Presenting the latest installment in Miles Marshall Lewis' chronicle of a colossally influential music genre—this time embracing the rise of Motown and Stax/Volt.

Hitsville’s Big Bang

The reputation of Motown Records is so indelible that it’s well-nigh impossible to find an angle that sheds any new light on it. What can be said that Broadway’s Motown: The Musical and Dreamgirls, or Hollywood’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown, or memoirs by , Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson haven’t said already? But as we chart the path of R&B, all roads lead through Hitsville, USA.

Sonically speaking, the arrival of Motown is akin to how Noah’s flood remade the earth or dinosaurs died off to make way for humankind. Grandiose metaphors are necessary to convey the scale of the seismic shift that occurred in 1960 when the Detroit label dropped The Miracles’ “Shop Around.”

The Funk Brothers, Motown’s unsung house band, played on “more #1 hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined [and] are very likely the most influential and accomplished group of anonymous musicians in pop history,” The New York Times has reported. Bassist James Jamerson, drummers Benny Benjamin and “Pistol” Allen, guitarist “Chank” Willis, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and a handful of other little-recognized greats created the most omnipresent American sound of the 1960s.

The brief history, then.

Berry Gordy Jr. tried his hand at songwriting after the grand opening—and subsequent closing—of his short-lived 3D Record Mart. Quickly making connections, he soon found himself co-writing hits for Detroit sensation Jackie Wilson, notably the stone classics “Reet Petite” (1957) and “Lonely Teardrops” (1958). Meeting 17-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter William “Smokey” Robinson in ’57, Gordy decided to record and release the first single from Robinson’s group, The Miracles—“Got a Job”—through a leasing deal with a larger label.

Assorted Miracles

In early 1959, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and launched his first label, Tamla Records, buying the property at 2648 West Grand Blvd., which became his base of operations (the Gordys lived over the shop). It gradually sprawled into the adjoining properties as the company grew (it was incorporated as Motown Record Corp. in April 1960).

His first signing was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, while the label’s first record was “Come to Me” by Marv Johnson. Its first hit, perhaps prophetically, was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” a 1960 R&B #2 co-written by Gordy. It marked a Strong start—or a Money start; take your pick—to a decade in which Motown would run the table. Smokey’s Miracles wrapped up a platinum smash with “Shop Around” the following year, and distaff dreamers The Marvelettes delivered Motown’s first #1 arrival with “Please Mr. Postman,” co-written by Brian Holland. 1961 also saw Gordy ink a group that auditioned as The Elgins, later changed to The Temptations, and a youngster named Steveland Morris, rechristened Stevie Wonder.

Then came The Supremes, who would rock Gordy’s world in innumerable ways, first by exploding into the mainstream with five consecutive #1 pop hits: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.” Diana Ross’ astounding charisma and gorgeous pipes guaranteed she would become a solo superstar, but first she, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and (later) Cindy Birdsong set the highest bar yet for a “girl group,” finding untold emotional nuance in a catalog filled with love and heartbreak.

As for Smokey, well, it’s not hard to make the case for him as one of the absolute greatest singer-songwriters who ever lived. Had he not penned a note, his falsetto-tinged vocals and boundless charm would still have qualified him for countless halls of fame. But he also wrote “Tears of a Clown,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “I Second That Emotion,” not to mention writing or co-writing hits for other Motown stars like “My Guy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Get Ready” and on and on.

The Temptations and The Four Tops, meanwhile, set the standard for male groups, and while their coiffed and choreographed early days were wall-to-wall love songs, both evolved profoundly in the latter part of the ’60s, taking on increasingly complex and worldly themes and expanding their musical palettes with spellbinding orchestration and ever-deeper grooves.

Holland-Dozier-Holland (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian’s brother Eddie Holland) was Motown’s powerhouse songwriting trio. In addition to the five Supremes songs cited above, they wrote their #1 pop hits “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Love Is Here Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening,” as well as The Four Tops’ pop #1s “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and Martha and the Vandellas’ R&B #1 “Heat Wave.” And these are just the #1s, and just the #1s they wrote together.

The late Phil Spector’s signature production style was dubbed the “Wall of Sound” in the mid-’60s, but to my ears, the description always fit the Motown Sound better. In that decade of multitudinous hits, you hear echo chamber, soulful vocal harmonies and crashing tambourines straight from the gospel tradition, sentimental strings and punchy horns, all laced over dynamic drums. Easy to imitate in hindsight—see Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It or R. Kelly’s Love Letter—but difficult without sounding like parody, or at least pastiche.

