Motown: The Early Years

The music business is just that; a business. That is why it’s wonderful to learn about men who put their dreams into motion and started record companies that were successful and competed with the conglomerates. One of these stories highlights Herb Alpert and A&M Records. Another is Berry Gordy and Motown.

Berry Gordy III – or Berry Gordy, Jr. – was born in, you guessed it, Detroit in 1929. Berry’s grandfather, Berry the First, was the son of James Gordy, a white plantation owner, and one of his female slaves. James Gordy also had a son with his legitimate wife. This son, also named James, was the grandfather of President Jimmy Carter. For those scoring at home, this makes Berry Gordy and Jimmy Carter distant cousins. After time spent as a boxer, Berry served in the Korean War before returning home and marrying and opening a store that sold records and 3-D glasses. He eventually met Jackie Wilson and began to write songs for him including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops”. Berry and Jackie would remain close, professionally and personally, for years after.

An early snap of Berry Gordy, third from right, with his arm around his man, Jackie Wilson. Also with, from left to right, Billy Johnson, Al Abrams, Johnny (“JJ”) Jones and Robert Bateman. Jewish teenager Abrams was a promoter, the first salaried employee of Motown. Thanks to for identifying these men.

With his earnings from songwriting, Berry Gordy went into music production. He discovered a group called the Miracles and began to look for others to add to his roster. Encouraged by the leader of the Miracles, Smokey Robinson, Gordy began plans to start his own record company but for that he needed capital. Berry’s mother and father had been the owners of various businesses for years and by the late 1950’s the family had substantial holdings and savings. Eldest Gordy daughter, Esther, was put in charge of the family’s finances. When her kid brother came to her and asked for $1000 to go into business for himself, she was skeptical but eventually agreed to give him $800 from the family savings.

Berry wanted to name his label Tammy Records after the Debbie Reynolds song but that name was taken so he chose the name Tamla Records and the company began operations on January 12, 1959. Tamla’s first release was “Come to Me” by Marv Johnson who would later hit with “You Got What it Takes”. After the success of early hits like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Shop Around” by the Miracles, Gordy began releasing records on a label he christened Motown Records; a portmanteau of “motor” and “town”, a reference to Detroit’s status as a car manufacturing capitol. Because of Berry Gordy, Detroit as often been referred to as “Motown”. Tamla and Motown were merged and the Motown Record company was incorporated on April 14, 1960. Music history was about to change.

Early days. Anna Gordy, Berry and Smokey Robinson. Anna was Berry’s older sister and was in the record business before her brother.

Motown Records became a significant black business at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. From out of their headquarters, called Hitsville, U.S.A. at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, emerged a sound that shaved off the harder edges of rhythm and blues and added the polish of pop including small orchestras and often vibrant group vocals. Motown therefore is something of its own genre; black music geared to a mass audience, a pop/R&B hybrid with a strong kinship to the soul music emerging at the time. Pop production techniques were employed including efficient horn arrangements and complex melodies were eschewed in favour of accessible music that sounded great coming out of an AM car radio. The company’s slogan was “The Sound of Young America” and Berry Gordy considered his artists global ambassadors. In order to foster a polished image, Gordy and his staff encouraged the artists to deport themselves like royalty. Artist Development classes we implemented where singers were taught how to act, walk and talk with style. They were also outfitted in the latest fashions and became a shining example of successful, dignified young black men and women.

Hitsville yesterday…
…and today.

While you could argue that the true glory years of Motown took place after the time we like to discuss at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, there are many fantastic tunes to highlight that came out in the earliest, “first phase” of the Motown empire. Let’s look at ten of them, presented in the order in which they were released.

MONEY (THAT’S WHAT I WANT)Barrett Strong — Released August, 1959. Pop #23, R&B #2 // Barrett Strong holds a unique place in Motown history. His second release for the fledgling Tamla label was “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a song that became the Motown empire’s first hit. Not being able to score another hit, Strong may have sensed that future Motown releases would be more along the lines of soul/pop, a cleaner sound than the one he himself had. He left the music business behind for a time and got a job working on the production line at Chrysler there in Detroit. In the mid-’60’s, he got a call from his friend, Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who asked Strong to provide lyrics for songs Whitfield was working on for the Temptations. Barrett Strong would go on to provide the words for some of the greatest soul – or “cinematic soul” – records of the late 1960’s. Strong had always considered himself a co-writer of “Money”. However, in the last ten years, he has realized that is no longer the case.

