On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Yesterday, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015.
Perhaps no other record label in America’s music history performed a more significant role in fashioning Rhythm and Blues’ assimilation into the country’s popular culture than Motown Records. Founded by Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. in 1959, Motown (originally named Tamla Records) began producing hit records almost from its inception and continued to do so throughout the sixties. During this period, Motown and its subsidiary labels recorded 110 top 10 hit songs and became the standard-bearer for black music. As Motown evolved from a small African American record label into a colossal, international industry giant with unprecedented crossover appeal, several women played noteworthy roles in shaping its storied development.
While Motown carved out a niche for itself for effectively crafting successful girl groups, some female artists, notably Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway, triumphed as soloists. In addition, female artists contributed to the company’s overall success as writers and as background vocalists for fellow label artists. Many left a lasting impression through duets with male artists.
Kim Weston achieved success as a soloist but it was her duets with the legendary Marvin Gaye that etched her name in the annals of Motown. Her stint with the company began in 1961 with the single, “Love Me All the Way,” a high pitched, blues song that reached 24 and 88 on Billboard’s R&B and Pop charts respectively. In 1964, Motown released “What Good Am I Without You,” a moderately successful duet with Marvin Gaye. During the following year, in 1965, soulful dance hit “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” reached number 4 on the R&B and peaked at 50 on the pop chart. But “It Takes Two” was Weston’s greatest contribution to Motown. The song peaked at 4 on the R&B chart, 14 on the pop, and 16 on the UK. Released in 1966, the duet album (Take Two) was Gaye’s most successful musical achievement up to that point and laid the basis for his subsequent duets with Tammi Terrell, who was partnered with Gaye after Weston’s departure for MGM in 1967.
Gaye would perform with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Diana Ross but his best, most lasting material came from duets with Terrell. Born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, Terrell and Gaye recorded three albums for Motown. United and You’re All I Need both reached the top five on Billboard’s R&B chart but, more importantly, the pair achieved a charismatic presence on stage that was augmented by numerous television appearances. While performing onstage at a concert in Hamden-Sydney College in October of 1967, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms and was diagnosed with a malignant tumor shortly after. Terrell and Gaye’s third album titled Easy was released in 1969 but relied heavily on Valerie Simpson’s guide vocals; many suspect that Simpson actually substituted for Terrell, who performed her final duet with Gaye at New York’s Apollo Theater in late 1969.
By the end of the sixties, female artists would continue to play a defining role not only at Motown but also in the broader industry. No doubt, they would continue to face challenges, many of which their male counterparts didn’t have to face. Nevertheless, they should be credited with opening the doors for later female artists and ensuring black music’s ongoing impact upon global popular culture.
Headline image credit: 1960s music studio. CC0 via Pixabay.