Douglas Wolk

Forgetting the Motor City

The Hits, Misses, and Many Reinventions of Motown, the Legendary Label that Rightly Claimed to Produce “The Sound of Young America”

DISCUSSED: Quibbling Over Details, 7-Inch Records in Uniform Paper Sleeves, The Sequels of Hit Songs, The Last Big Stars to Come Rolling Off the Assembly Line, Confusing Gladys Knight with Marvin Gaye, Breaking Every Law of Early-’60s Song Construction, All-Night Soul Dance Parties, Vanquishing a Corporate Ogre, The Way Time Winnows the Canon, The Fast Track to Economic Desolation, Going West


The middle-class-to-riches origin story of Motown Records has been told so many times that it’s become mythological, in the sense that almost all of its details are open to argument and revision. The label was founded in 1959, the story goes, by Berry Gordy Jr., a semi-successful Detroit songwriter who’d had a handful of his songs recorded by Jackie Wilson. Gordy’s family had run a prosperous printing company in the ’40s, and with part of the proceeds they’d put together the Ber-Berry Co-Op to fund family members’ projects. Berry had run an unprofitable business or two, and he wanted to get into the record business, so Ber-Berry loaned him eight hundred dollars to start a label, named after Detroit’s nickname. Several decades later, Gordy sold his interest in Motown Records for sixty-one million dollars, and now it’s the only record label to have gotten its own jukebox musical—Motown the Musical, centered on Berry Gordy’s love affair with his star singer, Diana Ross.The label also spawned a book by Berry Gordy, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, based on his own autobiography.

All of this is true in broad terms, but the details are worth quibbling over. Before Gordy started the label proper, he opened a music publishing company, Jobete. (As with many music-business names of the time, it combined the first few letters of several people’s names, in this case those of his three children.) He had figured out early on that the most reliable long-term source of income in the music business was publishing. Performers had to get out on the road and impress audiences every night; labels had to get their records on racks and on the radio. But being the publisher of a hit meant an ongoing trickle of income without any further work. If you look at the fine print on any compilation of classic Motown recordings, you’ll see the name Jobete again and again.

Douglas Wolk is an arts critic and music nerd in Portland, Oregon. He recently wrote the comic-book miniseries Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two (IDW).

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