Heart with Soul: How Black Musicians Took Ownership of their Musical Roots, and Spread its Appeal to a Worldwide Audience: Part I: Motown, Smokey, and the Supremes

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Heart and Soul was the title of a song by Huey Lewis and the News that was released in 1981. Soul music itself, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is “music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm and blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.”

Three notable record companies that have promoted black musicians singing soul music are Motown, Stax, and Atlantic. Since Motown’s mission is the closest to the title of the following three posts, I will discuss it first.

The Motown Record Corporation was formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 by Berry Gordy, a Black American songwriter.Motown’s mission was to promote African American artists performing their own music. Prior to Motown, white artists such as Pat Boone and Elvis Presley were performing rhythm and blues songs that were written by Black musicians.

The Motown Sound was taking Black artists performing Black music in a manner that had crossover appeal with White audiences. It used tambourines to accent the back beat, melodic electric bass guitar lines, and call and response singing style that originated in gospel music.

Another strategy for crossover appeal was their artist development program. Musicians were taught that they needed to think, act, walk and talk like royalty. Since a number of them were raised in housing projects, they needed to develop social and dress skills. The Motown Revue were package concert tours that gave musicians who were considered as second-tier acts an opportunity to improve their performance skills. Some of the artists who fell into this category include Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson 5.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles was the first successful recording act for Motown. The song Shop Around, released in 1960, became the label’s first million selling hit record during the 1960 Grammy Hall of Fame. Robinson himself later became the vice-president of Motown.

Diana Ross and the Supremes were the first female group from Motown. Growing up in a Detroit housing project, Ross and fellow band members Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson had been recruited while they were still in high school. Berry Gordy signed them in 1961. Their first number one hit, Where Did our Love Go, came in 1964. Gordy, whose goal was to generate an appeal to black and white audiences, made sure that not only had a polished look, but also a sophisticated stage presence in the way they dressed.

Below you will find videos of a documentary history of Motown, original recordings of Smokey Robinson’s Shop Around, and an early performance of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ Where did our Love go.

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