Skip to main content

Motown Records at 60

Motown’s 60th Anniversary celebration is in full swing, with a host of special commemorative initiatives taking place throughout the year.
Image placeholder title

By Harvey Kubernik

Motown’s 60th Anniversary celebration is in full swing, with a host of special commemorative initiatives taking place throughout the year.

Motown/Ume recently released a newly-expanded edition of the collectible Motown: The Complete No. 1’s box set worldwide (shown above). The set features 208 chart-topping Motown hits in one must-have 11-CD compilation. Showcasing the iconic American label’s universal cultural significance, Motown: The Complete No. 1’s includes U.S. and international chart-topping singles. And bonus tracks showcase Motown songs that were hits for other artists.

Universal Music’s media announcement summed up the retail product perfectly: “Motown: The Complete No. 1’s is housed in a lovely replica of Motown’s original Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters in Detroit, Michigan (now home to the Motown Museum). The box set also includes an exclusive 100-page book with rare and vintage photos, detailed track annotations and an introduction by Smokey Robinson, who is himself responsible for 20 Motown No. 1’s, both with his group The Miracles and as a solo artist.”

Motown 60: A GRAMMY® Celebration by The Recording Academy™, presented by AEG Ehrlich Ventures and CBS, was broadcast during April 21, on the CBS Television Network.

Hosted by Cedric the Entertainer and Smokey Robinson. Lamont Dozier, Brian & Eddie Holland, Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, NE-YO, John Legend, Pentatonix, Valerie Simpson, Mickey Stevenson, Meghan Trainor, and Stevie Wonder were among the guests appearing.

On April 13, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas opened a new exhibition, Motown: The Sound of Young America. Curated by the GRAMMY Museum®, the exhibition traces the evolution of the label, focusing on its legendary artists and musical achievements, and explores how the sound of Motown continues to influence some of pop music’s most important artists today. This is the first time many of the exhibition’s artifacts have been seen in in a museum setting.

Performances of the acclaimed new musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations began in February at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. UMe and the show’s producers issued the Ain’t Too Proud Original Broadway Cast Recording this spring.

 The Four Tops pose in front of the Hitsville building in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of UMe.

The Four Tops pose in front of the Hitsville building in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of UMe.

The Motown Records label in Detroit, Michigan was founded on January 21, 1959 and incorporated as Motown Recording Corporation on April 14, 1960 by Berry Gordy, Jr., who merged his two associated imprints, Tamla (whose initial release was Marv Johnson’s “Come To Me” on January 21, 1959) and Motown (debut pressing was The Miracles’ “Bad Girl”).

At the end of 1968, and by 1972, having outgrown its Hitsville U.S.A. origins in Detroit, Gordy moved the Motown operation, which became a true entertainment complex and the largest black-owned corporation in the country, to Southern California. Gordy eventually withdrew from the day-to-day operations, and finally, in 1988, he sold his brainchild to a major corporation, MCA. More recently, Motown shifted ownership to the PolyGram group of companies, now called Universal Music. Gordy is still involved with Jobete Music, the publishing company that houses the widely utilized and still influential copyrights. He is also active in the production of a 2019 documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which will utilize his personal archive and behind-the-scenes footage from the Motown vaults.

“Life is not nearly as complicated as people make it,” Berry Gordy explained in a 1994 interview. “See, it’s basic. We got to get back to basic values and basic communication. Two and two is four. And all people want the same things, I constantly say. Each one of us is different though, and I tell artists to bring out their own uniqueness. That’s why you’ll get a Stevie Wonder, a Marvin Gaye, a Smokey Robinson. You’ve got to nurture that. That’s what we try to do. Nurture their difference.

“And so it wasn’t me that was the genius. If I was a genius of anything, it was bringing out the genius of others, because if they reach their potential then I had felt that maybe I could reach mine. So in bringing out the genius in others and finding it, sure, it was hard and tough, but your clues will tell you. And then, stopping them from focusing on other things other than what they’re doing. And there are still 99 percent of the people, in my opinion, running around there now with this great talent, great art, great ideas like that, but they will never make it through.

“The idea is that when you make it through the fame, fortune and riches and power, and you are not the same person you are when you started out then you have been a failure. I don’t care how much money you got, fame or fortune you got. You got to be the same person that you started out with. And when you are then you can consider yourself a success.”

Mary Wilson of The Supremes was asked if she had any observations or theories about the durability of the Motown catalog and performers.

Mary Wilson: “I think all of the things we are recognizing now—the Motown label, the Funk Brothers, musicians, Berry Gordy—here we are, years later and people are still re-recording those songs. Berry Gordy was an innovator, and he knew talent when he saw it. He only accepted the best. He allowed people to create on their own. He allowed the producers to really inspire each other. There’s no real answer to your question other than I know when I was recording those songs, it was the people. It was the music... Any bass player out there listened to Motown records to learn how James Jamerson played. Any new female group coming up will definitely try and take something from The Supremes. It was like we were the model for music. The Motown sound was the model. And the music is universal.”

A Temptations take on Motown