Sometimes, a revolution can be subtle.
As depicted in Motown the Musical, the songs emanating from Hitsville, U.S.A., not only shaped popular music for the better part of 20 years, but they also helped America grapple with racism and civil rights.
While the musical, which is a song-studded celebration of Berry Gordy’s influential studio, record label and stable of recording stars, tends to mostly gloss over the tough times — although riots and racial tensions are occasionally brought to center stage — Motown did fundamentally alter the way pop music would sound.
Even today, with the prevalence of R&B and hip-hop in mainstream pop music — even the infernal rise of electronic dance music can be traced back to the elemental rhythms found in the hits stomping out of Motown — Gordy and his collaborators’ influence is pervasive and essential.
Where the musical stumbles is in suggesting that the evolution from frothy, three-minute singles — the My Girls, the Ain’t Too Proud to Begs — to socially conscious, groundbreaking R&B was one Gordy not only saw coming but fostered. (The musical does have a moment where Marvin Gaye, newly awakened to the black plight and compelled to make music about it, confronts Gordy.)
But perhaps arguing over who pushed for what and when is beside the point. Certainly no other label at the time was openly advocating for black artists and the black point of view as fervently as Motown, and for that, pop music is immeasurably richer.
What Gordy and his Motown associates set out to do wasn’t revolutionary on its surface — building a business and giving ambitious musicians a chance to be heard — but, by looking back and listening closely, it’s possible to see and hear how simple songs, about love, about dreams, about life, can change everything.
In honor of Motown the Musical’s run at Bass Hall, through Sunday, we pay tribute to these 20 essential Motown artists and their indelible music.
The Jackson 5
Long before the term “boy band” was a thing, these kids from Gary, Ind. — fronted by the effervescent Michael Jackson — embodied its spirit of youthful hysteria and ushered in a wave of familial pop heartthrobs like the Osmonds and the Sylvers.
Unlike so many that came after them though, they weren’t a disposable pop act. The Jackson 5 ultimately would become the Jacksons and leave Motown — with Michael going on to become one of the biggest acts of the pop-music era — but their Motown catalog brims with a shimmering teen optimism.
Their first four singles — I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There — all went to No. 1 and were a quadruple punch of pop pleasure. Ultimately, their giddy sound ran up against their own maturation and what was quickly becoming Motown’s move into the more socially aware music of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone, the Undisputed Truth’s Smiling Faces Sometimes, and Stevie Wonder’s bravura trilogy of the Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale albums.
But it was fun while it lasted.
The Four Tops
It has been said of Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs than he sang as if his lungs were on fire. That sums up the raw power of Stubbs’ vocals, one of the pillars of the Four Tops’ sound and something that set them apart from all the other R&B quartets of the day.
They were one of the original Motown groups, running up a string of hits in the ’60s including Reach Out I’ll Be There, It’s the Same Old Song, Bernadette, Baby I Need Your Loving, Standing in the Shadows of Love and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).
One of their best hits was one of their last for Motown, Still Water (Love), in 1970. Co-written by Smokey Robinson, it’s a subtly Latin groove overlayed with a powerhouse Stubbs vocal that was a great way to say goodbye to the label that they’d called home for so many years.
Along with the Temptations, perhaps no group is more symbolic of the Motown sound than this trio fronted by Diana Ross.
Their laundry list of hits includes Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In the Name of Love, and Back in My Arms Again. Though it was their final single, Someday We’ll Be Together, that ultimately became emblematic of the behind-the-scenes bickering between Ross and bandmates Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson as well as the machinations of Motown main man Berry Gordy.
Originally, the song bidding farewell was going to be a Ross solo track, but Gordy reportedly wanted the Supremes to go out with one last No. 1, so it was released as a Supremes song even though neither Birdsong nor Wilson are on it.
The Supremes carried on without Ross and had several more hits, including Up the Ladder to the Roof, Nathan Jones, Stoned Love and Floy Joy.
Ross, meanwhile, went on to become a solo recording star and an actress in such films as Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany.
This Nashville-born singer’s biggest hit, War, embodied where Motown was going in the early ’70s in terms of more topical songs. First recorded by the Temptations, it’s an emphatic declaration of anti-war sensibilities that became an anthem for the Vietnam War era and its chorus — “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ ” — still resonates today.
