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A Brief History of Motown: The Legend Lives On

by Erik R. Slagle

It’s been almost 60 years since music legend Berry Gordy, Jr. launched Tamla Records on the strength of an $800 loans, royalties he’d earned as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson, and a pat on the back from Miracles front man Smoky Robinson. (Just last month, the Gordy-penned Wilson hit “Reet Petite” marked 60 years since its release.) It was 1959 and Gordy, a Detroit native, opened the doors to what would soon become the highest-earning African American business in the U.S.: Motown Records.

The label would hold that “highest-earning” title for the better part of two decades. Motown (short for “motor town,” signaling Detroit’s claim to fame as a major hub for the U.S. auto industry) introduced iconic acts like the Temptations, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Rare Earth, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and dozens more. Here are five must-have Motown albums spanning five decades of musical dominance by one of America’s most enduring labels:

Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (1969): Part urban legend, part finely-planned marketing stunt, the idea that Ross “discovered” the famous Jackson act doesn’t hold up under scrutiny – not that it matters. The album was a massive success, spawning the hits “I Want You Back” and featuring covers of previous hits by Stevie Wonder (“My Cherie Amour”) and the Temptations (“I Know I’m Losing You”).

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971): By now, Gaye was a household name, having already released 10 albums over the decade prior to this classic. It featured a couple of firsts – the first album that gave a credit to the Funk Brothers (the Motown label’s main band of studio musicians) and the first time Gaye had fully produced his own record. The concept album addresses issues like Vietnam, inner-city poverty and the rising drug crisis. The title track was an instant success, and the album found a spot-on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Rick James – Street Songs (1981): Yes, Rick James was Motown! The album hit it big with “Give it To Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” but “Ghetto Life,” “Call Me Up” and several other tracks make this worth a lesson. James might not be the first artist when you think of when you think Motown, but Berry Gordy was responsible for giving us the man who is said to have been the bridge that got American music from James Brown to Prince. No small kudos for this often-overlooked Motown star.

Queen Latifah – Black Reign (1993): Before Dana Owens became famous for her acting chops, she was one of the early 90s’ most influential and successful hip-hop artists. “Black Reign” showcased the Queen at her most relevant (musically speaking, at least), with the radio hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” and sleeper singles like “Rough” and “Weekend Love.” The Newark native helped take Motown in a new direction after coming over to Gordy’s label from Tommy Boy Records where she’d gotten her start.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008): After helping drive Tribe Called Quest to prominence in the late 90s, Q-Tip struck out on his own and “The Renaissance” was his sophomore solo effort. Highlighted by jazz samples and Tip’s signature laid-back flows, “The Renaissance” is highlighted by “Gettin’ Up” and features guest spots from Norah Jones, D’Angelo, and Raphael Saddiq. And to close the cycle on the Motown theme, the track “Move” samples “Dancing Machine” from the Jackson 5.