The Motown Sound

Motown is a record company which played an important role in the racial integration of popular music as an African American-owned record label that achieved significant crossover success. 

The record company was founded by Berry Gordy as Tamla Records on 12 January 1959 and was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on 14 April 1960 in Detroit, Michigan. The name, a portmanteau of motor and town, has also become a nickname for Detroit. The company operated several labels in addition to the Tamla and Motown imprints.

Berry Gordy

In the 1960s, Motown and its subsidiary labels were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as the Motown Sound, a style of soul music with a distinct pop influence. For many decades, Motown was the highest-earning African American business in the United States.

In 1961, the Marvelettes scored Tamla's first US number-one pop hit, "Please Mr. Postman".

"Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes. Released in August 1961

Motown's Top artists during 1961 to 1971 included the Supremes (initially including Diana Ross), the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, the Temptations, the Contours, Martha and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes, the Spinners, the Monitors, Chris Clark, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, the Originals, and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Artist development was a major part of Motown's operations instituted by Berry Gordy. The acts on the Motown label were fastidiously groomed, dressed and choreographed for live performances.

Motown Music

Motown specialized in a type of soul music it referred to with the trademark "The Motown Sound". Crafted with an ear towards pop appeal, the Motown Sound typically used tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent and often melodic electric bass-guitar lines, distinctive melodic and chord structures, and a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music.

"My Girl" by the Temptations. Released in December 1964

In 1971, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that the sound consisted of songs with simple structures but sophisticated melodies, along with a four-beat drum pattern, regular use of horns and strings and "a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio".

Jimmy Ruffin

"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" by Jimmy Ruffin. Released in June 1966

Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used. Complex arrangements and elaborate, melismatic vocal riffs were avoided. Motown producers believed steadfastly in the "KISS principle" (keep it simple, stupid).

"You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes. Released in July 1966

Many of Motown's best-known songs were written by the songwriting trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland). Other important Motown producers and songwriters included Norman Whitfield, William "Mickey" Stevenson, Smokey Robinson, Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson, Pamela Sawyer & Gloria Jones, James Dean & William Weatherspoon, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Gil Askey, Stevie Wonder, and Gordy himself.


In addition to the songwriting process of the writers and producers, one of the major factors in the widespread appeal of Motown's music was Gordy's practice of using a highly select and tight-knit group of studio musicians, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, to record the instrumental or "band" tracks of a majority of Motown recordings.

The Funk Brothers

The band's career and work is chronicled in the 2002 documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which publicised the fact that these musicians "played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined."

Standing in the Shadows of Motown trailer

Much of the Motown Sound came from the use of overdubbed and duplicated instrumentation. Motown songs regularly featured two drummers instead of one (either overdubbed or in unison), as well as three or four guitar lines.

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Released in April 1967

Bassist James Jamerson often played his instrument with only the index finger of his right hand, and created many of the basslines apparent on Motown songs such as "Up the Ladder to the Roof" by The Supremes.

Many more Motown-owned labels released recordings in other genres, including Workshop Jazz (jazz), Mel-o-dy (country, although it was originally an R&B label), and Rare Earth (rock), which featured the band Rare Earth themselves. Under the slogan "The Sound of Young America", Motown's acts were enjoying widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.

"ABC" by the Jackson 5. Released in February 1970

The songwriting trio Holland–Dozier–Holland left the label in 1967 over royalty-payment disputes. Norman Whitfield became the company's top producer. In the meantime Berry Gordy established Motown Productions, a television subsidiary which produced TV specials for the Motown artists. The company loosened its production rules, allowing some of its longtime artists the opportunity to write and produce more of their own material. This resulted in the recordings of successful and critically acclaimed albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) and Let's Get it On (1973), and Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), and Innervisions (1973).

After some of Motown's hitmakers left the label by 1975, Motown still had a number of successful artists during the 1970s and 1980s, including Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie, the Dazz Band and DeBarge.

"All Night Long (All Night)" by Lionel Richie. Released in August 1983

"I Just Called To Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder. Released in August 1984


Following the events of the Detroit Riots of 1967, Gordy relocated Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, and there it remained an independent company until June 28 1988. It was on this date that Gordy called it quits in the music industry, having been drawn into the Hollywood lifestyle after releasing two movies starring Diana Ross: Mahogany and the Billie Holiday Biopic Lady Sings the Blues.

The company was then sold to MCA. Motown was later sold to PolyGram in 1994, before being sold again to MCA Records' successor, Universal Music Group, when it acquired PolyGram in 1999.

Motown spent much of the 2000s as a part of the Universal Music subsidiaries Universal Motown and Universal Motown Republic Group, and headquartered in New York City.

From 2011 to 2014, Motown was a part of The Island Def Jam Music Group division of Universal Music. On April 1, 2014, Universal Music Group announced the dissolution of Island Def Jam; subsequently Motown relocated back to Los Angeles to operate under the Capitol Music Group. It now operates out of the landmark Capitol Tower.

In the United Kingdom, the Motown Sound became the basis of the northern soul movement. Smokey Robinson said the Motown Sound had little to do with Detroit:
"People would listen to it, and they'd say, 'Aha, they use more bass. Or they use more drums.' Bullshit. When we were first successful with it, people were coming from Germany, France, Italy, Mobile, Alabama. From New York, Chicago, California. From everywhere. Just to record in Detroit. They figured it was in the air, that if they came to Detroit and recorded on the freeway, they'd get the Motown sound. Listen, the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It's spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen. What other people didn't realize is that we just had one studio there, but we recorded in Chicago, Nashville, New York, L.A.—almost every big city. And we still got the sound."