Bruce Springsteen and Frankie Goes to Hollywood have covered it, and it was such a big hit for Starr that his follow-up single was a virtual re-write called Stop the War Now.
War’s success overshadowed some of his other hits such as Agent 00 Soul and 25 Years.
Not many people know that Buffalo-born funk-rocker James shared a band, the Mynah Birds, with Neil Young in Toronto. But that was symbolic of the crossover that James was in search of and that he would ultimately find as a solo act on Motown in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
He labeled his funk-pop sound — heard in the hits Give It to Me Baby and Super Freak — “punk funk” and it was at the center of controversy when MTV hit the scene in 1981.
The channel refused to play his videos, saying his sound didn’t fit their image, while he countered their refusal to play his videos with charges of racism. MC Hammer sampled Super Freak for his huge hit U Can’t Touch This, while comedian Dave Chappelle used James as a basis for one of his most popular sketches.
James also produced several other artists such as singer Teena Marie, who had several hits.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
These guys are essential to Motown’s identity for several reasons. They were the label’s first successful act, and Robinson would go on to become a label vice president.
During their heyday, they had hit after hit: Get Ready, Shop Around, Going to a-Go-Go, Ooh Baby Baby, Tracks of My Tears, The Tears of a Clown and Love Machine among them.
On top of that, unlike many of their labelmates, they were songwriters as well. The group’s members penned some of Motown’s best-known hits that were performed by others, including the Temptations’ My Girl, Mary Wells’ My Guy and the Marvelettes’ Don’t Mess With Bill.
Gladys Knight & the Pips
While some might believe that Marvin Gaye is responsible for I Heard It Through the Grapevine — after all, his 1968 version reached No. 1 — some actually prefer the version by Gladys Knight & the Pips, which was a hit a year before.
That was just one of the hits the group would have for Motown, as their discography includes Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye), Friendship Train and If I Were Your Woman.
Knight’s distinctively soulful vocals would make the Pips one of the best on Motown’s roster. They would leave Motown for the Buddah label, where they would have a huge hit with Midnight Train to Georgia and others, but their Motown work remains pivotal.
Jr. Walker & the All-Stars
Back in the ’60s, horn instruments often were the focus of many hit singles. That’s a tradition that died out in this era of so much electronics but, a half-century ago, it was definitely a thing.
One of the finest examples of sax-drenched soul was Arkansas-born Jr. Walker, whose hand-clapping, floor-shaking dance track Shotgun rocketed him to stardom in 1965. He followed it with such other songs as (I’m a) Road Runner, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) and the absolutely exquisite What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).
Even after Walker fell off the charts, his playing could be heard on hit radio. That’s his sax solo on Foreigner’s 1981 hit Urgent.
Though best known for their recordings on Atlantic in the early and mid-’70s, the Spinners recorded one of the great Motown tracks of all time prior to that. It’s a Shame, co-written by Stevie Wonder and a Top 10 hit in 1970, is one of the best singles the label ever released even though it’s not well-known today.
A volcanic eruption of a man’s hurt and pain as he agonizes over how his woman is treating him, it features an explosive vocal from singer G.C. Cameron. But the frustration is undercut by the sweetness of the backing harmonies and the absolutely irresistible hook.
If perfection can be distilled into a three-minute single, this is it.
Boyz II Men
Carrying on the tradition of the harmonizing Motown vocal group, these guys became a hit machine in the ’90s.
From End of the Road, a huge hit that stayed atop Billboard’s chart for 13 weeks and is perhaps the ultimate prom song of the era, through On Bended Knee, they were the kings of romantic soul.
And, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, three of the four members are still carrying on under the Boyz II Men name, releasing an album as recently as 2014.
Next to Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, the man born Marvin Gay Jr. might be the most consequential artist ever to record for Motown.
He enjoyed success in the 1960s, thanks to a string of duets with Tammi Terrell — including scorching versions of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. I Heard It Through the Grapevine was Gaye’s first single to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
But the Washington, D.C., native is probably best remembered for (and his considerable influence was cemented with) powerful concept albums like 1971’s What’s Going On, 1973’s Let’s Get It On and 1978’s underrated Here, My Dear.
