As long as record stores and radio still live, strains of Motown will flow through the world’s airwaves. February is Black History Month, and upon its formal recognition in 1976, President Gerald Ford urged us to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” One important area of endeavor is the culturally formative music industry, and some of the greatest music of all time came out of Motown Records.
Mid 20th century America was a culturally turbulent time, but also a time full of turning points. In the same way that Civil Rights were advancing and ideas on race were modernizing, the music industry was rapidly expanding its horizons into new forms and styles. 1959 was the year Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy would turn an $800 loan from his parents into an era-defining record label that would serve as one of pop and soul music’s biggest champions. Some fabulous Motown hits that you might be familiar with include My Girl by the Temptations, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel and Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes.
But what’s so special about a few dated songs we occasionally hear on the radio or at some old friend’s wedding? Success in the music industry might seem like a popular and arguably bland trope at this point in time, considering the constant manufacturing line of rising star music documentaries and biopics.
For starters, the sound of Motown is still just plain cool. Crafty pop lyrics phrased in a musical vocabulary of gospel and soul made for an unbroken line of instant classics that were more than just earworms. They defined a promising and exciting spirit of change and progression, and their cultural significance cannot be forgotten. Many young people may not grasp the complexity of the racial divides that permeated America throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and how integrating pop music sung by blacks into mainstream culture helped slowly chip away at the barriers that prevented whites from seeing blacks as their equals.
Now obviously, a couple of good tunes did not magically solve racism, and this tribute to Motown by no means intends to dismiss the tireless efforts of those on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. I am only identifying the power of the music as a snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and beyond and recognizing that music is indeed capable of bringing people together. Multi-talented singer and producer Smokey Robinson had this to say about the magic of Motown:
“Into the 1960s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.”
Music does indeed help in the battle to break down barriers. I’ll leave a study of multicultural globalism and its economic implications for some other article. For now, I can affirmatively say that any music shared across cultures makes a wonderful tool for enjoyment, education and integration. The Motown label served not only as one of America’s most legendary business endeavors but as an investment in artists who would do so much for the heart and soul of our nation’s airwaves.
As I reflect on the meaning behind why we celebrate Black History Month, I find myself thankful for the contributions of African Americans in a number of spheres, but also grateful for how they have salved our nation’s wounded soul with music. Anyone now can very easily enjoy the successful hits of Motown in the modern age, and I encourage everyone reading this to check them out. Enjoy the music, but also appreciate the significant cultural impact that accompanied these tunes.