Janie Bradford worked with Berry Gordy at Motown since the very beginning. In her version of events “Berry was at the piano, banging out this one rhythm” and asking for ideas. Janie says that as Strong appeared in the studio she “yelled back ‘Money! That’s what I want.’ Barrett pushed Berry off the piano stool to play the riff himself” and soon the song was written.1 Berry Gordy relates the tale of he and Bradford in the studio, Berry at the piano and the two shouting out ideas about money and the best things in life being free. Gordy improvised a line and Janie contributed words. Strong arrived – “uninvited” – and began jamming along with them. Gordy mentions nothing about Strong’s hand in the composition but instead says that Bradford was pleasantly surprised that Gordy was adding her name to his on the songwriting credit.2

According to documents at the United States Copyright Office, Strong’s name had been on record as a co-writer of “Money” but Gordy had it removed, saying it was a clerical error. Strong had no idea this had happened and says that the tune was based on a “piano riff that came to him”. Barrett was playing the riff in the studio and an engineer alerted Berry Gordy. According to the engineer “it all emanated from Barrett Strong” who also apparently handled the arrangement during recording3. It’s a sad and common tale. This iconic song has been recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and – in a version I remember as a child – the Flying Lizards. The result is that Barrett Strong today lives in a Detroit retirement home with the effects of a stroke, lamenting the loss of a financial legacy. As for his musical legacy, he is still the artist of note on the first hit from the Motor City’s famous record label.

Barrett Strong in 2012. Photo by Fabrizio Constantini, New York Times.

SHOP AROUNDThe Miracles — Released October 15, 1960. Pop #2, R&B #1 // If “Money (That’s What I Want)” put Motown on the map, “Shop Around” sent the label into the stratosphere. In 1957, Smokey and his group the Miracles met Berry Gordy who was impressed by the group’s sound and also by Smokey and his notebook full of the songs he had been writing since high school. The Miracles’ association  with Gordy, then, stretches back to pre-Motown and when Gordy started his label, Smokey’s outfit was one of the first signed. “Shop Around” had been a bluesier number until Gordy decided it needed a cleaner feel to appeal to the masses. The two collaborated on the recording of the song that shot up the R&B charts, hitting #1 on that listing and becoming the Miracles’ and Motown’s first million-selling record. It nearly topped the Pop charts as well but was kept out of the number one slot by the decidedly white-sounding “Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk. Here started a lifelong alliance between Berry and Smokey, one that extended to family as well as business.

PLEASE MR. POSTMANThe Marvelettes — Released August 21, 1961. Pop #1, R&B #1 // Georgia Dobbins took her group of girl singers – then known as the Marvels – to audition for Berry Gordy at a time when Gordy was becoming known as a man who knew talent and could make things happen. Dobbins debuted a song at the audition that Gordy liked and promptly gave to his staff to rework. One of the men who did so was Brian Holland, soon to become part of a hit-making team for the label and Freddie Gorman – who actually was a Detroit postman. After the audition, Dobbins decided to leave show business partly because her father advised her to do so. One can only wonder how she felt when her group became famous. By the time Gordy called the newly renamed Marvelettes back to record, they had a new lead singer, Gladys Horton. “Please Mr. Postman” was recorded in the Spring of 1961 and features the Motown house band who would become well known as the Funk Brothers. The drummer, however, would soon go on to bigger things; Marvin Gaye. “Please Mr. Postman”, improving again on the previous two tunes on this list, would enter history as Motown’s first #1 Pop song. It also is significant due to the Beatles’ covering it early in their careers and the Carpenters taking the song to #1 again in 1975. This also is an early example of Berry Gordy making music by committee, putting teams in charge of songwriting and production.

