motown:
Are You Happy by The Commodores (1974). "Are You Happy" was a failed single that came out just before The Commodores' first album. The music recorded for that album (Machine Gun) was the last music recorded at Hitsville USA studios in Detroit. In 1974 Gordy moved Motown's operations to Los Angeles. "Are You Happy" is the complete antithesis of Motown's first hit "Money (That's What I Want)." The lyrics implicitly address Berry Gordy, Jr. and can be seen as a big Fuck You to his artist-restrictive greed: "Are you happy / with what you got? / ... /Rich man / Do you have enough millions / to set you straight / but not enough friends, yeah, / to love you for who you are / ... / how does it feel / when you're lying to yourself..."


  • gambrellurb

    Good summary of the Motown years, though I would quibble with a couple points. You mention Same Old Song as a defining one of the early years, but I always think of My Girl as that song. I Can't Help Myself and then Same Old Song transistion to the middle years of Motown. Motown's social consciousness certainly lagged behind the times. It found it's first expressions in songs about issues facing the black community (Love Child, Cloud Nine, Runaway Child). What's Going On was revolutionary for its musical style and for taking on issues beyond the black community (and, as you said, making a complete break from the Motown formula). Music at Motown became edgier earlier than the lyrics with songs like Bernadette and Reflections. Those presaged the social consciousness but the issues related songs seemed a logical progression from that musical trend.

    Abr 6 2008, 22h42
  • the_flava

    this is wack, where's motherfuckin Biggy Smalls in all of this??

    Set 5 2008, 23h54
  • rwitte

    Thanks for sharing.

    Abr 21 2011, 20h01
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