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The Sound: Motown, Hitsville, USA
The house, simple and neatly kept, still stands at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. The cutout royal blue letters spell Hitsville U.S.A., though now another sign identifies the site as a museum. This is where an all-star generation of black recording artists changed the sound of American music. This is the original home of Motown Records.
Taking its name from Detroit’s reputation as the “Motor City”—the legendary center of U.S. car manufacturing—Motown cultivated and marketed the talents of such greats as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, and many others. For Marvin Gaye, the company guided his career from an inexperienced, young crooner with big dreams to musical innovator and international superstar.
Motown Records was the dream of Detroit native Berry Gordy, Jr. By 1959 when he founded the company with an $800 loan, Gordy had been a professional boxer, a Korean War soldier, and an assembly-line worker at an auto plant. But he was also a songwriter(at the time best-known for writing hits for Jackie Wilson) who developed a disciplined formula for churning out ear-grabbing, finger-snapping tunes—almost all less than three minutes long. The Motown Sound, as it was known, featured a driving rhythm section supporting a memorable melody. Motown’s sound engineers made a point of producing the songs so they would still play great on the simple, tinny-sounding transistor and car radios of the time.
Through the late 1960s, all Motown songs were about young love and took direct aim at the hearts of American youth. The company added the slogan “The Sound of Young America” to advertise its wide appeal.
The company did more than make music, however. Its records had the power to transcend racial and cultural differences. “I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated,” Smokey Robinson said in a later interview. “Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” In 1960s America, Motown provided much of life’s soundtrack for young people—black, brown, and white.
Early on, Gordy made issues like racism or injustice completely off-limits for his artists. He worried controversy could drive off fans and slow down the Motown hit machine. But Stevie Wonder’s 1966 recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a protest song written by Bob Dylan, gave fans a taste of something deeper. So did the Temptations' 1970 hit, "Ball of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)." By 1971, Marvin Gaye’s unblinking look at American society and inner-city life on What’s Going On proved that many American youth were hungry for more than bubblegum pop.
All great things come to an end, and in 1972 Motown abandoned Detroit and relocated its headquarters to the show biz and recording capital of Los Angeles. It remained an independent company until 1988, when Gordy sold his owner’s stake for $61 million. In 1998, Motown was absorbed into the Universal Music Group.
What was the inspiration behind the album? Read on about the story behind the album.