Although Gordy’s Detroit assembly-line approach—he’d actually worked on the Lincoln-Mercury line—which included having multiple acts try out potential hit songs to see what fit where, has been widely discussed, trying to pinpoint what made the music so massively appealing can be tricky. Great hooks, great voices, great arrangements? Of course. But there was something else sparkling in the grooves of those countless smash records, a perfect balance of earthiness and shining spirit, of ass-shaking groove and irresistible innocence. R&B has always created a hybrid space that is both juke joint and tabernacle, and Motown perfected that unlikely chemistry like no other musical community before or since. There’s a reason that, more than five decades on, this is still the music you could play virtually anywhere and please the largest cross section of listeners. It’s solid American quality, built to last.

Still, there was always more to Motown than the sound. Dancer Charles “Cholly” Atkins had toured worldwide with tap legend Charles “Honi” Coles in the early ’40s as Atkins & Coles, performing with the swing bands of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. By the mid-’50s, Atkins had forged a reputation teaching his so-called “vocal choreography” to R&B and doo-wop outfits like Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, The Shirelles, The Cadillacs and The Moonglows. After freelancing for Motown starting in ’62, Atkins was hired by Gordy as the company’s official choreographer two years later. The graceful steps and flowing gestures that come to mind when considering The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips and more come straight from Cholly Atkins—and further set the label apart.

Motown was not the first Black-owned record label. African-American businessman Harry Pace started Black Swan Records in 1921; married couple James Bracken and Vivian Carter purveyed R&B, jazz, blues, gospel and rock ’n’ roll on their own Vee-Jay Records, established in 1953. But Motown rode the wave of Black pride and Black independence the Civil Rights Movement was navigating at the same moment. Black-owned Ebony magazine, published out of Chicago by John H. Johnson, had been a staple of African-American coffee tables for more than 15 years by the time Gordy jump-started Motown.

Moreover, in a triumph of branding, Gordy’s was the first label that felt almost like a sports team. Motown lovers bought singles and albums solely on the strength of the distinct blue label with the highway map of Detroit. One could be a diehard fan of Motown itself—as with descendants like Philly International, Def Jam Recordings or Top Dawg Entertainment.

Finally, Motown’s overall sophistication played a substantial role in the label’s phenomenal success. Well before the phrase “Black excellence” was popularized in the 2010s, Motown afforded it glamorous visuals. The crisp, bespoke suits of The Temptations, the satiny gowns of The Supremes—these and more transmitted the African-American community’s embodiment of elegance. The fact that Black people could be classy was obviously no surprise to Black people, or anyone else who’d been paying attention to decades of jazz greats like Duke Ellington. But Berry Gordy made a mission of presenting Black refinement to the masses, to the point of teaching its artists poise, grooming and social graces at the hands of in-house etiquette instructor Maxine Powell.

Even apart from the music itself, then, Motown’s place in the evolution of R&B is an exalted one.

The Grit, the Shouts,

the Sweat, the Horns

The twin suns around which most of 1960s R&B revolved were Motown and Memphis’ Stax Records, the label that brought the world Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, the 1973 Wattstax concert film (selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress) and more.

When differentiating R&B from soul during this period, a good rule of thumb was that if singers started shouting at some point during the song, you were listening to soul music. Smokey Robinson didn’t shout; Memphis star Wilson Pickett damn sure did. In your imagination, The Supremes are probably encased in amber in chic sequined dresses, whereas Otis Redding is undoubtedly wailing under a spotlight onstage, his face drenched in sweat. Its artists gave Stax the well-earned reputation of being the home of gritty, gutsy, gospel-influenced, horn-infused soul, helping temporarily shift the overall definition of Black popular music from R&B to soul.

Starting as Satellite Records in 1957, the indie enterprise of siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the “StAx” in question) made the move from selling country and rockabilly discs into rhythm and blues in ’59 with “Fool in Love” by The Veltones. But the watershed moment that set Stax’s direction came a year later, with a single from 43-year-old soul man Rufus Thomas and his teenage daughter, Carla: “Cause I Love You.” (It launched a brief string of novelty successes for Thomas, including 1963’s “Walking the Dog,” with which The Rolling Stones closed their debut album with mere months later.)

