The story of Motown is an important part of African-American history. The name became a honorary nickname for Detroit as it was always known as a motor city. Motown’s part in racial integration is crucial to discuss because many black artists had major success on the pop charts. It’s called the “Motown Sound,” because of soul music simply having crossover appeal. For numerous decades, Motown was the biggest African-American business that brought in the big bucks! Not bad for an independent company. It was sold in 1988, and is currently under the parent company of Capitol Music Group.
Acts like The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells, DeBarge, Erykah Badu, Teena Marie are just a FEW of the most important acts to have been signed to Motown over the years.
It’s merely impossible to name every single artist for their contributions to Motown and it’s history, but I will do my very best to note the legendary stars who made a huge impact on pop & Black culture.
Founded as Tamla Records by Berry Gordy Jr. on January 12, 1958..& eventually incorporated into Motown Record Corporation in 1960, so payola accusations would be avoided..Gordy & team created Subsidiary labels. (It’s important to note that all of these labels were still owned by Motown Corp.)
The sub labels were Tamla Motown, Gordy, Soul Records, VIP Records, MoWest Records, Universal Motown, etc. It’s not important to know who was technically signed to who, because they were all signed to Motown at the end of the day. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to business shall we?
The Miracles (Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore, Claudette Robinson, Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers & Marv Taplin. The lineup will change frequently over the years). Their song Shop Around definitely put Motown on the map!
The Miracles will go on to have major hits such as You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, I Second That Emotion, Way Over There & my favorite: Ooo Baby Baby
The First Lady of Motown, Mary Wells is responsible for bringing Motown’s early pop hits with You Beat Me to the Punch & My Guy. Her life was tragically cut short almost 25 years ago at the age of 49, but Mary will always be remembered for her soothing vocals on the remarkable Motown label.
The Marvelettes were Motown’s first successful girl group, & had a pretty great amount of hit songs! My favorite is Beechwood 4-5789.
Martha & The Vandellas brought nothing but essential bops to the Motown sound. Dancing in the Streets, Nowhere To Run, & Heatwave are amazing!
It would be pointless to touch on the topic of Motown if you do not discuss the incredible Stevie Wonder. Stevie signed to the Tamla sub label at the tender age of 11, & stayed with Motown for the rest of his career. let’s touch on the greatness that is Fingertips! Stevie will bring nothing but hits to Motown over the decades, but to me.. he will always be the kid that said “let me hear you say YEAAAAH!”
The Supremes (the original lineup Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, & the late Florence Ballad..later Cindy Birdsong) were easily the biggest band next to The Beatles in the 60s. Releasing hit after hit, they’re known for being an act who has the most #1s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. With hits like Baby Love, Stop! In the Name Of Love, and countless others…these legends are cemented in history for being one of the biggest girl groups Motown have, & are the blueprint for Black Girl groups PERIOD.
The Temptations were a group that knew what the world wanted in a group of men. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the greatness the well known lineup were. It’s self explanatory! Although the biopic mini-series was inaccurate because Otis Williams is the only surviving member, the music is greatness and is what makes their story memorable! It’s merely impossible to state all of their hits, but here’s one of them.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell:
Before Marvin was a successful solo act, he & the late great Tammi Terrell were THE duo on Motown that brought nothing but hits. The death of Tammi had a huge effect on Marvin & I don’t think he ever recovered from it. May these amazing musicians rest peacefully.
The Four Tops are essential to the Motown sound, with amazing bops!
Syreeta Wright will always be remembered for her collaborations with her ex-husband Stevie Wonder, but it’s important to remember her incredible vocals make Stevie’s production on her records very memorable and immaculate!
Gladys Knight & The Pips (lineup during the Motown days: Gladys, William Guest, Edward Patten, Merald Knight).
Gladys Knight & The Pips burst onto the Motown scene with their rendition of Heard It Through The Grapevine, & brought nothing but hits for the duration of their time at Motown. If I Were Your Woman, Midnight Train To Georgia, & Neither One of Us..were hits that followed them and become their most known songs!
The 70s belonged to Ms. Ross! She kicked off her solo career in 1970 with her debut album. She went on to venture into movies with my favorite Lady Sings The Blues, Mahogany & The Wiz.
The Jackson 5 is an important part of Motown’s history because their sound & talent made their transition to California extremely smooth.
Michael Jackson (who will go on to become the greatest entertainer of ALL time. Don’t worry his appreciation post is coming very soon) was the lead singer & is the first act to have their first four singles to go number one on the pop charts. ABC, The Love You Save, Dancin Machine, I Want You Back, Mama’s Pearl, Never Can Say Goodbye are just a few of the countless hits The Jacksons have blessed us with. Get into them!
