Motown: Celebrating 50 Years of American Music

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Doug Johnson. American popular music changed forever fifty years ago when Berry Gordy, Junior started a record company in Detroit, Michigan.

It grew to become one of the most successful black-owned businesses in the United States. This week on our program, we explore the music of Motown.


That was Universal Motown artist Akon singing the title song from his latest album, "Freedom."  The company is now part of the Universal Music Group with headquarters in New York City.

It observed Motown's fiftieth anniversary in January with ceremonies at the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit. The museum includes the original apartment and recording studio that Berry Gordy called "Hitsville, USA."

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio is celebrating the record company's anniversary all year with a new exhibit "Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns Fifty."  It is displaying instruments, clothing, programs, recordings and other objects from Motown's many successful singers and groups.

One of these was the Miracles, led by singer Smokey Robinson.  The group had Motown's first big hit in nineteen sixty, "Shop Around."


Berry Gordy had worked in many jobs before starting Motown Records.  He had written and sold a few songs. But he wanted more control over his product.  He also wanted to create what he called a hit factory, an idea he got from working for the Ford Motor Company.

He took other ideas from the American auto industry, too. The name "Motown," for example, is another form of Detroit's nickname, the "Motor City".

And his quality control system at Motown was like a similar system in car factories.  It included weekly meetings where company officials worked together to make recording and marketing decisions.

But Motown created more than records.  It also designed the artists' live performances.  And it taught them how to sing, dance, walk, talk and dress.

Motown is known for its special sound that was influenced by jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues.  It also used different sound effects.  Motown's first recording studio included an echo chamber.  This echo effect can be heard on the recording of this huge hit for the Supremes in nineteen sixty-four, "Where Did Our Love Go?"


Motown was at the height of its success in the nineteen sixties.  One reason was because the company permitted people to be creative.  They were not afraid to make mistakes. The songs were simple and easy to understand.  They were recorded with excellent backup singers and musicians. One of the most successful Motown groups of the nineteen sixties was the Temptations.  Here they sing one of their hits, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."


Many of Motown's hit records were written and produced by a team of three men-- Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.  The three were known as HDH.

Holland, Dozier and Holland left Motown in nineteen sixty-eight.  The three men were not satisfied with their earnings. Motown took legal action, accusing them of violating songwriting agreements.

The three then accused Motown of dishonesty and violating their business relationship.   This legal battle continued for years before being settled out of court.  It was just one example of problems at the company.

Some artists questioned what they were being paid.   For example, Gladys Knight and the Pips left Motown in nineteen seventy-three because they never felt completely accepted by the company.  One of their big Motown hits was "I Heard It through the Grapevine."


Berry Gordy moved Motown headquarters to Los Angeles, California in nineteen seventy-two.  The company started producing television shows and movies.

At the same time, Motown was developing new acts. One of the most successful was the family group called the Jackson Five.  Their first single record reached number one in nineteen seventy.  Here it is, "I Want You Back."


Another extremely successful Motown singer was Marvin Gaye.  He recorded and wrote music for Motown artists for twenty years.   In nineteen seventy-one, his album "What's Going On?" used jazz and classical music to create songs that explored social issues.  Here is Marvin Gaye singing the title song.


Another important long-time Motown artist is Stevie Wonder. Motown signed him to his first contract at the age of twelve. One of Stevie Wonder's big hits was "Superstition."


In the nineteen eighties, Motown was in financial trouble.   Berry Gordy finally sold the company in nineteen eighty-eight.  He reportedly said at the time that Motown had lost the spirit it had during its time in Detroit.  But he and others say Motown will always be remembered for its historic influence on American popular music.

("Dancing in the Street"/Martha and the Vandellas)

Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Doug Johnson. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.