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IP403 From Motor City to Hitsville - The Story of Motown

Wednesday, September 14, 2022, 1:00 PM until 3:00 PM
Halpern Room

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Join John Mitchell on a musical journey back to the Detroit music scene of the 60s and 70s. (See full description below.)

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The year was 1959 and a young songwriter from Detroit Michigan named Berry Gordy jr. decided to take his career into his own hands, so he created his own record label Tamla Motown, and from a small photography studio on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, he launched one of the worlds most successful independent record companies and broke down racial barriers by becoming the most successful African-American-owned business in America. The hits of Motown dominated the charts for the 60s and 70s with110 top 10 hits and and were the soundtrack of a generation. We’ll look at the artists, the song writers, the producers and the musicians that brought us the “Motown Sound” and turned Detroit into “Hitsville”


Week 1 - How it Began


The huge success of the auto industry in Detroit attracted many African-Americans who migrated up from the south. In 1922, Berry Gordy sr. whose grandmother had been a slave, followed the migration north and in 1929 the seventh of his eight children was born named Berry Gordy jr. After returning from the Korean War Berry jr. settled into a job on the assembly-line but never gave up on his dream of song-writing and in1957 he wrote “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson which started one of the most successful record labels in History.


Week 2 - The Assembly-line


Berry Gordy learned a lot from the assembly line. He absorbed the two central principles of Fordist production he would apply to great effect at Motown. The first of these is vertical integration, the consolidated management control of all aspects of production and the second was,”Create, Make, Sell”; artists, performed, writers wrote and producers produced. Gordy controlled every facet of the image and marketing of Motown, as well as the musical production.


Week 3 - The Guy Groups


Berry Gordy modelled the 3 , 4 or five piece male groups on the traditional male Gospel groups that were popular in the South. He took the Gospel format and substituted secular lyrics to appeal to a modern audience. Matching suits, catchy melodies and smooth choreography helped these groups appeal to a wide audience but especially young teens, and especially young white teens. In this way, Motown broke down many racial barriers while on their way to being one of the most successful music labels.


Week 4- The Girl groups


Like the male groups Berry Gordy, modelled the girl groups on the traditional women groups that performed Gospel songs. Again he substituted secular lyrics  for the religious lyrics and dressed the women in evening gowns with sedate choreography.This was years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and he knew that to reach a broad audience with Motown acts, he had to tread carefully.


Week 5 - The Solo stars


Although he preferred the groups, some artists’ popularity just outgrew the group format , but Berry Gordy always demanded the elegant and controlled presentation and the catchy songs. Some of musics most iconic performers came to stardom as solo artists, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Darlene Love, Lionel Ritchie, David Ruffin, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks and of course Michael Jackson.


Week 6 - The move to LA.


In 1972 Berry Gordy whisked the label’s operations off to Los Angeles on a whim, leaving most of his “family” of musicians and support staff stranded.A few weeks later, the L.A. office revealed the next wave of its plan: $15 million budgeted for TV and theatrical projects. Motown had gone Hollywood and though it continued to make hits, it was the end of a fantastic Detroit tradition.

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