A privileged few have had as much of an impact on music as Berry Gordy, Jr. The founder of Motown Records gave world-renowned acts such as The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Boyz II Men, and even Erykah Badu a musical home to prosper in. And that’s only naming a few of the many.
With the help of an $800 loan, Gordy started Motown Records in 1959 in Detroit, Michigan. Fast forward a few decades later, and the label created some of the most recognizable music of the time period – or, you know, ever.
To celebrate Gordy’s 85th birthday, let’s take a look at some of the most popular acts to come out of Hitsville USA.
The Miracles were the first act to be signed to Motown Records. The Smokey Robinson-led group would play a major role in the label’s success with their own hits, such as “Ooo, Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a Clown” – for some reason, they had a lot of upbeat songs about crying. But Smokey went on to have a successful solo career as a singer with tracks like “Cruisin’” and “Being with You” and as a writer for the hits for many other Motown acts.
The rest of the group — including Claudette Robinson, the first woman officially signed to Motown and Smokey’s former wife — was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, 25 years after Smokey was put in as the group’s frontman.
The Supremes started off as The Primettes, a sister group to The Primes, which would go on to become half of The Temptations. But even after creating an identity for themselves and getting signed to Motown after multiple attempts, they didn’t find the immediate success they’d hoped for.
With no real hits to validate them, they did what they could to be useful by performing background vocals and doing other odd jobs for the label. But then things started to click. The group, led by Diana Ross, released multiple number one hits, such as “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me.” During its peak, the group was so popular for so long that some would even say they rivaled The Beatles.
The Supremes broke up in 1977 and never really got back together. Even though it’s a very informative movie with some great performances, Dreamgirls doesn’t count. In case you didn’t know, that movie is about them.
If you want to impress someone and come off as “soulful,” the easiest artist to catch up on is the late, great Marvin Gaye. Gaye first got involved with Motown as a drummer, but would rule the next couple decades with his smooth voice. His duets, such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” with Tammi Terrell, were some of his first claims to major fame. But his solo efforts are what make many consider him to be one of the greatest R&B singers to ever hit a stage.
What’s Going On? is considered one of the best albums ever made, regardless of genre. It’s meant to be played on a consistent loop and serves as a musical time capsule that transports listeners to a Vietnam War-era America. The album includes hits such as “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues.”
Of course, we can’t forget that he’d later make the song that played a role in conceiving enough people to fill a football stadium, “Let’s Get It On.” And, while it wasn’t on Motown, “Sexual Healing” is probably his most popular song to date. Unfortunately, Gaye’s life was ended by the hands of his own father in 1984.
The Temptations are one of the most successful groups of any musical genre. The Motown group has a list of hits longer than the line at Chipotle just before closing time. They’ve also got one of the best musical biopics ever made based on their story.
With hits such as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Just My Imagination,” “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” and the forever classic “My Girl,” The Temps were one of Motown’s most successful acts. With more than 50 years between now and their debut, the only original member still alive and performing is Otis Williams, who still performs with some of the groups’ newer members today.
People may forget that Stevie Wonder was basically a child prodigy at one point. He signed a record deal with Motown Records at the ripe age of 12 and had his first number one hit on the charts just a couple years later.
As proof of his long and prosperous career, Wonder currently has 25 Grammy awards to his name. Some of his most recognizable songs are “Superstition,” “Sir Duke” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Part-Time Lover.” But there are way more great songs in his discography to listen to, as well.
As far as today’s concerned, Stevie’s still touring around the world with a voice that sounds like it’s barely changed at all and riding around singing karaoke in a car with James Corden.
The Four Tops
As proof that Motown didn’t just get lucky with a group like The Temptations, they also produced another group of singers that would reach the top of the charts on multiple occasions. “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” helped The Four Tops jump up from backup vocals to a force to be reckoned with on their own. Some would say there was even a friendly rivalry between The Four Tops and The Temps.
The Jackson 5
The executives at Motown Records must have sworn they struck gold when The Jackson 5 started releasing records in the early 1970s. The group of brothers, headlined by the young Michael, hit the scene with “I Want You Back,” just to follow it up with more number one hits such as “ABC” and “I’ll Be There.” To kill two birds with one stone, they also promoted Michael as a solo artist while the group was already at its height with singles like “Rockin’ Robin,” “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and “Ben.”
Now, we all know the rest of the story. The group would go on to sign a deal with Epic Records, the same goes for Michael’s solo contract, and he would arguably become the greatest musical artist of all-time. When Motown had their 25th anniversary concert in 1983, the Jacksons headlined the show, and Michael showed the world his moonwalk for the first time during a performance of “Billie Jean.”
Today, the world still celebrates Michael’s music even though it’s been more than six years since he passed. There’s also a reality show on the air now called The Jacksons: Next Generation that focuses on Tito’s three sons and their aspirations to establish musical careers of their own.
After basically running music in the late 1960s and ’70s, people thought that Motown was basically done come the 1980s. But that wasn’t the case at all. Groups like DeBarge were still able to breathe life into the once unstoppable label. Yes, another group of siblings was keeping Motown afloat.
El, James, Bunny, Randy and Mark came together to produce multiple ballads such as “I Like It,” “Time Will Reveal” “All This Love” and “Love Me in a Special Way” as DeBarge.” To double down on the DeBarge family, Motown also signed Bobby and Tommy into a group called Switch that’s responsible for songs like “They’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name” (yes, that’s the intro to that one Rich Boy song). El would later go on to have a successful solo career on his own.
To show that he still pretty much has it, El went on the short-lied Arsenio Hall show last year to perform some of his biggest hits and crushed it.
Boyz II Men
The 1990s was huge for R&B groups. Every time you walked down Blackstreet, you couldn’t help but to bump into the newest edition of some singer named Tony (or maybe Toni/Toné?) trying to tell you how they’ll go from being a boy to a man in mint condition.
Still with me? Cool.
One of the most successful groups, on a global scale, was Boyz II Men, which shocked the world with their a cappella renditions. It was only fitting that the quartet was a part of the label that helped make them so popular just decades before. Their first single was even called “Motownphilly.” With songs like “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” “End of the Road,” “On Bended Knee” and “I’ll Make Love to You,” Boyz II Men is still considered one of the best R&B groups to do it.
Admittedly, it was a little sad that the last thing we saw from them was an Old Navy commercial where they covered a song of theirs from 20 years ago.
For many people, Erykah Badu is the undeniable queen of neo-soul music. Ms. Badu’s debut album, full of wisdom from the Five Percent nation and jazz influences, may be her most commercial successful. But every album after that has been released on Motown Records, including the very positively received Mama’s Gun (2000). While signed to Motown, Badu released “Bag Lady,” Didn’t Cha Know?” “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” and many more songs.
Lately, she’s been remixing popular songs from Drake and handling Twitter trolls with a level of class that we should all aspire to.