Just like Detroit's automotive assembly line, music executive Berry Gordy approached song production in similar fashion at Motown Records, one of the most culturally influential and successful Black-owned record labels in the music industry.
Launched in 1959 under the name Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan, the burgeoning label officially changed its name to Motown Records and produced some of the greatest soul music artists for the next three decades.
Among Motown's countless successes, here are some of the label's most defining hitmakers:
Originally hailing from Detroit, The Temptations — famous for their harmonies, dance moves and flashy style — were pioneers of psychedelic soul and is considered one of the most successful pop bands of all time. With classic hits like "My Girl," "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)," the R&B/Soul group were one of the biggest artists on Motown's roster in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, they were the first band to deliver the label its first Grammy, thanks to their hit "Cloud Nine" in 1969.
In the mid-1960s, The Supremes' popularity rivaled that of The Beatles, paving the way for other Black artists to achieve mainstream superstardom. With 12 No. 1 Billboard hit singles, including "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," and "Stop! In the Name of Love," The Supremes is considered Motown's greatest commercial success. Although Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & The Supremes in 1967, a few years later, Ross left to pursue a solo career.
In 1970 Diana Ross released her self-titled debut album that included the hits “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and a remake of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Her 1973 collaboration with Marvin Gaye on the duet album Diana & Marvin made her fame soar internationally, and she continued finding major success in the 80s with hits like "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out" and "Endless Love," a duet with Lionel Richie. Ross also ventured into acting, earning an Oscar nomination for her performance in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and she also played Dorothy in Sidney Lumet's musical fantasy film The Wiz (1978), opposite Michael Jackson.
The Jackson 5
The Jackson 5 got their start opening for The Supremes. But by the late 1960s, they had quickly gained their own following and subsequently released their first single "I Want You Back," which soared to the top of the charts, along with making their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sixteen of their singles made their way to the Top 40 charts during their time at Motown including the No. 1 hits “ABC,” “I’ll Be There” and “The Love You Save.”
Piggybacking off of The Jackson 5's popularity, Motown released Michael Jackson's solo career in 1971 with the No. 1 hits "Got to Be There" and "Ben." In total Jackson released four albums with Motown before deciding to move onto Epic's label and subsequently producing his hit album "Off the Wall" in 1979, which legitimized him as an artist in his own right. Still, Motown was Jackson's launchpad to success and the label's biggest star.
Having met as young college students at Tuskegee Institute in 1968, the Commodores' funk and soul caught the attention of Motown when they began touring with The Jackson 5 as its opening act in the early 1970s. With Lionel Richie as lead singer, the band reached the peak of superstardom in the late 70s and early 80s with hits like “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Brick House,” and "Nightshift," the last of which earned them a Grammy.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Known as Motown's "soul supergroup," Smokey Robinson & The Miracles are distinguished for being the record label's first band to hit it big, starting in the 1960s. As an R&B vocal group, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded over 20 hit singles that made it into the top 40 charts, including "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Tears of a Clown," "What's So Good About Goodbye," "Ooo, Baby Baby," "I'll Try Something New," and "I Second That Emotion." With the help of Gordy, the group scored the label's first million-selling hit single with "Shop Around" and crossed over into pop and rock 'n' roll.
The Four Tops
Unlike other groups whose members would come and go as their music evolved, The Four Tops — comprising of Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, and Lawrence Payton — stayed together for four decades and helped shaped Detroit's Motown throughout the 1960s. With the highly talented production-songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, The Four Tops soared to No. 1 on the music charts with "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and "Reach Out I'll Be There." When Motown decided to leave Detroit and move to Los Angeles, The Four Tops remained in their hometown and continued to produce hits, such as "Ain't No Woman," through other record labels.
Gordy considered Stevie Wonder a musical prodigy, signing the blind multi-instrumental singer, songwriter and producer at age 11. Wonder jumped onto the scene in the mid 1960s with the hit single "Finger Tips, Part II" and later produced the smash singles "Superstition," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," "Sir Duke," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." His 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life, became certified diamond, and Wonder would end up becoming one of the best-selling music artists of all time and the biggest Grammy male solo artists, earning an impressive 25 statues in his storied career.
Although he started out as a successful drummer for Motown's early hits, Marvin Gaye became a prolific force at Motown as a solo artist starting in the early 1960s. Earning the titles "Prince of Motown" and the "No. 1 purveyor of soul music," Gaye produced many hits, including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” his duet with Tammi Terrell. In the 1970s, after negotiating with the label to obtain full artistic control over his music (Wonder was the first to do this), Gaye produced the acclaimed albums "What's Going On" and "Let's Get It On." In 1982 he won a Grammy for his hit single "Sexual Healing" before being fatally shot by his father two years later.
Gladys Knight & the Pips
Although Motown considered Gladys Knight & the Pips a second-tier act, the group soared in popularity with hits like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "If I Were Your Woman" and "Friendship Train." Originally signed with Motown in 1966 and later opening for The Supremes, the Atlanta, Georgia-based R&B Soul group decided to change labels, signing with Buddah Records in 1973. Once there, Knight would win her first of three Grammys with the Pips, thanks to their timeless hit "Midnight Train to Georgia." As a solo artist, Knight would win four more Grammys.