For almost 60 years Tamla Motown hasproved that black soul and R&Bis universally popular. In Britain, this was especially true with its re-emergence in the 1980sas the Northern Soul Youth Craze (so called due to its popularity in the North West of England). The label began in 1959 and a lone Berry Gordy armed only with ambition and an $800 family loan but by the end of the 1960s, Motown was one of the most popular record companies in America.

1960s America was defined by increasing racial tensions, which often culminated in race riots. Gordy’s self-made ‘rags to riches’ story is a positive example among the usual bleak and unjust stories of African-Americans. Equally, his continual signing of black artists offered others a path out of such drudgery. The images of empowered, talented black artists like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder,contradictedthe culturally sustained inferior African-American.

Gordy’s main ambition was to produce the ‘Sound ofYoung America’, no matter what colour. The label’s releases gained popularity among both white and black Americans alike. Motown artistsenjoyed top spots in the mainstream chart, toured worldwide and began to define an era. It was the ability to transcend racial boundaries that highlighted the label as so revolutionary.These race-transcending songs were popularly singled out among the other major record companies releases, leading to a social acknowledgment of the label’s distinct ‘Motown Sound’.

However, these initial songs were not overarching political anthems, no more than cliché, ‘doo-wop’ love songs. Some of the first releases; Marv Johnson’s ‘Come To Me’ andBarrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, were simple songs with simple lyrics. Throughout the next couple of decades Motown’s bestselling artists such as the Supremes, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, generallyonly offered basic catchy tunes.

Most autobiographies and accounts depict Gordy as a ruthless businessman unwilling to risk sales with unpopular messages amongst his white audiences. Popular opinion suggests it wasn’t until Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ (1971) that the label was seen to support any overt activist song or artist. The famous story behind the making of this single tells of extreme opposition from within the label to its release. Eventually Gaye threatened to stop recording completely to overcome this. The single and album’s subsequent popularity actually suggests that Motown’s white audience would not be frightened by political messages. The single addressed various different social issues, not just racial inequality.

There were earlier Motown records that drew attention to the racial inequalities of America. Aretha Franklin’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T (1967 – written by Otis Redding) echoed a vital Civil Rights demand. The day of Martin Luther King’s assassination the Supremes performed ‘Somewhere’ on the Tonight Show and directly referenced the tragedy.

Interestingly, Martin Luther King is technically aMotown recording artist. The label recorded him at the Detroit Freedom March in 1963 which they then released the day ofthe Washington March.‘The Great March To Freedom’includedKing’s infamous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. To a cynic this venture could be seen as one the shrewdest business moves in twentieth-century history. However, Gordy used his self-named sub-label to release the politically charged speech, perhaps showing his commitment to the project.

But, like the initial Motown releases, most 1970’s tracks were not the direct protest songs you would expect from a small black independent record label successful in the height of racial inequality. With the exception of a few, the labels love songs fell far short of political anthems. Other record companies proved were more dedicated to racial equality. The most obvious political anthem of this period was James Brown’s (1968) hit ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, but this was released on the King record label not Motown. Equally Bob and Marcia’s cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’ (1970) completely encapsulates the spirit and desires of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet interestingly it was released by British based, reggae and ska, Trojan Records.

Beingthis far removed from the humble origins of TamlaMotown makes it easy for us to perceive it as extremely significant to the Civil Rights Movement. Its black musicians defied stereotypes, the music transcended class boundaries and sometimes the songs directly addressed social inequalities. However, Gordy’s vision for the enterprise and overarching control of the artists meant the label could not fulfil the potential it held in 1959. In fact, labels across the Atlantic did more to unite and inspire nations against racism and inequality.


Use this URL to listen to the most important music for the American Civil Rights Movement, including the artists and songs.