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.”