Berry Gordy, a black songwriter in Detroit, Michigan, founded Motown Records in 1959. He had been frustrated with the opportunities he had as a black man to get his music published; he was unwilling to give up his creative control by selling his songs to a recording company. He decided he needed to publish his own songs, and in the process, he founded the company that would make countless black artists famous.
The first group to have a song published by Gordy was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, who gave Motown its first million-selling record in 1960, "Shop Around." Also among Motown's first artists were the Marvellettes, the Temptations, the Supremes, and Mary Wells. These black artists all had considerable talent and a unique sound (contributed somewhat by Gordy himself, who wrote or co-wrote many of Motown's hit songs) that came to be known simply as "Motown."
After about 10 years, Motown Records began branching out significantly, and the "Motown" sound was lost. Still, the company has continued to support black artists. Its primary artists in later years have been Stevie Wonder (in the seventies and eighties, mainly), Lionel Richie (in the eighties), and Boyz II Men (in the nineties).
What exactly is the "Motown" sound? At the time the company was founded, Motown didn't refer to a specific musical style, of course. As the artists of Motown became more famous, however, it became clear that theirs was a special sound, recognizably different from that of their contemporaries. The other popular artists of the day – people like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, Richie Valens, and the Everly Brothers – were using simple chord progressions (often just I-IV-V) and simple drum and guitar parts that were easily danceable and playable by amateurs around the country. Their sound – that which is most often evoked by the term "rock and roll" – developed primarily from the sounds of the white southern "country" music, with elements of the black rhythm and blues incorporated.
Conversely, the artists Gordy recruited for the Motown label derived most of their sound from the rhythm and blues tradition, incorporating aspects of white country music. The distinction is subtle – and hard to describe – but audible.
It is in the 1950's that jazz, country, and blues all came together – and none of them came out the same. Thus, it is hard to identify specific evolutionary paths taken by Motown and rock and roll in general. Clearly, rock and roll was a synthesis of the beat of rhythm and blues and the chords of country and the energy of jazz (an oversimplification, perhaps, but mostly accurate). The sound of Motown, on the other hand, was mostly rhythm and blues, with some basic elements of the new rock and roll thrown in – primarily the subject matter. Motown also kept the hard-driving beat and the vocal style that was had been tempered somewhat in rock and roll by country influences.
Where does Motown (as a musical style) fit on the "blues continuum?" Obviously, it holds little in common with the field hollers from which popular rural blues evolved. Primary among the common aspects is simply the fact that the artists are black. While that’s far from coincidental, it’s hard to see any other family resemblance.
The rural blues of the late 19th century can almost be recognized as Motown’s ancestor. While little changed from the field hollers, the early country blues added some aspects that were still present in the Motown sound. Most notable is the addition of instruments to the performance of the blues.
Next we come to the first popular city blues, as performed mainly by rural singers brought by record companies to the cities for recording. This is the place in the "blues continuum" where we see the AAB blues form becoming standardized, along with the basic I-IV-V-IV-I chord progression. We also see the addition of the guitar, trumpet, clarinet, piano and drums to the instrumentation. Few of these elements were seen in Motown music, aside from the use of the guitar, piano, and drums. Motown utilizes almost no improvisation, unlike the blues, which often saw both the vocalist and the instrumentalists improvising short riffs.
The main aspect of this newer style of blues that survived to the age of Motown was the melodic style. While Motown never really followed the AAB lyric form – or the standard blues chord progression, for that matter – the melodies often use a flatted seventh. For example, in the key of C major, the note B in the melodies would often become a B-flat. This is called mixolydian mode, and is often seen in blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock and roll. In fact, the use of mixolydian mode is one of the few elements that can be seen in all those styles.
Most notable about use of the flatted seventh is its almost complete absence in the Tin Pan Alley songs – which shared time periods with this stage of the "blues continuum." Tin Pan Alley harmonies and melodies are based on European chords, and although mixolydian is one of the "church modes" used in sacred music, it was rarely used in traditional European (and American, for that matter) secular music. It only came into use in musical genres that evolved from the music of the rural south, which had been using it all along (even if they didn’t have a word for it).
The final stage of the "blues continuum" before 1960 – and the stage to which Motown owes the most – is the rhythm and blues. R&B, as it’s now called, added several important elements to the earlier blues style. The rhythm section gained importance, while the wind instruments began disappearing. Due to the more prominent rhythm section, the vocalists began having to change their singing style to be heard over the drums, basses, and guitars. Occasionally, to replace the wind instruments that were falling by the wayside, backup vocalists were added to the ensemble. The backup vocals filled in the gaps in the lead parts. All of these elements were incorporated into the Motown sound.
Motown, however, is on the fringe of the "blues continuum." It has many clear rock and roll influences, but it does owe more to rhythm and blues than rock and roll does. Motown uses the backup vocals of R&B – often in the same capacity, but also for harmony (as was done in rock and roll). Motown music also had a groove to it – a complex rhythm pattern involving the bass, guitar, and drums – that was far more interesting than the unexciting patterns rock and roll used. This use of a complex groove comes almost directly from R&B, and it is an important part of the Motown sound.
Motown did abandon, however, the blues form almost entirely. Instead, they adopted a verse-chorus form very similar to what was being used in rock and roll at the time. Motown often improved on these forms, with extended verses and bridges.
The records produced by Motown in the nineties now are part of the larger movement called rhythm and blues. A cousin of the original rhythm and blues, the new R&B takes aspects from the rock of the 1980’s and the original Motown sound of the 1960’s.
Motown owes a lot to the blues styles that preceded it, but blues was far from the only influence. Fundamentally, Motown is a rock and roll style, but the elements it inherited and cultivated from rhythm and blues give it that distinctive sound that Berry Gordy was able to nurture and form into an international trend.
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This paper was written by me on 13 November
1998 for my "Music in the US" course at RIT.