DO YOU LOVE METhe Contours — Released June 29, 1962. Pop #3, R&B #1 // I talked about this wonderful tune in my article on one-hit wonders, which serves as a bit of a spoiler when talking about the later career of the Contours. Early in their time at Motown, things weren’t going well for the group. Berry Gordy had written a tune that he had intended to use to help jumpstart the career of the Temptations. Instead, he decided to use it as a last-ditch effort to put the Contours on the map. The boys gladly accepted and laid down a gritty recording that was decidedly more R&B than many of Motown’s smoother sounds. When the session was done, the Contours were so grateful to Gordy that they gathered around him, hugging him and thanking him. With good cause. Though it was their only hit, the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” is still today one of the most cherished and recognizable songs of the golden era.

BEECHWOOD 4-5789The Marvelettes — Released July 11, 1962. Pop #17, R&B #7 // Before he sang a note, Marvin Gaye was active behind the scenes at Motown. He was involved with the artists not only as a musician but also a writer and producer. Equally active was William “Mickey” Stevenson, who worked on countless tunes during Motown’s golden era until leaving in 1967 with his wife, singer Kim Weston. Marvin and Mickey, together with middle Gordy sibling, George, wrote “Beechwood 4-5789” for the Marvelettes, who had become reliable hit-makers for the label. That’s Marvin again on the drums for this ditty that is titled after the mid-century method of issuing telephone numbers with exchange names; you would dial this number as “234-5789”. I never liked it that for this song title they couldn’t jumble up the numbers more – they’re almost in sequence! Here’s another song by the Marvelettes that Karen Carpenter loved enough to cover. It was the last Carpenters single released before Karen’s untimely death.

Legendary Motown bassist, James Jamerson, hovers over Mickey Stevenson, Kim Weston and Funk Brother Jack Ashford. Courtesy Twitter @JamersonPage.

YOU BEAT ME TO THE PUNCHMary Wells — Released July 17, 1962. Pop #9, R&B #1 // In another beautiful Berry Gordy story, 17-year-old Mary Wells approached Berry with her mother carrying a song she had written, offering it to Gordy for Jackie Wilson to sing. She panicked when he asked her to sing it for him and almost fainted when he signed her up as an artist, the first to be signed specifically to record on the Motown imprint of Gordy’s growing empire. Mary became “the first Motown act to chart in the U.K., the first Motown Grammy nominee and the company’s most dependable hitmaker in the early years”1. Wells was teamed with Smokey Robinson and with her Smokey did his first production work outside of his own group. If you listen closely, you can hear a mock-calypso beat in “You Beat Me to the Punch”, a Top Ten song on both the Pop and R&B listings. Mary Wells was another “first”; she was the first major act to leave Berry Gordy at the height of her success. She and Gordy argued over contracts and money and Wells eventually left the label after filing a lawsuit to be let out of her contract. Gordy has maintained that her leaving was personally devastating. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mary Wells had only one Top 40 hit after leaving Motown and could never regain her popularity.

Berry Gordy; visionary.

STUBBORN KIND OF FELLOWMarvin Gaye — Released July 23, 1962. Pop #46, R&B #8 // One of the greatest soul singers of all-time didn’t want to be a soul singer. Marvin Gaye signed with Tamla with the intention of having a career as a jazz singer or a crooner-type and had no interest in R&B. After his initial singles failed to find an audience, Marvin reassessed his career path and spent time playing drums on records by Motown artists. Then, the same songwriting team behind “Beechwood 4-5789” came up with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and Marvin Gaye the soul singer was born. The title of this tune may refer to Gaye’s reluctance to give up his dreams of being a crooner and embrace the Motown sound. This Marvin’s first hit single reached #10 on the R&B chart and made some inroads on the Pop charts. Marvin is in great voice here; “Say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’” This strutting performance provided the springboard to a career that would be one of the most substantial in all of popular music.

YOU’VE REALLY GOT A HOLD ON METhe Miracles — Released November 9, 1962. Pop #8, R&B #1 // Perhaps the most revered song on this list, “You Really Got a Hold on Me” became the first real standard to come out of Motown. Eventually recorded countless times – again by the Beatles, thoroughly stating their approval of Motown during the British Invasion – this tune was written by Smokey Robinson after hearing Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”. The song was recorded in Detroit in the famous “Snake Pit” recording studio. Actually called Studio A, the small room that yielded so many timeless tunes was given its nickname due to the endless miles of cables that ran through it. Smokey Robinson married Claudette Rogers of his group, The Miracles, and the couple had two children named Berry and Tamla; both names honouring his friend and mentor, Berry Gordy. Robinson would go on to solo success and became a true legend of soul and R&B.

