What's the best Motown hit

Motown 50 | biography

Motown, the winning indie record company. Motown, a black success story. Motown, a show of superlatives. Motown between chart heights and human abysses. Motown teasers are in abundance.

About 50 years ago, on January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy founded the company with start-up capital of $ 800 borrowed from his parents.
Between 1961 and 1971 alone, Motown landed 110 hits in the US top 10, an average of eleven a year, just under one a month. In 1988 Gordy sold his label to MCA for $ 61 million. But the keyword “success story” is not just about hits and hard dollars. Because Motown is the most important record company of the 20th century from an artistic point of view.

“Just” being a recognized songwriter (for example with his hit “Lonely Teardrops” for R&B singer Jackie Wilson) was not enough for the shrewd and often unscrupulous businessman Gordy. In 1959 he had the vision of an African American music empire. In order to realize this vision, the ex-boxer used the principle of assembly line work, as he knew it from the Ford works in his hometown, the "Motor-Town" Detroit. Except that Motown songs of the century like “Stop! In The Name Of Love "or" Reach Out "ran off the assembly line.

To do this, Gordy got the best songwriters and producers he could find. The couple Ashford & Simpson ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). The Holland brothers with Lamont Dozier, known as Holland-Dozier-Holland ("Where Did Our Love Go"). Norman Whitfield ("Papa Was A Rolling Stone"), who died in September 2008.

The list of legendary singers who recorded at Motown is almost endless: Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men or Erykah Badu lead them at.

But not only gifted producers and singers made the Motown myth: Gordy put together the best "house band" of all time: the legendary Funk Brothers with keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, bassist James Jamerson, drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen and others. They can be heard on hundreds of hits. James Jamerson - a genius - plucked the grandiose bass lines by which you can recognize so many Motown songs (let's take "You Can´t Hurry Love" from the Supremes) with his index finger - at a daring pace. Hard to believe but true: The Funk Brothers played on more No. 1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys together.

The typical Motown sound can be recognized after just a few bars: the tambourine on the two. The resounding, ingenious bass lines. Solidly arranged harmony scheme. In the singing the "call & response" form of gospel music. Excessive virtuosity and large ornaments were saved in “Hitsville” and instead adhered to the so-called KISS principle (“keep it simple, stupid).

In order to make his artists into real stars, Motown ordered them to dance, speech and behavior lessons. The children of General Motors assembly line workers should learn how to properly hold a wine glass or help a woman take off her coat to improve the public image of African Americans. You should feel like an ambassador. The work ethos at Motown was colossal. His studio, called the "Snake Pit", was open 22 hours a day. If you didn't see the Motown vocal stars there, they were probably on tour.

At the infamous "Friday Meetings", Gordy and his team rigorously decided which new Motown songs had enough hit potential. Only she published the Hitsville USA Gordy blocked epochal titles there with his right of veto, which then, thank God, came out: "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations (with which Motown won its first Grammy), later "What's Going" On ”by Marvin Gaye. Songs like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" revised its makers dozen times in order to send them into the race again and again at the "Friday meetings". From the beginning of the 1970s, solo artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder (who is still under contract with the label) on their concept albums undermined the commercial dogmas of the typical Motown sound.

At Motown, the “American Dream” came true for African Americans for the first time. Five years before the Civil Rights Act eliminated a de facto apartheid regime in the United States, there was an important record company in Detroit that was owned by an African American. A family business that primarily employed black people and that had groundbreaking success in white America. Motown's revolution took place in the high school auditoriums, in the dance halls where the bands of the “Motortown Revue” gave concerts. It can confidently be said: Without Motown and his “empowerment” of Afro-American society, Barack Obama would not have made it.

Motown's "Claim" was his motto in the 1960s: The Sound of Young America. It wasn't a show-off or a motto, it was a fact. In the days of the civil rights movement, Motown made the coolest, most popular music in the United States. She reached black and white teenagers. Also in Europe. The early Beatles, Dusty Springfield, the Northern Soul movement, in our time: Amy Winehouse - all unthinkable without Motown's influence.

But to get there it was a good fifty year long journey with many stops. Below is a (necessarily incomplete) timeline:

January 12, 1959: Songwriter and auto mechanic Berry Gordy acquires a house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. He sets up offices and a recording studio there and calls it "Hitsville USA". Gordy established his empire on his Motown label and ten sublabels (Tamla, Gordy, Soul, V.I.P., Rare Earth, Workshop Jazz, Mel-o-dy and others) in the 1960s.

1959: Motown scores its first R&B hit with Barrett Strong's "Money, That's What I Want" (# 2 on the US R&B charts).

1960: The Marvelettes brought the label's first US # 1 pop hit with “Please Mr. Postman”, which was then covered by the Beatles and the Carpenters.

1964: The triumphant advance of the Supremes (later renamed Diana Ross & The Supremes) begins. By 1967 they dominated # 1 on the US pop charts ten times.

