ASSEMBLING HITS AT MOTOWN
How did Motown Records in Detroit operate during the 1960s?
The Motown Record Corporation was one of the most successful record labels of the 1960s and one of the most influential black owned and operated companies in the world. During this decade, golden years for the organization, Motown’s roster included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson Five. The hits came one after another: By the early 1970s, Motown had over 100 Top 40 hits to its credit.
For all of its success, the company had humble beginnings. Berry Gordy Jr., who had previously owned a record shop and pursued a career as a songwriter, borrowed $800 from his family in 1959 to set up shop in a house located at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit. He loosely modeled the Motown operation on the most prosperous business model he saw around him — the assembly lines at the many automotive plants in the region. (In fact, Gordy himself had worked in a Ford assembly plant during the 1950s.) Instead of assembling cars, though, he put together hit records.
Gordy adopted the idea of making development a team effort, and, as on an assembly line, each member of the team was given a specialized task to perform. He cultivated a group of experts who, working together, could take unrefined young singers and turn them into hit-makers ready to perform and promote the Motown product: records. The Motown staff included songwriters, arrangers, and producers. As much of the work as possible was done in-house.
Motown’s artists were also polished and choreographed by the label’s “Artist Development” department, a process that included training in singing, dancing, speaking, and even etiquette. The artists who signed with Motown had raw talent, but in many cases, they were inexperienced performers — sometimes they were young people from the city’s housing projects who had previously encountered few opportunities for professional training. Gordy also insisted on a high level of quality control, and was known for assembling focus groups to test every product.
In this lesson, students will learn about behind-the-scenes operations at Motown Records — and a few of the company’s most important contributors — through a “café conversation.”
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Show students the photo of Motown’s “Hitsville, U.S.A.” studio. Explain to students that the Motown Recording Corporation was founded in this house in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr. It would go on to become one of the largest and best known record companies owned and operated by an African American, and it helped many black musicians start successful careers. The company produced many Top 40 hits in the 1960s.
2. Watch the video of Smokey Robinson — a Motown singer, songwriter and producer who worked with Gordy — talking about the company’s first day of operations. Briefly review the video:
3. Distribute the biography handouts and ask students to study them. As an option, students may also conduct research to learn more about their assigned persona. (This could be done as homework before class.) They should be able to answer the following questions:
4. Next, divide students into groups of five, with each student representing their assigned persona: Berry Gordy, Maxine Powell, Cholly Atkins, Smokey Robinson, or Maurice King. (Note: depending on the size of the class, students may alternate observing and playing roles.)
5. Have students briefly introduce their persona to the rest of their group.
6. Explain to students that they should imagine that it is the mid-1960s, and Motown has just signed a new group, a hypothetical trio of young women who grew up in the Detroit projects. Ask the group to discuss how they will help this group to create and promote hit records. Some things that they might touch on in discussion:
Imagine that you are a young singer coming to work for Motown for the first time. Write a journal entry describing what it was like to work with Berry Gordy, Maxine Powell, Cholly Atkins, Smokey Robinson, and/or Maurice King. What did they help you with? What did they teach you to do?
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.