Where Did Motown Come From?

by University of Michigan Press on February 25, 2009

by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert

This year Motown celebrates its 50th anniversary, which makes it a good time to ponder some basic questions about the company that has come to define music in Detroit. Why did it happen in Detroit? What were the musical and extra-musical sources of the Motown Sound? 

Detroit was a city that grew faster than any other large American city in the 20th century so that by mid-century it had almost two million people. This included a sizeable African-American population, which meant that there was a larger pool of talent to draw on than elsewhere for anyone interested in selling black sounds to the American public. One such person was of course Berry Gordy Jr. who had tried out various aspects of the music business, before forming Motown Records in January, 1959. Fortunately for Gordy, Detroit had been seriously underserved by record companies compared to other large cities in the Midwest. Chicago by comparison had many more companies that were able to put out records of relatively high technical quality supported by decent distribution networks.

Berry Gordy’s pre-Motown years can also give us an idea of how various musical ideas came together to shape what became known as the Motown Sound. Gordy’s favorite hangout in the mid-fifties was the Flame Show Bar where he helped his sisters who had various jobs at the club, including photography. The Flame was the most exclusive place for black music and entertainment in Detroit in the fifties and in his autobiography Gordy talks about the valuable contacts he made there with people in the music business. Since he was an aspiring song-writer this was the place to be. The Flame featured a local houseband led by Maurice King, an experienced saxophonist, arranger and bandleader who backed the visiting singers and instrumentalists from the jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues worlds. At the Flame these local and the national scenes converged. King and many members of his band joined Motown. The creators of the Motown sound, the group of musicians referred to as the Funk Brothers, were all players who had years of experience in Detroit jazz and rhythm and blues. Coupled with Gordy’s business acumen this gave birth to the largest African-American owned record company in the world.

Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert are authors of Before Motown: A History of Jazz In Detroit, 1920-1960

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