Stevie Wonder with members of the Funk Brothers record in the “Snake Pit”, Studio A of Hitsville, USA.

FINGERTIPS – PART 2Little Stevie Wonder — Released May 21, 1963. Pop #1, R&B #1 // Stevland Hardaway Judkins, when he was 11 years old in 1961, sang his own composition for a member of the Miracles who promptly took the boy and his mother to Berry Gordy. Gordy signed him on the spot and he was christened Little Stevie Wonder. Tamla promptly issued Stevie’s debut album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, an instrumental album on which was a track called “Fingertips”, featuring Stevie’s bongo playing. Later in the spring of ‘63, Stevie was part of a Motortown Revue, one of Berry Gordy’s traveling shows featuring his acts performing live. Stevie was captured live performing a lengthy version of “Fingertips” that was later released as a single; the song was edited in half, “Part 1” on Side 1 and “Part 2” on Side 2. It was “Part 2” that became the hit. The live recording features Wonder’s exit from the stage before he changes his mind and reemerges to blow some more harmonica – to the consternation of the band, including again Marvin Gaye on drums, who are trying to follow him. The success of the chart-topping single launched the album – Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius – to the #1 spot on the Pop charts and launched Stevie Wonder’s career, a career that has few parallels.

(LOVE IS LIKE A) HEAT WAVEMartha & The Vandellas — Released July 10, 1963. Pop #4, R&B #1 // Motown’s Mickey Stevenson heard Martha Reeves singing in a nightclub and gave her a date to show up at Hitsville for an audition. Reeves showed up on the wrong day and Mickey was not happy! Frustrated, Stevenson told her to man the front desk – Martha Reeves ended up being his secretary and was put in charge of arranging auditions for others. Martha and her girlfriends did get chances to sing back-up on several Motown recordings including Marvin’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”. One night when Mary Wells failed to show up for a recording date, Martha and friends were asked to step up to the mic. Berry Gordy was impressed enough to offer them a contract and gave them the name “Martha and the Vandellas”. Their second hit (after “Come and Get These Memories”) was “Heat Wave”; often the “Love is Like a” is added to differentiate this song from the Cole Porter tune “Heat Wave”. Written and produced by the legendary team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, this tune has been referred to as on of the first to exemplify the “Motown Sound” due to it’s “gospel backbeat, jazz overtones and, doo-wop call and response vocals”. “Heat Wave” earned the group a Grammy Nomination, making them the first Motown group so honoured. This song took the country by storm in the summer of 1963, and did much to establish Motown as a vital musical force. Martha and the Vandellas would go on to have more hits like the legendary “Dancing in the Street” – perhaps their greatest contribution – “Nowhere to Run”, “Jimmy Mack” and “Honey Chile”. Though Martha & Co. could not sustain their popularity and disbanded after a farewell concert in 1972, the handful of singles they released helped solidify Motown’s position in the firmament and are among the most favoured R&B-flavoured pop records of the mid-1960’s.

After this first phase of Motown hit records, Berry Gordy’s company continued to grow and fully came into its own as a major force in the music business. While money may have been all Berry Gordy, Barrett Strong and others wanted at the outset, they eventually would gain that and something else perhaps more significant; a body of work emblematic of not only some of the finest black music ever made but simply some of the best sounds of the era, sounds that charmed people of all colours the world over. It continues to do so today.

  1. Bradford, Janie (1992). Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971. Motown Record Company.
  2. Gordy, Berry (1994). To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. Warner Books.
  3. Rohter, Larry (2013). For a Classic Motown Song, Credit is What He Wants. New York Times.


  1. Another great article. It’s fascinating to read the background in terms of the way the behaviour and image of the artists was shaped almost like the old Hollywood system where each star was considered an ambassador for the studio and as a result there were expectations of their conduct on and off duty. If that standard was applied in 70s and 80s virtually none of the big rock acts could’ve held on to a record contract for more than a week 🙂

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