• Todd Strasser

THE GLORY YEARS OF MOTOWN


I wonder how many young people today would ever guess that one of the great crucibles of 1960s music was Detroit, and mostly thanks to one man, Berry Gordy, and his company, Motown Records. During that decade, the sheer number of chart-topping artists, musicians, and groups produced by Motown nearly defies comprehension: Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye.

All were part of what was known as the Motown Sound - great melodies, lots of tambourines and hand clapping, blaring horns, interplay between the lead singer and his or her backup vocalists, driving bass lines and foot-slapping drum parts. It’s said that the sound was shaped by what one could expect to hear on a car or transistor radio. To that end, Motown’s chief engineer Mike McClain built a tinny-sounding radio and tested each piece of music on it before it was released.

Sadly, the Detroit riot of 1967, between black citizens and the police force -- in which 43 people died, 1,189 were injured, over 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed -- may have been the beginning of the end. Later, dissatisfied with their financial arrangement, the songwriting and production team of Lamont Dozier and the brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, left the company. By 1969 the Jackson 5 was on the rise, but most of the rock-steady Motown acts of the early '60s were on the wane (Though, in 1971, the label did release what was arguably its grandest artistic statement -- Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On). A year later, Motown relocated to L.A., and Detroit, unable to cope with the gradual abandonment of its auto industry, continued its sad decline.

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