In the latest instalment of our series on the inextricability of a style of music and its city of origin, Martin Gilroy puts the spotlight on the home of Motown, Detroit.


“The runaway success of the label coincided with the rising civil rights movement and its position as a black-owned company promoting exclusively black musicians helped bolster the confidence of this ever more assertive race”


Apparently, Detroit is home to some pretty important stuff; Ford Motor Cars, Robocop, the world’s biggest burger… oh, and the world-renowned record company whose promotion of black crossover artists helped alleviate racial segregation while simultaneously dominating the airwaves of 1960s America. Did I mention Robocop?

The Motown record company began as nothing more than an entrepreneurial venture by a disillusioned songwriter. Having experienced moderate success writing for local Detroit acts such as Jackie Wilson throughout the course of the 1950s, Detroit factory operative Berry Gordy Jr. became dismayed with his share of royalties, realising that the truly lucrative side of the music business lay in the hands of the record companies. In 1959, armed with an eight hundred dollar loan from his family and a head full of dreams, Gordy decided to establish the Motown label, signing as his first act Smokey Robinson’s Matadors. 1960 saw Robinson’s band (now redubbed The Miracles) release ‘Shop Around’, followed closely by the number one hit from the Marvelettes, ‘Please Mr. Postman’; the rest is history. Over the course of the next decade, Motown produced over a hundred top ten singles from exclusively black acts such as the Supremes, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye, creating a signature variation of soul music whose unique sound earned worldwide success and a truckload of dollars.

But what does that have to do with Detroit? Well, everything; even the name Motown refers to the local nickname, ‘Motortown’, based on the presence of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler headquarters in the industrial district. Detroit’s unique culture was central in stimulating the inimitable sound that earned Motown its fame. The aftermath of the Second World War saw a mass migration of black southerners flock to the city, attracted by promises of manufacturing jobs and bringing northward the gospel sounds of the Deep South.



“The City’ significant and relatively black population helped stimulate a vibrant musical culture while the public schools system boasted a particularly progressive musical curriculum”



The town was home to an already vibrant jazz scene and, like many cities across the nation, saw the rise of rhythm and blues in the early 1950s. The convergence of these influences was to herald the rise of soul music; however, Detroit’s gospel tradition had become distinct from that in other cities across America and, combined with a focus on popular appeal stimulated by the city’s entrepreneurial atmosphere, this helped form the basis of the distinct Motown sound. As soul developed across the nation, Motown maintained its idiosyncratic style, owing much to the fact that the label depended on the same small group of in-house songwriters working with the same creative formula. The Motown sound thus became inextricable from its label and, most importantly, the city.

The industrial atmosphere of Detroit also played a significant role in the success of Motown. The label was self-consciously run like a factory assembly line, systematically combining the work of the song-writing team, The Funk Brothers (the session band who played on almost all of the label’s releases) and the various acts on the roster to create a sleek final product. Combined with Gordy’s stringent quality control and ear for commercial potential, the Motown industry became the self-professed ‘Sound of Young America’. However, that the label was such an efficient body was but a minor factor in contributing to its success; such a record company depends on a pool of highly talented individuals, fortunately plentiful in Detroit. The city’s significant and relatively prosperous black population helped stimulate a vibrant musical culture, while the public school system boasted a particularly progressive musical curriculum. These factors, unique to the city, fed into the development of the Motown label, illustrating just how inextricable the relationship was between city and sound.

Motown’s impressive musical legacy was accompanied by a particularly potent cultural importance, at least partially indebted to its home in industrial Detroit. The runaway success of the label coincided with the rising civil rights movement and its position as a black-owned company promoting exclusively black musicians helped bolster the confidence of this ever more assertive race. However, the music was also to become active in the alleviation of racial tension. The systematic employment of inoffensive lyrics and catchy melodies, stimulated by the commercialised environment of the city, helped build the popularity of black artists among white listeners, an intentional commercial aim which inadvertently had a profound social impact. The universal popularity of Motown’s acts led to the attraction of both races to concerts which, under the influence of the music, eventually became desegregated. This inadvertent bridging of the racial divide loaded the pedestrian message of Motown with distinctly political overtones, the ubiquitous focus on ‘love’ gaining a new meaning in light of the diminishing racial divide.

Ironically, the racial composition of Detroit, so intrinsic to the success of Motown, also helped stimulate its eventual departure from the city. The poorer ghettos were the site of significant racial tension, occasionally breaking into violent episodes such as the race riots of 1967; this particular occasion saw the company receive a number of threats for its attempts to attract white listeners. Such increasingly violent threats combined with Gordy’s wishes to branch out into the film industry prompted the eventual relocation of Motown to Los Angeles. The label enjoyed a further burst of success with the release of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On?, but the dizzy heights of the 1960s were never to be relived. This may be attributed to the decline of the civil rights movement, or maybe it was just the candle burning out; whatever the cause, Motown’s move from its home city signalled its decline as a cultural and musical force.

Detroit still boasts a strong music scene, receiving recognition as the home of techno and boasting such artistic exports as diverse as Eminem and Carl Craig. However, though many have tried, no-one has ever been able to recapture the Motown sound; it is a product of its generation, some would say the soundtrack to the rising hope of black America in the 1960s, and it’s a damn good beat for marching to.

Martin Gilroy