Berry Gordy got his start as a songwriter for local Detroit acts such as Jackie Wilson and the Matadors. Wilson's single "Lonely Teardrops", written by Gordy, became a huge success, but Gordy did not feel he made as much money as he deserved from this and other singles he wrote for Wilson. He realized that the more lucrative end of the business was in producing records and owning the publishing.
The Hitsville U.S.A.
Motown building, at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Motown's headquarters from 1959 to 1968, which became the Motown Historical Museum in 1985
In 1959, Billy Davis and Berry Gordy's sisters Gwen and Anna started Anna Records. Davis and Gwen Gordy wanted Berry to be the company president, but Berry wanted to strike out on his own. On January 12, 1959, he started Tamla Records, with an $800 loan from his family and royalties earned writing for Jackie Wilson. Gordy originally wanted to name the label Tammy Records, after the hit song popularized by Debbie Reynolds from the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor, in which Reynolds also starred. When he found the name was already in use, Berry decided on Tamla instead. Tamla's first release, in the Detroit area, was Marv Johnson's "Come to Me" in 1959 (released nationally on United Artists). Its first hit was Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" (1959), which made it to number 2 on the Billboard R&B charts (released nationally on Anna Records).
Gordy's first signed act was the Matadors, who immediately changed their name to the Miracles in order to avoid confusion with the Matadors who recorded for Sue. Their first release, "Got a Job", was an answer record to the Silhouettes' "Get a Job" (issued on George Goldner's End Records). The Miracles' first, minor hit was their fourth single, 1959's "Bad Girl", released in Detroit as the debut record on the Motown imprint, and nationally on the Chess label. (Most early Motown singles were released through other labels, such as End, Fury, Gone and Chess.)
Miracles lead singer William "Smokey" Robinson became the vice president of the company (and later named his daughter "Tamla" and his son "Berry"). Several of Gordy's family members, including his father Berry Sr., brothers Robert and George, and sister Esther, were given key roles in the company. By the middle of the decade, Gwen and Anna Gordy had joined the label in administrative positions as well.
West Grand Boulevard
Also in 1959, Gordy purchased the property that would become Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio. The photography studio located in the back of the property was modified into a small recording studio, and the Gordys moved into the second-floor living quarters. Within seven years, Motown would occupy seven additional neighboring houses:
- Hitsville U.S.A., 1959 – (ground floor) administrative office, tape library, control room, Studio A; (upper floor) Gordy living quarter (1959–62), artists and repertoire (1962–72)
- Jobete Publishing office, 1961 – sales, billing, collections, shipping, and public relations
- Berry Gordy Jr. Enterprise, 1962 – offices for Berry Gordy Jr. and Esther Gordy Edwards
- Finance department, 1965 – royalties and payroll
- Artist personal development, 1966 – Harvey Fuqua (head of artist development and producer of stage performances), Maxine Powell (instructor in grooming, poise, and social graces for Motown artists), Maurice King (vocal coach, musical director and arranger), Cholly Atkins (house choreography), and rehearsal studios
- Two houses for administrative offices, 1966 – sales and marketing, traveling and traffic, and mixing and mastering
- ITMI (International Talent Management Inc.) office, 1966 – management
Motown had hired over 450 employees and had a gross income of $20 million by the end of 1966.
Early Tamla/Motown artists included Mable John, Eddie Holland and Mary Wells. "Shop Around", the Miracles' first number 1 R&B hit, peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. It was Tamla's first million-selling record. On April 14, 1960, Motown and Tamla Records merged into a new company called Motown Record Corporation. A year later, the Marvelettes scored Tamla's first US number-one pop hit, "Please Mr. Postman". By the mid-1960s, the company, with the help of songwriters and producers such as Robinson, A&R chief William "Mickey" Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield, had become a major force in the music industry.
