After more than half a century, the music of Motown not only thrives, it transcends generations. The iconic sound of Motown has led a handful of scholars to write, teach, lecture and share the music, history and business of Motown on their campuses.
In its golden age, from 1959 to 1972, the sound Berry Gordy pioneered at Motown Records in Detroit was the soundtrack for Black America. The Motown sound spawned a legion of talented young performers, many from the Motor City. The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and Martha and the Vandellas were among the early stars. There were chart toppers like Barret Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” and the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” At its height, the music of Black Detroit could be heard emanating from radios and phonographs across the country.
Sometimes buoyant, sometimes urgent, often gospel-tinged but always cool and infectious, the lyrics and rhythms of Motown opened a window into the Black experience of the segregated 1960s. Motown became a household word and changed a generation.
Professor Charles Sykes, who directs the African American Arts Institute at Indiana University, can attest to Motown’s impact and multigenerational appeal. Since 1995, Sykes, who calls himself “Dr. Motown,” has taught a course that he developed as the first for-credit college course on the Motown Record Corp. The class is now one of the most popular course offerings on the campus. Among the texts Sykes uses are autographed copies of Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.
Today, a small group of dedicated scholars are considered among the nation’s leading authorities on Motown. A cultural anthropologist, a musicologist, a historian and a communications/ethnic studies expert share with Diverse some of the challenges and curiosities that come with being keepers of the Motown legacy.
DR. SHARNINE S. HERBERT – Associate Professor; Department of Human Communication Studies/Director; Ethnic Studies; Shippensburg University
Every other semester, Sharnine Herbert teaches a course titled “African-American Music from 1968 to 1972.” Herbert discusses Motown artists and the civil rights movement and includes readings from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
DI: What Motown song most often plays in your head when you are writing or teaching about the musical, economic and cultural relevance of the label?
SH: Motown is my mom. Motown is me. I dedicated my dissertation to “a little girl who thought her father had a striking resemblance to Marvin Gaye and her mother sounded an awful lot like Gladys Knight.” Motown was there during my beginning, my middle, and, prayerfully, will be there for my end. I can remember riding in a car and listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” sometime in the late 1970s. I remember discovering who Sir Duke was and connecting the pieces in fourth grade. And, now, I ride in the car listening to my 5-year-old daughter sing, “You can feel it all over, you can feel it all over, people.”
DR. SUZANNE SMITH – Assistant Professor; Department of History; George Mason University
Suzanne Smith’s award-winning first book, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, January 2000), was met with a bevy of accolades for peeling back an untold layer of Motown Records history. “Whether it was the beat of a bongo drum at a Black autoworkers’ strike or the celebratory chorus of “Dancing in the Street,” the sounds of Black Detroit reverberated with the history and circumstances of its producers. Motown, in other words, provided more than a soundtrack to its era,” she writes.
DI: Is there a specific Motown song that you think captures the essence of the label’s legacy?
SS: I would have to say, “Money (That’s What I Want),” because I think Motown’s history as a successful Black capitalist enterprise is one of its most important legacies. I try to teach students to understand the importance of Black economic empowerment in the larger story of African-American history and also how Motown was not the first Black-owned record label. I try to show the broader history of Black recording including the Black Swan label from the 1920s.
DR. ANDREW FLORY – Assistant Professor; Music History/Musicology; Shenandoah Conservatory
Andrew Flory wasn’t old enough to grow up with the music of Motown, but today, in addition to teaching Beethoven and Wagner, the musicologist teaches his students to know and understand the Motown sound. Flory is completing the upcoming book, I Hear a Symphony: Listening to the Music of Motown, based on his award-winning dissertation.
DI: What does it mean to you to be a Motown scholar? Do you feel responsible for perpetuating Motown’s legacy?
AF: In a word, yes. I struggle with this issue daily. My role as a musicologist is to present objective history of Motown as a musical entity. Yet, it is nearly impossible to separate my personal objectives from these tasks, one of which is sorting out some of the thornier aspects of Motown’s legacy in a balanced manner. Issues such as the treatment of artists and the move from Detroit are areas in which I often find myself trying to side with the company, to understand the motivation for such actions. When Motown is characterized as “soulless” or “sellout” music that completely catered to young, White listeners, I find it important to balance these views with a presentation of Motown’s history with the Black middle class and the long struggle against racial stereotypes that this group has faced. There is a fine line between balance and proselytizing, and I hope to achieve this. But, in the end, I am a Motown fan and hope that readers and students will better understand the historical circumstances that created this amazing music.
DR. FRANK JOHNSON – Adjunct Professor; College of Liberal Arts; Temple University
Teaching his inaugural course on Motown at Temple University this semester — “The African American Experience: Motown & the Sound of Young America” — Frank Johnson’s syllabus includes field trips to the famed Apollo Theater, lots of listening, and guest lectures from Motown alumna like Kim Weston, who scored big with the hit “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” Johnson, a sought-after Motown expert and cultural anthropologist, makes it a point to rescue Motown’s girl groups and female soloists from the “footnotes” of Motown’s history, saying it was their consistent hits that “carried Motown in the early days.”
DI: “The Sound of Young America” is how Motown the company was famously advertised. Without the aid of the Internet, Facebook or other social networking tools, Motown Records, in its first decade, was arguably one of the most recognizable Black brands in the U.S. and globally. What lessons can today’s businesses learn from Motown Records about successfully building brand identity?
FJ: Consistency, positioning in new markets and innovation of the brand is a takeaway lesson from Motown. A Motown groove hooked you within the first 20 seconds of the song. This was consistent across their productions. Gordy didn’t remain content with success in one market. He grew nationally, internationally and even across demographics. For example, Motown went from being the “Sound of Young America” to a sound for Americans of all ages and backgrounds. Artists went from appearing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” to the Copacabana; from “American Bandstand” to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Awareness of shifts in your audience as well as innovation of your product is needed to make that kind of transition.