Motown at 50: Artists Speak on Five Decades of Motown Records

News

By: John Kennedy / December 31, 2009

It all started with an $800 family loan. Building from the ground up at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Berry Gordy Jr. embarked on a musical journey 50 years ago that transformed the world. It was the 1959 establishment of Motown Records, an imprint that initially fused together some of Detroit’s finest musicians, songwriters, vocalists and performers. From James Jamerson’s intricate and melodic bass lines, to the romantic and profound lyricism of Smokey Robinson, to the fluid dance steps and heart-wrenching performances of the late Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, Motown’s indelible influence has been vast, spanning contemporary hip-hop, neo soul, electronica, pop, and rock & roll.

In celebration of five decades as a pillar of soul music, VIBE caught up with stars past and present to get perspectives on the label, its legacy and the role it played in their lives and careers. ––Mark Rizzuto

 

?uestlove

People tend to think of the “two M’s” of the sixties: Martin and Malcolm. But really there were three; there was Martin, Malcolm, and there was Motown. You really can’t discount the power that music plays in social relations. The power of Motown is about when it arrived and how effective it was in bringing people together. If there is one sound that somehow managed to universally connect everyone together; I think that more than the Elvis Presley, more than the Beatles, more than the Beach Boys (and I’m a Brian Wilson freak), more than the psychedelic ’60s; I think that Motown was the adhesive, the glue, that brought us all together. That was the introductory; the Baltic Avenue of the Monopoly game, that eventually got us past go and on the way to other unknown places.

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John Legend

A lot of people that I have loved growing up are Motown artists and a lot of people that my father, my mother, and my aunts all loved growing up are also Motown artists, so it’s very fitting that we pay tribute to fifty years of Motown. Stevie Wonder has always been one of my musical idols. I’ve played at a few places with him now; at the BET Awards in 2005 which was the first time I met him and we did Ordinary People and My Cherie Amour which was pretty incredible as a combination. I’m a huge fan and obviously very influenced by him but also just have a lot of love and respect for him as a person. Talking Book, Music of My Mind, and Innervisions – that whole era of output for him was his best and it’s hard to imagine any other artist putting out that much quality music in such a concentrated span of time, it’s really mind-blowing.

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Lenny Kravitz


When I was about five years old, I heard the Jackson Five and I heard the Motown Sound and that was it. I knew from that moment on, I wanted to make music. My father knew how much I loved the records, I had the Motown 45’s and I would play these records until they couldn’t play anymore. And my dad came home one day from work and said we were going somewhere but didn’t tell me where.  We went to Madison Square Garden and walked in and I still didn’t know what was going on. Next thing, the Jackson Five came on and I completely lost my mind. They delivered and that was part of the thing about Motown; everybody was groomed and everybody was ready – Berry Gordy was a genius. That was old school, that’s when people had to bring it, you had to perform. Those were completely different days.

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Randy Jackson

For me, hands down, and it doesn’t even matter what style of music or era, Stevie Wonder is the greatest of all time. I remember there was a birthday celebration about five or six years ago. Mariah and I were there performing, a bunch of other artists were there as well like Baby Face, Karen Clark, Ken Burrell, Aretha, Chaka. Stevie Wonder got up after everybody sang, and he just slayed it. If he could have levitated that night he would have been floating through the crowd – he was literally born with it. But here’s the real deal; Motown had the greatest vocalist in my estimation ever – Stevie Wonder. They also had the greatest performer ever – Michael Jackson. I saw him perform in his youth, when he was singing and dancing all of it live. Now you will go to a show, and we won’t mention any names, but they’re not singing one note and it’s just a dance performance show. No, Michael was singing and dancing and giving you the whole drama. If you talk to N’Sync, if you talk to the Backstreet Boys, Mariah, Christina Aguilera, I don’t care who it is; they will say to you Michael Jackson was the greatest performer and put on the best shows ever.

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Craig David

Being out in Detroit for touring, I had a chance to see the Funk Brothers play and they were just incredible. Their influence playing on those recordings gave it a real feel; they became a part of that sound. The reason Motown was so influential is because you felt that there was a consistency between a song from the Temptations to the Supremes to Smokey Robinson, and the Funk Brothers gave that. You could almost tell the difference when they weren’t on there. When I listen back to some of those songs it just makes me want to jump in the studio with the guitarist, bass player, keys and just record it one time and see what happens because that really doesn’t happen anymore. I really have to say thank you to those guys for what they brought to the music industry at that time which inspired so many other genres of music. I know that I probably wouldn’t be singing R&B soul music if it wasn’t for what they did.

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Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates

The arc of Motown is the arc of my musical knowledge and career––it’s my life. I’m a local Philly guy as I grew up in that region and that musical environment was my main source of what I call baby food; but Motown was inextricable with that. All of the Motown artists worked in Philly, they were there all the time, so I felt very close to them from day one. There was also that overlap period that I was participating in which was from 1965 to 1971 – that was my time in Philly where I was recording and working with these guys. That was the very beginning of the sound of Philadelphia before it became internationally known and it was linked with Motown. And I was going back and forth listening to everything and one of the main places they were getting ideas was from what Smokey was doing, Norman Whitfield, and Barrett Strong; they were huge influences on me as well as Gamble and Huff.

 

John Oates of Hall & Oates

We really feel a kinship to Motown. The Temptations were one of the common threads that bound Daryl and I together when we met. Our love of the Temptations, their harmony singing, their style, those records were one of the things that brought us together. When I joined Daryl’s band, it was as a guitar player and one of the first things we did was do a showcase gig in New York and Daryl invited me to the Apollo Theatre to see the Temptations. I had seen them many times before, but now I’m sitting in the front row and had a chance to go backstage, and I have to say, I was impressed. To me as a kid, if I had to epitomize what was perfection in music, that band was it. So a lifelong friendship with Daryl was formed and forged with that meeting and our love of the Temptations.