November 16, 2018

(AP Photo/ Frings)   

Shortly after Michael Jackson died in 2009, Helen Brown, a music critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote that the Jackson 5’s 1969 single “I Want You Back,”  is “certainly the fastest man-made route to pure joy.” And while Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Jackie may have stolen the spotlight, the group - like so many others - emerged from a hit factory created by a man named Berry Gordy Jr. 

Gordy founded Motown after stints as a boxer and as a worker in a Lincoln-Mercury plant. And he quickly turned the label into a force to be reckoned with, drawing on a formula of quality control he had learned at the auto factory, taking raw talent like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson, and refining them into international stars. As a result, Motown became one of the most successful black-owned music companies in American history. 

We talk to music journalist Adam White, author of  “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” about Gordy’s meteoric rise and his lasting legacy. 

Three Takeaways: 

  • The statistics on Motown are staggering: The record label had more than 180 No. 1 hit songs worldwide and, in 1968, the company had five of the Top 10 records on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 
  • In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Motown musicians mostly focused on creating upbeat songs about love and heartbreak. But as the politics of the 1960s progressed, artists like Diana Ross, Edwin Starr, and Marvin Gaye turned their attention to topics like the Vietnam War and poverty. The shift created a rift between Gordy and some of the musicians he had long championed. 
  • While the vast majority of Gordy’s earliest musicians were black, he argued that his music was for people from all backgrounds. Gordy said in a 2015 interview: “People are human beings, and we all feel the same thing. That was the whole purpose of me forcing my songs on to white radio. Because I felt we were all the same.” 

Despite being central to Motown’s success, Gordy was relatively unknown to the general public. Case in point: during a 1965 episode of the television game show “To Tell the Truth,” a celebrity panel was asked to guess which of three men was the real Berry Gordy Jr. All three offered biographical clues about Gordy’s life, in an attempt to convince the panel that they were the real Gordy. We won’t spoil it, but the panel’s guessing ability wasn’t too impressive:

Adam White has a few songs that he says were crucial to the development of Motown. Here they are: 

But we know what you’re thinking: What does the Innovation Hub crew like to listen to when it comes to Motown? Here ya go: 

What’s your favorite Motown hit or Motown memory? Shoot us an email at innovationhub@wgbh.org and let us know! 

Want to know what Innovation Hub is into, music-wise? Here’s a playlist we put together a little while ago for our music & memory story: 

Adam White, Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, Motown, The Supremes, Berry Gordy, Business, music

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