Marvin’s solo career is important because he not only gave us Sexual Healing, Let’s Get It On, I Want You & After The Dance, but got political with What’s Going On & started to touch on heavy topics.
Rick James was the epitome of Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll! The late 70s & 80s was Rick’s world, & everyone else was just living in it. He has way too many classic songs to mention, but his work as an entertainer & producer does not go unnoticed around here. He’s Rick James, BITCH! 🤗
In today’s world, Teena would’ve been accused of appropriating black culture, but if you ask a music head like myself, I would have to disagree. With Teena, it came naturally. Literally from the soul. There was nothing fake about Teena, baby! Her voice was so powerful, she had the world confused, especially since her debut album cover didn’t show a photo of her.
Her discography as a whole is remarkable, but those years at Motown were her best. When she & her musical soulmate Rick James created the timeless Fire & Desire, it was like magic. Everyone can’t compare to the King & Queen baby!
With hits like Square Biz, I Need Your Lovin’, Portuguese Love, Young Love, and numerous others..Teena made the 80s memorable.
The 80s also had a special place for DeBarge. Deemed as the mixed race Jacksons (ironically one of the members James was married to Janet Jackson,) DeBarge gave Motown some of their most incredible hits! Songs like I like It, A Dream, Time Will Reveal, Share My World, & Rhythm of the Night are essentially the best songs to come from the Motown label.
Protégés of Rick James, The Mary Jane Girls brought sultry jams to the 80s. They were controversial for their hit single In My House being apart of the “filthy 15.”
The “Let Me Be Your Angel” songstress was signed to the Motown label in the late stages of her career before she retired in 1989. She didn’t leave us with pointless albums and ballads! As she got older, her voice was stronger and just..terrific.
Johnny Gill was already an established entertainer when he signed to Motown with his musical soulmate Stacy Lattisaw. It’s also crucial to note that he replaced Bobby Brown in the group New Edition.
So when he dropped his self titled 3rd album, the bops just came naturally. My, My, My & Rub You The Right Way are just timeless.
THEEEEE most underrated singer of all time was signed to Motown from 1991 to 1995, & released two of her best albums (Inner Child & 21 ..Ways To Grow).
Her signature hit single “I Love Your Smile,” is one of those memorable songs from the 90s that are nostalgic and timeless!
Shanice’s voice is amazing and it’s a crime how underrated she is.
Boyz II Men: (Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman & Michael McCary).
The Most successful group of all time, Boyz II Men are also an important part of Motown’s history..speaking of how huge they were & kept Motown running with their amazing songs I’ll Make Love To You, End of The Road, On Bended Knee & many more.
Along with Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men hold the title of having the most long running #1 single for One Sweet Day..which was #1 for 16 weeks!
702: Kameelah Williams, Irish Grinstead & LeMisha Grinstead
Another group that was signed to Motown under the direction of Michael Bivins from New Edition/BBD fame, 702 was a group that brought a fresh look and sound to what Motown was known for: Black women groups! With hits like Steelo, Get It Together, Where My Girls At, & I Still Love You, 702 was a GROUP that was underrated if you ask me.
After the release of her debut album Baduizm, the Queen of Neo-Soul signed to Motown, & is still on the label to this day. Giving us nothing but hits over the years, Erykah is a modern day Billie Holiday who is as controversial and groundbreaking as she can be..& we wouldn’t have her any other way honestly.
India Arie is one artist from the new millennium that has done nothing but amaze me with her talents. With her music, she has made tons of fans appreciate their brown skin, practice self care & love themselves!
If Kem isn’t in your favorite artists signed to Motown, father your things and leave. I like to call Kem “The King of Quiet Storm,” because his music is for those long rainy nights and you have a glass of wine in your hand.
The sister of Jhene Aiko, Mila J holds down the new generation of Motown with amazing songs. I’m looking forward to her album!
BJ The Chicago Kid is someone who shouldn’t be slept on! He brings back those nostalgic feelings of the old school Motown days with his music. Incredible and talented, BJ will last long in the music industry if he keeps releasing amazing music like he is.
Motown will always be remembered and appreciated for giving African-Americans a platform to speak their mind through music and for giving them a place in American history. Being one of the most successful Black owned labels for Decades, Motown gave a generation the opportunity to have hope, & a chance to prosper in a world that has been against them for centuries. Kudos to Berry Gordy Jr, for being one of the most amazing and talented individuals to grace the earth. It is his vision and diligence, that Black music is where it is today: timeless and essential to pop culture. – MJ.
I made a custom playlist of my favorite songs released by Motown, including artists I didn’t really cover in this post.