Established right before the turn of the decade on January 12, 1959, and originally titled ‘Tamla Records’, the brainchild of Berry Gordy Jr. would grow to play a defining role in not only music history, but the political and social history of the 1960s. A former automotive worker, boxer, and a budding songwriter, Gordy, saw an opportunity for a lucrative business. When he didn’t feel to be appropriately compensated for his songwriting work, he moved to record production and publishing.
As an African American-owned label, the family company played a vital role in the complex racial integration challenges and had a significant sociocultural impact, particularly in the 1960s. The name that is now known and loved globally as a unique and defining sound was incorporated on April 14, 1960, as Motown Record Corporation. The title is a playful portmanteau of the words ‘motor’ and ‘town’, an allusion to the city where the initial headquarters was located – Detroit.
The site of countless groundbreaking moments in musical history, 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit was purchased by Gordy, with the help of an $800 family loan. Aptly named and now a historical museum Hitsville, U.S.A., was the administrative offices, recording studios, and headquarters for Motown Record Corporation, as well as the family home of the Gordy’s. In the early 60s, 3 labels existed under the corporation: Tamla Records, Motown Records, and Gordy Records, which later merged into one label.
From his days working at Ford in the automotive industry, Gordy learned the importance of production systems and utilized these skills at Motown, setting up a system he termed Quality Control. Every Friday morning in meetings, producers submitted their work to the whole team of producers, songwriters and artists to be honestly critiqued. The products would then be voted on, to ensure only tracks of the highest quality would be released by the labels. Gordy later stated that these meetings were one of the essential elements that contributed to the booming success of the company. With admiration, passion and intense competition, artists and producers alike thrived in a nurturing environment.
The first signed act was the Miracles, whose lead singer, William ‘Smokey’ Robinson, took on the position of Vice President of Motown Records Corporation. The Miracles wrote and produced several of the company’s hit songs, including their first successful smash song in 1960, “Shop Around”. Only a year later, their first No. 1 hit, “Please Mr Postman” by the Marvelettes was released by Tamla Records. As the label’s collection of artists and producers grew, Gordy began to allow artists to really experiment with their tracks, and this brought on a movement of some of the greatest Soul and Rhythm ‘N’ Blues music the world has ever seen. Over the years, Motown No. 1 hits would grow in number to more than a staggering 180 tracks, more No. 1 hits than any label in history.