From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits. Top artists on the Motown label during that period included the Supremes (initially including Diana Ross), the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5, while Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and the Miracles had hits on the Tamla label. The company operated several labels in addition to the Tamla and Motown imprints. A third label, which Gordy named after himself (though it was originally called "Miracle") featured the Temptations, the Contours, and Martha and the Vandellas. A fourth, V.I.P., released recordings by the Velvelettes, the Spinners, the Monitors, and Chris Clark.
A fifth label, Soul, featured Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, the Originals, and Gladys Knight & the Pips (who had found success before joining Motown, as "The Pips" on Vee-Jay). Many more Motown-owned labels released recordings in other genres, including Workshop Jazz (jazz) Earl Washington Reflections and Earl Washington's All Stars, Mel-o-dy (country, although it was originally an R&B label), and Rare Earth (rock), which featured the band Rare Earth themselves. Under the slogan "The Sound of Young America", Motown's acts were enjoying widespread popularity among black and white audiences alike.
Smokey Robinson said of Motown's cultural impact:
Into the 1960s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.
In 1967 Berry Gordy purchased what is now known as Motown Mansion in Detroit's Boston-Edison Historic District as his home, leaving his previous home to his sister Anna and then husband Marvin Gaye (where photos for the cover of his album What's Going On were taken). In 1968, Gordy purchased the Donovan building on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Interstate 75, and moved Motown's Detroit offices there (the Donovan building was demolished in January 2006 to provide parking spaces for Super Bowl XL). In the same year Gordy purchased Golden World Records, and its recording studio became "Studio B" to Hitsville's "Studio A".
In the United Kingdom, Motown's records were released on various labels: at first London (only the Miracles' "Shop Around"/"Who's Lovin' You" and "Ain't It Baby"), then Fontana ("Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes was one of four) and then Oriole American ("Fingertips" by Little Stevie Wonder was one of many). In 1963, Motown signed with EMI's Stateside label ("Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes and "My Guy" by Mary Wells were Motown's first British top-20 hits). Eventually EMI created the Tamla Motown label ("Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes was the first Tamla Motown release in March 1965).
Los Angeles: 1972–1998
After the songwriting trio Holland–Dozier–Holland left the label in 1967 over royalty-payment disputes, Norman Whitfield became the company's top producer, turning out hits for The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Rare Earth. In the meantime Berry Gordy established Motown Productions, a television subsidiary which produced TV specials for the Motown artists, including TCB, with Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, Diana! with Diana Ross, and Goin' Back to Indiana with the Jackson 5. The company loosened its production rules, allowing some of its longtime artists the opportunity to write and produce more of their own material. This resulted in the recordings of successful and critically acclaimed albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) and Let's Get it On (1973), and Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), and Innervisions (1973).
Motown had established branch offices in both New York City and Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, and by 1969 had begun gradually moving more of its operations to Los Angeles. The company moved all of its operations to Los Angeles in June 1972, with a number of artists, among them Martha Reeves, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Motown's Funk Brothers studio band, either staying behind in Detroit or leaving the company for other reasons. By re-locating, Motown aimed chiefly to branch out into the motion-picture industry, and Motown Productions got its start in film by turning out two hit-vehicles for Diana Ross: the Billie Holiday biographical film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and Mahogany (1975). Other Motown films would include Scott Joplin (1977), Thank God It's Friday (1978), The Wiz (1978) and The Last Dragon (1985). Ewart Abner, who had been associated with Motown since the 1960s, became its president in 1973.
By the 1970s, the Motown "hit factory" had become a target of a backlash from some fans of rock music. Record producer Pete Waterman recalls of this period: "I was a DJ for years and I worked for Motown – the press at the time, papers like NME, used to call it Toytown. When I DJ'd on the Poly circuit, the students wanted me to play Spooky Tooth and Velvet Underground. Things don't change. Nowadays, of course, Motown is hip."
