Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at the Motown Record Corporation.
Though rightly characterized as an icon of African American achievement, by any measure Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown organization was one of the most successful enterprises of the 1960s and 1970s, black or otherwise. The numbers are indisputable: between 1960 and 1974, at least one Motown single per year landed on the Billboard Hot 100 or R & B chart; additionally, four albums recorded under the Motown record label are included in the top 100 bestselling albums of all time. (The bestselling album of all time, Thriller, was recorded by label alumnus Michael Jackson.)
Nevertheless, the company started by Gordy in 1959 firmly remains an archetype of African American business and artistic triumph. Once called "the largest African American-owned company in the United States" by Black Enterprise magazine, the Motown organization—which expanded to include a filmmaking arm, Motown Productions—counted 135 employees and generated $40 million in gross profit by 1973. Given the company's location well away from New York, the recording capital of the United States, the proportion of early Motown employees who would go on to national fame was all the more astonishing. The Holland-Dozier-Holland production team, bassist James Jamerson of studio band The Funk Brothers, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, and many others were all from Michigan and discovered by Motown. Though the label was sold in 1988 (and multiple times subsequently), it survives in the form of Universal Motown Records, part of the New York-based Universal Music Group.
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The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about Motown. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)