1966: British rock fans argue about whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones are the "greatest band". Counterpart in US soul, the question: Are the Four Tops or The Temptations the best band? In 1966, "Reach Out" by the Four Tops and "Get Ready" by Temptations are in the charts. Laughing third party: Your Motown label.

1967: The Motown song "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", the release of which Berry Gordy has repeatedly rejected, reached # 2 in the US singles charts in the version of Gladys Knight & The Pips. That motivates Gordy to pull an older version that Marvin Gaye recorded from the drawer. Gaye's version becomes a # 1 international hit and later appears at number 65 on the “Greatest Songs of All Time” list on the US media bible Billboard.

1968: In the politically explosive times of Vietnam, the assassination attempt on Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, Motown released the first "Message Song" in R&B: "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations, it won a Grammy.

1969–70: The Jackson 5 with its then 12 year old lead singer Michael shot to the top of the US pop charts with "I Want You Back", "ABC" and "I´ll Be There".

1970: It wasn't until the British charts, where the song hits first, that Motown veteran Smokey Robinson and his band The Miracles achieved a long-deserved No. 1 hit in the USA with “The Tears Of A Clown”.

1971: Against Berry Gordy's will, Marvin Gaye publishes his socially critical concept album “What´s Going On”. In 2003 "Rolling Stone" will record it at number 6 on its "500 Greatest Albums" of All Time "list.

Berry Gordy moves Motown to Los Angeles, primarily to get into the Hollywood film business. Gordy's muse Diana Ross shines in the Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings The Blues".

1973: With his single "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life", Stevie Wonder delivers an oversized evergreen that is covered by Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Ella Fitzgerald (not to forget Richard Clayderman or Wencke Myhre).

1977: The mega hit "Easy" cemented the fame of the Commodores. Later on, lead singer Lionel Richie will win solo Grammys and sell hundreds of millions of records.

1980: Diana Ross cannot be topped as a solo singer either, and turns everything upside down with her super single “Upside Down” from her bestseller album “diana”, produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (Chic).

1981: With Rick James (“Super Freak”), Teena Marie and the gospel band DeBarge, Motown didn’t start quite as successfully into the 80s.

1988: Berry Gordy sells Motown to MCA.

"II", the second album by Boyz II Men, produced by Babyface and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, is the epitome of 90s R&B. The singles "I´ll Make Love To You" and "On Bended Knee" replace each other directly at # 1 on the US charts. Only Elvis and the Beatles had done that before.

1997: Erykah Badu's debut album “Baduizm” sends pressure waves through pop culture. Badu wins two Grammys, she is named "First Lady of Neo Soul".

2001: The new star in the Motown sky is the singer-songwriter India.Arie from Atlanta. Her single "Video" is a swan song for all Schickie-Mickie clichés in the R&B world. Her debut album "Acoustic Soul", which will be released afterwards, has been nominated for seven Grammys.

And in Germany?

Every child in Germany knows Motown songs like “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder. When Wonder appeared in the Munich Olympiahalle in September 2008, after 24 years of absence, an audience between 12 and 70 cheered the “last real hero of the musical fairy tale Motown” (Süddeutsche Zeitung). The fairy tale began in Germany when the Supremes with “Stop! In The Name of Love “stormed number 3 on the charts.

Motown remained a niche in the German charts until the 1980s - with the exception of Thelma Houston in 1977 with “Don't Leave Me This Way” (# 5). Stevie Wonder in the same year with his funk hit "Sir Duke", then, in 1980, with "Master Blaster". 1984 was a good year for Motown in this country: Lionel Richie triumphed solo with "Hello" (# 2), Rockwell with "Somebody's Watching Me" (# 2) and Wonder with "I Just Called To Say I Love You" ( #1). A year later, Richie and the Commodores came back with the lament "Nightshift" (# 4) that they released after the tragic death of Marvin Gaye (shot by their own father in 1984). Richie is the Motown star with the highest presence on German television: In 2000, 2004 and 2007 Thomas Gottschalk invited him to “Wetten, dass?”.

Today the Motown sound has completely buried itself in the consciousness of pop music, through Amy Winehouse, also through the Swiss singer Stefanie Heinzmann, her debut single "My Man Is A Mean Man" - completely Neo-Motown - in the spring of 2008 the top 5 in German-speaking Reached space.

last but not least

The really best known of all Motown songs has not yet been mentioned. Stevie Wonder is a very humble person. His greatest hits were tributes to great African American personalities: "Sir Duke" wrote Wonder in homage to the jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington. "Isn´t She Lovely" was a declaration of love to his daughter Aisha. And his mega hit “Happy Birthday” goes to Martin Luther King - an icon of the American civil rights movement. In 1981, "Happy Birthday" was published as part of a Wonders campaign with the aim of celebrating Dr. King to be made a public holiday in the USA, which (only) succeeded in 1986. Today "Happy Birthday" is a popular birthday song in Germany too. With the younger ones it could possibly be “the birthday song”.