Motown History

                        Motown’s sound is a significant part of Detroit, Michigan history. ” As said by David Edwards and Mike Callahan “In the late 1950s, Detroit was perhaps the largest city in the United States that did not have a strong independent record company.” With the help of the former boxers and assembly line worker Berry Gordy Jr., he started the Motown’s record label with a borrowed 800 dollars. At 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit Michigan with a sign on top of the two story house that read “Hitsville U.S.A” was the headquarters of Motown’s record label. According to Gilbert Cruz “Motown was founded on January 12, 1959; Motown quickly became another part of Detroit history. Gordy’s discovery opened up doors so Detroit could let America see African American culture both music and style in a different light. Racial issues were a major thing that at first held Motown’s back, but the political side of Motown didn’t allow that to hold their success back they allowed it to start a change.  Little did America know that January 12, 1959 was the start of a change that America needed. Motown’s cultural and political contributions helped Detroit become an historical city, through music which gave African American’s hope for change.


Motown’s culture both music and style played a role in making Detroit a historical city. As stated by Cruz, Motown’s music gave white America something they just couldn’t get enough of joyous, sad, romantic, mad, groovin, movin music (1). The music sound has changed from the jazzy instrumentals music, to music that stood for something, a way to express emotions with words through African American’s culture. For example Motown artist Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” lyrics read Mother mother there’s too many of you crying, brother brother brother there’s far too many of you dying ,you know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today. This Motown song released in 1971 was a song written in effort to wake people up to the struggles no one was willing to discuss at the time (Katzif, 1). The Motown’s music culture also changed from standing at a microphone and singing to dancing while singing. Motown’s male group The Temptations is an example of how dance influenced a change in the music’s culture. As shown in the book Motown Story is an example of how to do the “The Temptation Walk” which was a dance craze that swept the country (Waller, 113). Although music culture was a small part of Motown’s success it was still one of Motown’s biggest stepping stones with making Detroit an historical city.

When Motown came to Detroit it brought cultural style, but not just any style it brought a new fashion style. Women and men fashion in Detroit began to develop along with Motown’s fashion. There is an image that shows The Supremes dressed in tight fitting shimmering dresses with big hair (wigs), big earrings, and make-up (Bak, 218).  The dresses the women wore were tight so it could so off their African American curvy body shape. That image shows that Motown’s women cultural style was very glamorous, sexy, and beautiful; this was a look that any women would have wanted to have during that time. The men’s fashion changed from getting their natural hair cut with basic colored suits (black or navy blue) and ties to, perming their hair so it could be slicked back with gel which gave their hair a shine. The outfits also changed to brightly colored suits and bow ties with the same colored shoes to match, something that might have been called sharp. A picture of the Four Tops which displays the men’s cultural style is shown in the book The Motown Story (Waller, 76).  Detroit’s culture both music and style was what caught the attention of many and was the foundation that helped build on to Motown’s history.


Detroit’s atmosphere lacked musical diversity before Motown, because racial tension was at its peak. The Great migration from south to the north, (blacks migrated to work for the big car companies) was one of the reason why tension was so high. According to the book Where Did Our Love Go states, that at first blacks were hardly welcomed in Detroit (George, 7). As time moved forward the predominately white Detroit began to tolerate blacks, but the racial tension remained.  According to Gilbert Cruz, Motown came during the height of the early Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s (start of Motown) segregation and racial discrimination was a big factor with the success of Motown’s African Americans music artist. When Motown music first hit the music charts there target audience was Africa Americans because not too much of white America took interest in anything dealing with black due to racial discrimination. If Motown was only being accepted by one type of audience then how could Motown develop any kind of success or even make a mark in history? Motown needed change because no type of progress could happen with the racial atmosphere Motown was in.

When Motown started to hit mainstream racial barriers began to break. Motown began t to change its racial issues by starting to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Motown released the Great March to Freedom album on August 28, 1963. This was Motown’s effort to capture Martin Luther King Jr.’s Detroit speech (Smith, 94). The speech (which is now known as I Have a Dream speech) Motown recorded was given by one of the most popular Civil Rights leader in history. Motown’s decision to record that speech helped build on to making Detroit an historical city because Detroit was the first city King had revealed the speech to and with Detroit having such a positive response King took the speech to national television and radio stations.  Motown sent a copy of the Great March to Freedom album to famous poet and activist Langston Hughes and according to Smith, Hughes expressed his delight with Motown’s effort to capture King’s Detroit speech. The move Motown made with sending Langton Hughes the Great March to Freedom album influenced Hughes to be a part of the development of Motown because one month later, in October of 1963 Hughes signed his contract with Motown. Hughes album Poets of the Revolution and King’s speech Great March to Freedom would document the artistic expression of the black thought and political consciousness (Smith, 95). One event that really impacted racial discrimination was The Supremes appearance on the on the Ed Sullivan Show [ which] introduced one facet of Detroit black culture into living rooms across America(Smith, 135).The Supremes were the first Motown group to appear on such a world renowned TV show(Smith, 97). Their appearance allowed Motown music to be accepted internationally with different culture and music styles. Also after their appearance the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned all forms of racial discrimination in public facilities was signed by President Lyndon Johnson (Smith, 135). Racial discrimination was a main source that held Motown back and now that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Motown’s Music was given more freedom to grow. Motown grew to be accepted not just by whites but all. Different artists from Motown began playing for different TV shows which was targeted white audiences and gave them a taste of Detroit culture both music and style. In the 1970s and 1980s was when Motown really sky rocketed and according to Edward and Callahan, Motown sold over a million more albums in 70s and 80s than they did in the 1960. When Motown first began it was faced with a racial challenge and once Motown got around that challenge it made history and became the example for what African American’s can really accomplish.

            Motown assembled the soul and pop classics that changed America (Cruz, 1). Motown for Detroit and America was the start of something new; it gave black people hope and America encouraging words. Motown is the largest black owned business in United States history and for the city of Detroit it was historic for this city to go from Motor City to Motown a place where music could call home.  Now that Motown was established, blacks could now be seen on TV too, idolized, be a millionaire and etc. Motown paved the way for many African American Music artists in today’s society Motown was their example, it was just the beginning. The culture of Motown was different because it was something people were not used to. Music was different because it showed emotion, feeling and gave people something they could relate to. The style of Motown women showed the real beauty and class of an African American women, and the men style was neat flashy and showed off their proud wealth. As Detroit began to move forward with Motown it had minor setback with racial discrimination, but Motown fought throw that with the help of their music artist, and the Civil Rights Movement. Once Motown got passed the racial barrier between them and their success there was no stopping Motown’s hits. Motown had such a power impact on such a big country and it all started in Detroit Michigan. Detroit became an historical city with the help of Motown’s culture and political contributions through music, which gave African American’s hope for change





Bak, Richard. Detroit Across Three Centuries. Canada: n.p., 2001. Print.

Cruz, Gilbert. "Motown." N.p., 12 Jan. 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Edwards, David, and Mike Callahan. "The Motown Story." N.p., 11 June 1999. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go?. Urbana, Chicago: n.p., 2007. Print.

Katzif, Michael. "Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On':Songs We Love." N.p., 21 May 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Smith, Suzanne E. Dancing in the Street Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit. Cambridge: n.p., 1999. Print

Waller, Don. The Motown Story. New York: n.p., 1985. Print.