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In Music, what is Motown?

By Erika Peterson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Motown music is a musical genre that blends the sounds of rhythm and blues (R&B)and pop music styles. It is played with a variety of musical instruments, from electric to acoustic. Though Motown uses a variety of instruments, some of the most common sounds come from percussion instruments and distinctive vocals.

Though the unique sound that is Motown was influenced by R&B and pop, the vocals closely rival those that are found in gospel music. Such strong vocals and the distinct sound of the blended sound of the tambourine, drums and bass guitar, make this a well-known style of music.

The term was created to pay credit to the place of origin of the musical style. Detroit, which is also known as the motor city, was the first official home of this sound. The musical form that erupted in Michigan quickly gave way to a record company in 1959.

Berry Gordy, Jr. launched the Motown record label in 1959 in Detroit, Michigan. It was the first ever record company to be owned and operated by an African-American and to primarily feature African-American musicians.

From 1959 on, the Motown sound and its record label artists both soared to popularity around the country. In fact, the record company became the largest and most successful independent record company in the United States by the middle of the 1960s.

Besides enjoy quick and well deserved success, Motown was the first genre to have all female groups, instead of just led female artists. Female groups were not the only musicians in this style, however, and many well known bands and artists started on the Motown label. These artists included The Supremes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and Diana Ross.

Berry Gordy, Jr. held on to the Motown record label until 1988, when he sold the company to the Music Corporation of America (MCA). The label no longer calls Detroit, the Motor City, home. Along with its parent company, MCA, it is now headquartered in Los Angeles, California.

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Discussion Comments

By anon304925 — On Nov 23, 2012

Motown is a part of American history. It launched the careers of Diana Ross ( a skinny little black girl who everyone called "Diane" and was super ambitious), Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson. I feel like there could be another Motown if there's someone out there has the same mind set Berry Gordy did and the same drive and ambition. There could be another Motown, but who would be the one behind it. The world may never know.

By anon201500 — On Jul 30, 2011

One of the main reasons for Motown's success was the incredibly talented house band known as the Funk Brothers. These musicians would play the jazz and R&B clubs at night and lay down almost all of the backing tracks for Motown artists during the day. James Jamerson is still considered one of the greatest bass guitarists ever. The Funk Brothers rarely received the same recognition as Marvin Gaye or the Supremes, but they played on every one of their hit songs.

Motown lost a lot of its authenticity when Berry Gordy decided to move operations out to California, in my opinion. The original Motown stars of Detroit were like the Stax/Volt stars of Memphis or the Chess stars of Chicago-- the city influenced their music in a tangible and organic way. Motown in Los Angeles was just another music company.

By galen84basc — On Sep 11, 2010

My new husband has a huge Motown collection that he's been building since the 70s, and he is just such a fan of all of those singers -- Diana Ross, the Temptations (of course!) and the fabulous Marvin Gaye.

I really think he's got about every album out there on the market -- so like it or not, I'm rapidly becoming a Motown expert!

By FirstViolin — On Sep 11, 2010

What would be a good album of Motown duets? My brother in law is a huge fan of 60s Motown, and I want to get him a Motown album that he doesn't already have for Christmas, so I thought I'd go with duets.

Are there any "The Best of Motown Duets" albums out there?

By closerfan12 — On Sep 11, 2010

I have never been that much of a fan of Motown songs, but there's no denying the impact that it had on music and culture. I mean, some people say that the soundtrack of the 60s and 70s is Motown!

And I guess when you think about the number of Motown hits that came out then, then it would be at least partly true, although that does ignore other influences like the Beatles or Bob Dylan.

I guess a lot of that feeling comes from personal experience and taste though.

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