After 50 Years, Motown Endures In Detroit

By Rob Lever

Fifty years after the birth of Motown, the music lives on as a legacy for a city that has seen more than its share of hard times in the past decades.

The Motown record label launched in January 1959 by onetime auto worker Berry Gordy with a loan of 800 dollars from his family became a worldwide phenomenon that still influences today's music.

The Detroit label quickly became the largest producer of 45 RPM singles, with more than 180 number one hits, and grew into the largest black-owned business in the United States.

From a tiny studio in Berry's home on Grand Boulevard, Motown produced songs that became a virtual sound track for American baby boomers: from the Temptations' joyful "My Girl", to Marvin Gaye's landmark "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", to Smokey Robinson's soulful "The Tracks of My Tears".

Motown discovered 11-year-old Stevie Wonder singing on a street corner, and launched the careers of stars such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5 with its child star Michael Jackson.

The anniversary is being marked by a series of events this year at Detroit's Motown museum and elsewhere by Universal Music, which now owns the Motown label.

A half-century after its founding, Motown is still seen as a force in the music world and in Detroit that many say helped break down racial barriers.

"I think Motown is one of the most positive things the city has produced," says Suzanne Smith, a Detroit native and history professor at George Mason University who authored a book on Motown, "Dancing in the Street", named after the hit song.

"It's an African-American success story that continues to inspire people."

Gordy was inspired by his experiences, including his work on the assembly line at a Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant.

"Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car," he said in a 2007 speech.

"What a great idea. Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music."
Motown, which drew mainly from home-grown Detroit talent, created music that crossed racial boundaries.

"The common denominator is the universality of the lyrics. The simplicity of the lyrics," says Audley "Kano" Smith, chief executive of the Motown Museum located in Berry's former home and studio.

He said Motown evolved with the times including a period of tremendous upheaval in American cities.

"I think that Motown was clearly one of the most important social movements that existed in tandem or parallel to political activism in the streets that as well as things that were happening," said Audley Smith.

"When you think about the lyrics of Marvin Gaye's (Vietnam War protest song) 'What's Goin' On?' or Steve Wonder's social anthems about the struggles going on in the cities, and the passion in which those lyrics expressed the concerns of everyone.

"By the same token when Martha Reeves sang 'Dancing in the Street', that was for everyone, and that kind of music resonated across racial and economic lines."

Some argue that Motown became a victim of its own success and that it lost its soul when it moved from Detroit to Los Angeles and became part of big music conglomerates.

"Motown is as symbolic of dreams frustrated as it is to great music," writes Nelson George in book "Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound."

"Motown is no longer about the specific accomplishments of a Detroit-based record label but about a musical moment in time," writes Suzanne Smith.

She said Motown logically grew out of Detroit, with its long music tradition in jazz, and the large black middle class that emerged from the auto industry.

"There was a configuration of things, the public school system was strong, music education was strong, so Detroit was uniquely able to produce this phenomenon," she said.

Now, she says, "the Motown sound primarily acts as a commercial trademark used by corporations to evoke a nostalgia for the 1960s."

Still, Motown veterans say the music lives on.

"Motown is a classic sound that has stood the test of time," says Dennis Coffey, a guitarist who played on many Motown recordings as part of largely white backup band "The Funk Brothers."

Adds Frances Nero, a singer who recorded on the Motown label from 1965 to 1967.

"It's a sound that's here to stay and will be appreciated, maybe for another 50 years."


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