History of the Recording Industry
Motown: Hitsville U.S.A, The Sound of Young America
Founded by Berry Gordy (b.1929) in 1959
“When I met him, he didn’t have any money, but he had direction. . . And he had the balls to go
after what he wanted. . . Berry Gordy was street.”
“But Motown as a mode of both consumption and production, indeed, as stylization -- a discipline
forged in art and politics – of both, probably held blacks together better than virtually anything
else in the black national community, other than the demand for equal rights. That is what the
words ‘Hitsville’ and ‘Motown’ signify, finally: a modern black urban community built upon
technology, on the American bourgeois principles of consumption and production and on the
[Booker T.] Washingtonian principles of casting one’s buckets where one is. It was, for a time,
and idealized union of local black organization with a national black sense of mission and
--Gerald Early from One Nation Under a Groove
“They were all listening to [Motown]. Black and white. Militant and nonviolent. Anti-war
demonstrators and the pro-war establishment.”
The Motown hierarchy
1. Gordy (complete and total control over everything)
2. Songwriters and producers (e.g., Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman
Whitfield, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson)
3. House musicians (the “Funk Brothers,” featuring Earl Van Dyke, drummer Benny
Benjamin and, arguably, the 20th century’s greatest bassist James Jamerson)
4. The singers (an amazing array of great ones: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Eddie
Kendricks and David Ruffin [Temptations], Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Levi Stubbs
[Four Tops], Mary Wells, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson [no, I’m not
“Berry Gordy did not write songs, he wrote records. The point was for the singer to serve the
song, and not the song the singer.”
--Gerald Early, from One Nation Under a
1964 – Motown becomes the largest and most successful independent record company in the U.S.
Berry Gordy’s rules for songwriting:
1. Always use the present tense
2. Never overdo the hook
3. Make sure the song has a hummable melody (something the public might have heard
4. Find originality in the song’s concept (e.g., in the rhythm; or in how the lyrics are
Another unwritten rule was never be overtly political – something that Gordy struggled with in
the late ‘60s/early ‘70s when Stevie Wonder recorded Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Marvin
Gaye released Motown’s greatest individual achievement What’s Going On (1971)
The influence of the auto industry on Motown
Gordy worked for a while at the Ford auto plant and made him aware of the fact that production
can be organized and automated for the highest quality.
Uplifting the Race: Motown’s “charm school” run by Maxine Powell; performance and dance
coach Cholly Atkins – the artists themselves wanted to be polished performers, to be the best
representative of black America.
1970: Gordy moves Motown’s corporate headquarters from Detroit to Los Angeles creating much
bitterness in Detroit’s black community.
1988: Gordy sells Motown to Boston Ventures for $61 million.
1993: Motown sold again to Polygram for $301 million
Stax Records: Soulsville U.S.A.
Founded by white semi-professional country fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in
Stax saw itself as a grittier, funkier, more authentically Southern “soul” alternative to the pop of
Stax was less overtly hierarchical than Motown; more thoroughly integrated; songwriting and
arranging was looser than Motown (i.e., more in-studio improvisation, less reliance on written
arrangements), records were made faster and focused on rawness and energy than perfection.
The sound of Stax was also rooted in the black church, something Motown downplayed or
polished to the point of being unrecognizable.
Stax, as did Motown, had great songwriters and producers (e.g., Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Al
Bell); great singers (e.g., Otis Redding [d. 1967], Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam Moore and Dave
Prater, Wilson Pickett), and a great house band Booker T. and the MGs (Memphis Group):
keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer
1960 – Atlantic Records reaches an agreement to distribute Stax records, thus giving what was a
small regional label access to markets in the U.S. and abroad.
Under the guidance of producer extraordinaire Jerry Wexler (with help from engineer
extraordinaire Tom Dowd), newer soul acts recorded for Stax and Atlantic at the Stax studio in
Memphis and at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (featuring white session
musicians David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, and Spooner Oldham). This period marks the beginning
of Aretha Franklin’s ascendancy to the throne as “The Queen of Soul.”
Stax and Motown as unique symbols of black/white cultural integration, for all intents and
purposes, the beginning of the end is the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.
Stax Museum opened April 2003.