Tuesday Jan. 12, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Motown Records
On this Day:
On January 12, 1959, the American record company Motown is founded by Berry Gordy Jr. as Tamla Records.
Motown Records is an American record label owned by the Universal Music Group. It was founded by Berry Gordy Jr. as Tamla Records on January 12, 1959, and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. Its name, a blend of motor and town, has become a nickname for Detroit, where the label was originally headquartered.
Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music as an African American-owned label that achieved crossover success. In the 1960s, Motown and its subsidiary labels (including Tamla Motown, the brand used outside the US) were the most successful proponents of the Motown sound, a style of soul music with a mainstream pop appeal. Motown was the most successful soul music label, with a net worth of $61 million. During the 1960s, Motown achieved 79 records in the top-ten of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969.
Following the events of the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the loss of key songwriting/production team Holland–Dozier–Holland that year over pay disputes, Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles. Motown expanded into film and television production.
It was an independent company until MCA Records bought it in 1988. PolyGram purchased the label from MCA in 1993, followed by MCA successor Universal Music Group, which acquired PolyGram in 1999.
Motown spent much of the 2000s headquartered in New York City as a part of the UMG subsidiaries Universal Motown and Universal Motown Republic Group. From 2011 to 2014, it was a part of The Island Def Jam Music Group division of Universal Music. In 2014, however, UMG announced the dissolution of Island Def Jam, and Motown relocated back to Los Angeles to operate under the Capitol Music Group, now operating out of the Capitol Tower. In 2018, Motown was inducted into Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at the Charles H. Wright Museum.
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. 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”. 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).
Many of Motown’s best-known songs, including all the early hits for the Supremes, 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 (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
What is the average room temperature at Motown Records? It’s Cool Man – Three Degrees, maybe Four Tops.
Second, a Song:
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. Among the studio musicians responsible for the “Motown Sound” were keyboardists Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith, and Joe Hunter; guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis; percussionists Eddie “Bongo” Brown and Jack Ashford; drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, and Richard “Pistol” Allen; and bassists James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt. 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”. Ashford later played on Raphael Saadiq’s 2008 album The Way I See It, whose recording and production were modelled after the Motown Sound.
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. 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 (per Wikipedia).
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a pop/soul song written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson in 1966 for the Tamla label, a division of Motown. The composition was first successful as a 1967 hit single recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and became a hit again in 1970 when recorded by former Supremes frontwoman Diana Ross. The song became Ross’s first solo number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award (per Wikipedia).
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was just one of the many many hits on which the Funk Brothers played. Here is Diana Ross live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1979 performing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“You can’t just sit there and wait for people to give you that golden dream. You’ve got to get out there and make it happen for yourself.” – Diana Ross
I heard from a lot of you about how you have enjoyed “Sideways” and/or Paul Giamatti (in Sideways or Billions). Glad to hear that this Smile resonated with so many of you! Cheers!
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky