Motown Records is arguably the most famous record label in the world. Founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr., the label has released iconic records from some of the world’s most renowned legacy acts including The Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Four Tips, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. What started as a small, independent label in Detroit grew into a massive multi-million dollar company. By the time 1966 rolled around, the label had over 450 employees and a gross income of $20 million.
Defining a Genre
Motown Records is famous for their mainstream R&B soul music. In recent years the company has expanded to include hip-hop and pop.
Despite its success, Motown has a dark side hiding just beneath the surface. Click through to read some shocking things you probably didn’t know about the label.
The Jackson Five Almost Never Happened
What would music be like today if Michael Jackson had never gotten his big break? We’d certainly be out a moonwalk or two (and a whole bunch of ground-breaking songs and TMZ drama).
This was almost the case because Motown was originally never going to sign the Jackson Five. In 1966, Berry Gordy decided that he didn’t want to work with any more children (even if those children happened to be pop legends in the making). Gladys Knight convinced him to change his mind, and a year after he initially passed, the Jackson Five were part of the Motown family.
Diana Ross Wasn’t Meant to Be a Star
Diana Ross is one of the most iconic singers in the entire world. Even in her old age, the woman slays. (And still performs rather frequently. You go girl!). Though Diana Ross has an undeniable talent, rumor has it that she was actually the singer with the weaker voice.
Everyone knows Diana Ross as the face of The Supremes, but it was originally Florence Ballard who had the stronger vocal chords. She was asked to take a back seat because she wasn’t as photogenic as Diana Ross. This has never been confirmed by anyone in the Supremes, but it’s hard to ignore because it would essentially rewrite music history.
The Funk Brothers Were More Popular Than The Beatles (Even If You Never Heard of Them)
Everyone knows The Beatles – we’re familiar with their rabid fan base, the insane images of Shea Stadium, and screaming teenage girls. Not everyone knows the more successful, but never mentioned, The Funk Brothers. The Funk Brothers performed on more number one hits that the Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.
So, how come we’ve never heard of them? Because they were studio musicians in the background of some of the biggest records. They performed on major Motown hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl,” and “I Heard It Through the Grape Vine.”
The Wife of Motown’s Founder Became a Prostitute When Things Got Tough
Motown wasn’t always the massively successful record label it is. Times were tough in the beginning. Berry Gordy started his career by writing songs for Jackie Wilson. He teamed up with Raynoma Liles (his future wife) and formed a songwriting and promotion company.
She didn’t know the tough life she was signing onto. In her book Berry, Motown and Me, she admits that she became a part-time prostitute to make ends meet when their finances were tight. Berry Gordy actually acted as a pimp. According to Raynoma, he had “a few girls.”
Berry Gordy Funded Motown Records with Prostitution Money
While some people say Berry launched Motown with a loan from his father, others believe his cash was brought in through illegal means. According to Raynoma, Berry used prostitution to fund his label, but he wasn’t a nasty pimp. According to Raynoma, he said:
“I feel sorry for my girls. Sorry if, say, she’s sick or can’t work, or maybe just doesn’t want to. But then, on the other hand, I’ve got so much riding on these acts, no money coming in, a ton of expenses and.. I’m just not cut out for it.” Those “acts” where the acts he signed to his record label, which hadn’t yet become profitable.
Berry and His Wife Had Issues in the Bedroom
Berry and Raynoma had a sort of strange relationship – they definitely had problems in the bedroom. According to Raynoma, one of his core beliefs was that making love “depletes” his business drive. He was extremely hesitant about “making love too often.”
In order to have intimate relations with her husband, she had to schedule the time in advance. Berry, who worked as a pimp in Detroit’s red light district in addition to his musical endeavors, would usually come home around 6 a.m. Of course, this is probably because the daytime isn’t typically rush hour for a pimp.
Motown’s Songwriting and Production Team Sued the Label
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland wrote and recorded some of Motown’s biggest hits like “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” which were both number one singles. The trio had been working together since the early 1960s. Though they had a long relationship with Motown, they didn’t have a happy one.
In 1967, the trio sued Berry Gordy Jr., Motown’s founder, over profit-sharing and royalties. To spite the label, Eddie Holland initiated a work slowdown, and the trio ended up leaving by 1968. This ended up being one of the longest legal battles in music history.
Holland-Dozier-Holland Productions Worked under a Pseudonym to Get out of Their Contract
During their lawsuit (before it was settled out of court) Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland were legally bound to Motown’s publishing arm. The litigation was getting fierce and Motown had sued them for breach of contract. Holland-Dozier-Holland had countersued, and this went on for over six years.
The problem was that the trio could not release music under their names unless it was being put out by Motown. Fortunately, they found a loophole and started crediting their work to Wayne-Dunbar. “Edythe Wayne” was a pseudonym and Ronald Dunbar was a writer, producer, and associate. The lawsuit was eventually settled in 1977.
Meat Loaf Was Signed to Motown but under the Stage Name Stoney and Meatloaf
You may know Meatloaf for his karaoke-ready jam “I Would Do Anything For Love.” Before he was a rock icon, Meatloaf was actually signed to Motown Records. He performed with Shaun Murphy under the name Stoney and Meatloaf.
Shaun “Stoney” Murphy performed with Meatloaf in the Los Angeles production of the musical Hair. Motown thought this would be a great opportunity to release a duet album – and the pair agreed. Motown’s production team wrote, selected and recorded the songs. Meat Loaf only came in to record his vocals. The album was called “Stoney & Meatloaf” with Meat Loaf accidentally spelled as a single word. Meat Loaf later rereleased the album without Stoney’s vocals when he became a successful solo artist.
Diana Ross Was Stripped Naked in a Club Brawl
Betty LaVette, another Motown artist who never quite had the success of the Supremes, hated Diana Ross with a passion. She called her a “stuck-up [expletive] with a small voice” and was more than happy to share the singer’s most embarrassing moments in her memoir.
According to LaVette, a jealous songwriter-writer who happened to have a crush on Diana Ross started a brawl in a club. She attacked Ross and tried to strip off her dress. Ross was left standing in a slip, panties and a bra. This incident, while embarrassing, never gained much press.
Adultery and Domestic Abuse Was Common
The world of Motown that Betty LaVette described in her memoir was extremely dark. The singer described a world where men had two women – their wife who was waiting at home and the girlfriend they had on tour. She also insisted that it was common for men to beat their wives.
According to LaVette, stars like Franklin and Tina Turner were “slapped around” by their husbands, who were teaching them how to handle their difficult showbiz careers. This culture of disturbing domestic abuse was exemplified in the 1962 Carole King-penned song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).
Tammi Terrell Died at Age 24 from Cancer
Tammi Terrell was one of Motown’s most successful singers; unfortunately, her life was cut short. Terrell rose to fame after recording singles with Marvin Gaye. She had seven Top 40 singles including the famed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” That’s quite a career for such a young woman.
In 1967, the singer collapsed into Marvin Gaye’s arms during a performance at Hampden-Sydney College. Though she initially wrote it off as a headache, and said she would be fine, she was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. Terrell had eight surgeries attempting to remove the mass, but she passed away from her illness three years later. Terrell was just 24 years old.
Motown Sued a Detroit Beverage Company over Their Name
In 1993, Motown records was bought out by the Polygram Records Division of Philips Electronics, a $56 billion-a-year Dutch electronics company. That company ended up suing Motown Beverage, a Detroit beverage company that had been operating since 1986. The company was furious claiming, “In essence we’re being told the city of Detroit nickname…is not available for us to use in business.”
Motown Beverage accused the company of teaming up with the café to sell Motown-branded drinks, when they already owned that name real-estate. Shortly after Philips filed a petition against the company, a Philips-owned café called Motown Café actually did begin selling Motown-branded drinks. Over 250 businesses in the U.S. use the Motown name.
Stevie Wonder Is the Only Legacy Act Still Signed to Motown
Motown released a ton of iconic records from major, major stars in their heyday. The released music from The Temptations, the Supremes, Martha Reeve & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Marvin Gay, Boyz II Men and The Four Tops. None of those acts are still signed to the label.
The only legacy band still actively recording new music on Motown’s roster is Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder is still very active in his music career, and even embraces modern marketing outlets. In 2015, Wonder appeared on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. He is the winner of a whopping 25 Grammy Awards.
Martha Reeves Was a Secretary at Motown Before She Hit It Big
Don’t ever say singers can’t work their way up to the top. Not every artist on Motown was signed because of their great abilities right off the bat. Martha Reeves was originally a secretary at the record label. She didn’t remain a secretary for very long, and ended up getting signed to the label with her backing group.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas went on to release a number of hit singles including “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack” and the iconic “Dancing in the Street.” In the mid ’00s, Martha Reeves went back to the office and served as a council woman for Detroit.
Berry Gordy Wasn’t Just a Label head, He Was a Prolific Songwriter
Berry Gordy may have had a writing and production team (that later embroiled Motown in the longest legal battle ever), but he was also an extremely prolific songwriter. Berry Gordy was a gambler, a pimp, and the person who wrote the iconic Jackson Five song “I Want You Back.”
He also penned “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, “Jump” by Kriss Kross, “Reet Petite” by Jackie Wilson, and “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barret Strong, The Beatles, and The Flying Lizards. This remarkable talent is unusual for someone who merely runs the business.
Motown Had a Department Dedicated to Grooming and Poise
Motown’s artist personal development branch was a little out of control. Motown wanted their artists to dress and act like royalty, which this required a certain set of skills. We don’t just pop out of the womb with table manners.
Maxine Powell was the head of this department and not only taught stage presence, but taught artists “tools for us as human beings.” What does that mean? A lot of her work involved grooming, making sure Motown’s artists looked sharp rather than sloppy. She also schooled them in poise and social graces.
Motown Was the First Commercial U.S. Record Label Owned by an African American
Without Motown, there would be no Def Jam. Motown was the first commercial label owned by an African American in America. Motown broke down race relation barriers. Smokey Robinson touched about how music brought both races, which were segregated at the time, closer together.
“Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands,” he said.