The Isley Brothers
This R&B trio — brothers O’Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald Isley — was part of the Motown family for just two albums, but made some of the most indelible music of the 1960s during its brief time on Berry Gordy’s label.
The Isley Brothers released 1966’s This Old Heart of Mine and 1967’s Soul on the Rocks for Motown’s sister imprint Tamla — the former’s title track spawned one of the Isley Brothers’ biggest hits, for any label — and departed not long after Rocks’ release, setting up their own label, T-Neck (which was initially distributed by Buddah Records).
Shout!, perhaps the Isley Brothers’ best-known single, was actually recorded for RCA.
Martha and the Vandellas
One of the most indelible girl groups of the 1960s and ’70s, Martha and the Vandellas — the core quintet of Martha Reeves, Lois Reeves, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard — recorded exclusively for Motown’s Gordy imprint.
Along the way, Reeves and her fellow vocalists knocked out a string of terrific hits, including the iconic Dancing in the Street and Nowhere to Run, and the group’s ebullient 1963 single, Heat Wave, is considered by many critics to be the first example of the “Motown sound.”
Another iconic act on the Motown roster, whose smooth, finger-snapping choreography and crystalline five-part harmonies would come to define the look and feel of R&B and soul music for decades.
The original five members — David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks — went on a four-year run, from 1964 to 1968, that made them global superstars.
On the strength of hit singles like The Way You Do the Things You Do, My Girl, Get Ready and Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, the group epitomized Motown’s blend of savvy songwriting and pop harmonies that stick with you.
One of the undeniable pillars of Motown’s sound and image, and one of the few active in the label’s glory years who has not only remained with the label, but continued to actively tour and record (granted, his last studio album was a decade ago).
Wonder was a child prodigy when he joined Berry Gordy’s ranks of artists in the early 1960s, but quickly proved to be a hit machine, churning out classics like Fingertips — Part 1 & 2, Uptight (Everything’s Alright) and For Once in My Life.
Much like Marvin Gaye, Wonder embraced a social consciousness in the 1970s that would inform masterpieces like Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life.
In an interesting twist, crooner Bobby Darin was a member of the Motown family, but only posthumously. He was signed to Motown at the time of his death in 1973, but had only recorded one studio album before he died (1972’s eponymous LP).
In the wake of his passing, Motown released a live album, 1987’s Live at the Desert Inn, but has otherwise left Darin’s catalog alone, making him something of a footnote in the label’s history.
The funk-pop band burst onto the scene in the ’70s, first as an opening act for the Jackson 5, and then by releasing a string of hits, including Brick House, Easy and Nightshift. They were different from many major Motown acts of the day in that they played instruments and wrote their songs.
Lead singer Lionel Richie would go on to have an even bigger solo career with such hits as Truly, All Night Long, Hello and Penny Lover, among many others. Richie is considered one of the biggest selling artists of all time.
The Pointer Sisters
Having ended their longtime contract with RCA Records in 1988, the Pointer Sisters — who, just a few years earlier, had reached the apex of their career with 1984’s aptly titled Break Out, which spawned smashes Jump (For My Love) and I’m So Excited — were shopping for labels, and decided to give Motown a try.
The union didn’t create much excitement on either side — 1990’s Right Rhythm failed to make much of an impact, and the Pointer Sisters left the label after just one record.
For the last 16 years and counting, the neo-soul singer-songwriter born Erica Wright in Dallas has called the Motown label home (although it’s now known as Universal Motown).
Beginning with her 2000 sophomore LP, Mama’s Gun, Badu has released every studio LP since then through the venerable label, including her 2015 mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone.
Another blink-and-miss-it relationship with the record label, powerhouse soul vocalist Bettye LaVette has enjoyed a career renaissance over the last decade on the indie label Anti-, mostly thanks to collaborations with a new generation of musicians (Patterson Hood, among others) and a 2008 Kennedy Center performance of the Who’s Love, Reign o’er Me that set the Internet ablaze.
But way back in 1982, Motown actually released LaVette’s debut, Tell Me a Lie, which was cut in Nashville not Detroit, overseen by producer Steve Buckingham.