Despite losing Holland–Dozier–Holland, Norman Whitfield, and some of its other hitmakers by 1975, Motown still had a number of successful artists during the 1970s and 1980s, including Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie, the Dazz Band, Jose Feliciano and DeBarge. By the mid-1980s Motown had started losing money, and Berry Gordy sold his ownership in Motown to MCA Records (which began a US distribution deal with the label in 1983) and Boston Ventures in June 1988 for $61 million. In 1989, Gordy sold the Motown Productions TV/film operations to Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who renamed the company de Passe Entertainment and continues to run it as of 2018 .
During the 1990s, Motown was home to successful recording artists such as Boyz II Men and Johnny Gill, although the company itself remained in a state of turmoil. MCA appointed a revolving door of executives to run the company, beginning with Berry Gordy's immediate successor, Jheryl Busby. Busby quarreled with MCA, alleging that the company did not give Motown's product adequate attention or promotion. In 1991, Motown sued MCA to have its distribution deal with the company terminated, and began releasing its product through PolyGram. PolyGram purchased Motown from Boston Ventures three years later.
In 1994, Busby was replaced by Andre Harrell, the entrepreneur behind Uptown Records. Harrell served as Motown's CEO for just under two years, leaving the company after receiving bad publicity for being inefficient. Danny Goldberg, who ran PolyGram's Mercury Records group, assumed control of Motown, and George Jackson served as president.
Final years of the Motown label: 1999–2005
By 1998, Motown had added stars such as 702, Brian McKnight, and Erykah Badu to its roster. In December 1998, PolyGram was acquired by Seagram, and Motown was absorbed into the Universal Music Group. Seagram had purchased Motown's former parent MCA in 1995, and Motown was in effect reunited with many of its MCA corporate siblings (Seagram had hoped to build a media empire around Universal, and started by purchasing PolyGram). Universal briefly considered shuttering the label, but instead decided to restructure it. Kedar Massenburg, a producer for Erykah Badu, became the head of the label, and oversaw successful recordings from Badu, McKnight, Michael McDonald, and new Motown artist India.Arie.
Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations had remained with the label since its early days, although all except Wonder recorded for other labels for several years. Ross left Motown for RCA Records from 1981 to 1988, but returned in 1989 and stayed until 2002, while Robinson left Motown in 1991 (although he did return to release one more album for the label in 1999). The Temptations left for Atlantic Records in 1977, but returned in 1980 and eventually left again in 2004. As of 2018 , Wonder is the only artist from Motown's early period still on the label.
Universal Motown: 2005–2011
In 2005, Massenburg was replaced by Sylvia Rhone, former CEO of Elektra Records. Motown was merged with Universal Records to create the Universal Motown Records and placed under the newly created umbrella division of Universal Motown Republic Group. Notable artists on Universal Motown included Drake Bell, Ryan Leslie, Melanie Fiona, Forever the Sickest Kids, and Four Year Strong. In late 2008, Motown began celebrating its fiftieth anniversary (January 12, 2009), including the release of a The Complete No. 1's box set containing Motown number-one hits from Billboard′s pop, R&B, and disco charts, reissues of classic-era Motown albums on CD, and other planned events, which were released in collaboration with Universal Music Group's catalog division Universal Music Enterprises.
As of summer of 2011, Universal Motown has been separated from Universal Motown Republic Group, has reverted to the original Motown brand, has hired Ethiopia Habtemariam as its Senior Vice President, and is now operated under The Island Def Jam Music Group. Artists from Universal Motown have been transferred to the newly revitalized Motown label. On January 25, 2012, it was announced that Ne-Yo would join the Motown label both as an artist as well as the new Senior Vice President of A&R. On April 1, 2014, it was announced that Island Def Jam will no longer be running following the resignation of CEO Barry Weiss. In a press release sent out by Universal Music Group, the label will now be reorganizing Def Jam Recordings, Island Records and Motown Records all as separate entities. Motown would then begin serving as a subsidiary of Capitol Records.