While nearly half the key recordings of 1960s R&B were soundtracked by The Funk Brothers on Motown’s hits, the Stax sound powered most of the rest, served up by the house quartet known as Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg (and later Donald “Duck” Dunn) and drummer Al Jackson Jr. put the musical muscle behind soon-to-be classic Stax singles like “Soul Man,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Unlike Motown’s house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s became well known in their own right after shooting to the top of the R&B chart in 1962 with the grooving instrumental “Green Onions.” The foursome were popular enough to play their own set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and were invited to perform at Woodstock two years later (they declined).

The Bar-Kays also backed plenty of Stax artists, including Otis Redding on the road, before going Top 10 on their own in 1967 with “Soul Finger.” Guitarist Jimmie King, organist Ronnie Caldwell, saxophonist Phalon Jones and drummer Carl Cunningham all died tragically alongside Redding (age 26) in the fall of that year, in a plane crash on their way to a gig in Wisconsin. They were survived by bassist James Alexander (who’d taken a different flight) and trumpeter Ben Cauley (sole survivor of the accident). A reconstituted Bar-Kays performed on dozens more Stax recordings, including Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul.

Redding came out of Macon, Ga., ruling local talent shows under the vocal influence of Sam Cooke and Little Richard. When Richard left rock ’n’ roll for gospel in 1957, his band The Upsetters hired young Redding as a temporary replacement. Already married with children at 19, he relocated his family to Los Angeles in 1960 and started recording. He eventually auditioned for Jim Stewart, with “These Arms of Mine,” and found a home at Stax. Otis Blue now ranks as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of all Time, and Redding, whose voice ranged from honeyed rasp to pure velvet, left a permanent stamp on R&B with unforgettable tracks like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (the first posthumous #1 single in Billboard history), “Respect” and “Knock on Wood.”

As an artist, Isaac Hayes belongs more to R&B’s late-’60s metamorphosis into psychedelic soul, spearheaded by Oakland, Ca.’s Sly & the Family Stone. But at the moment of Motown/Stax domination, Covington, Tenn., native Hayes made his way to the label as a songwriter/producer with David Porter—co-writing “Soul Man” for Sam & Dave and more for The Soul Children, Carla Thomas and others. Hayes’ debut album tanked. After the death of Redding, however, he emerged as the deep-voiced star of the label on 1969’s landmark Hot Buttered Soul, capturing the popular imagination with his shaved head, chain-link shirts, ginormous sunglasses and churning, imaginatively orchestrated covers (“Walk On By,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”), which could stretch to more than 18 minutes. With his theme and score for the blockbuster 1971 Blaxploitation flick Shaft, Hayes achieved megastardom—not to mention Grammy and Oscar glory.

Wilson Pickett arose from the gospel circuit with a group called The Falcons and started submitting songs to Atlantic Records, which eventually hit with the million-selling, Grammy-nominated “In the Midnight Hour.” With a smokey tinge to his sanctified pipes and a huge range, Pickett was among the most powerful vocalists of the era. The Staple Singers came out of an even stronger gospel tradition, led by patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Starring the young but gravelly voiced Mavis Staples, the family troupe hit biggest in the early ’70s with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” But they signed to Stax in the late ’60s amid their segue into secular soul music from gospel albums like Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

Vis-à-vis the advancement of R&B, Stax pressed its fingerprint into the genre by presenting it in as unapologetically authentic, unvarnished a form as possible.

Memphis produced a wealth of brilliant soul music, but outside of the Stax/Volt canon perhaps no artist associated with the city looms as large as Al Green. The Arkansas native had a small hit with his band, Al Greene & the Soul-Mates, before he signed with Willie Mitchell’s Memphis-based Hi Records and dropped the final “e” from his name. The pairing of Green and Mitchell was inspired, and produced such lush, organ-driven ‘70s soul classics as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Love and Happiness.” Green’s velvety, intimate vocal could fly into what most soul fans would agree is the essential falsetto, brimming with erotic power and spiritual lightning. After a stage fall, he would segue to gospel music for most of the ’80s, though he returned to the secular world thereafter. Green won 11 Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, as well as Songwriters Hall of Fame, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductions; the number of babies conceived under the influence of his gorgeously simmering voice has yet to be tabulated.


These two playlists are designed to accompany the present segment of our story. First, some doo-wop and a whole lotta Motown.

Next comes a Memphis-palooza, with Stax/Volt jams, Wilson Pickett grooves and the sweet, sweet sounds of Al Green.

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