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How Motown Records revolutionized black Detroit

Motown not only changed the face of American popular music, it also became a beacon of hope and a model for success for African-American entrepreneurs

By Renee Graham

With a US$800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy Jr. forever changed the style and sound of American popular music.

In 1958, Gordy, a one-time boxer and automobile assembly-line worker, founded Motown Records. At its zenith, Motown was the creative home of such artists as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and the Jackson 5.

Promoted as "The Sound of Young America," Motown's music, and success, have long held a particular resonance for black America, especially in Detroit, their birthplace,even though the company relocated to Los Angeles more than a quarter-century ago.

Since Gordy set up "Hitsville USA" in a small house on West Grand Boulevard, much has been written and said about Motown: its crossover success with white audiences, its legacy as the soundtrack for a era, and an evergreen popularity underlined by the use of its songs in everything from hip-hop samples to television commercials.

But few have examined the company's rise within the turbulent cultural-political context of Detroit in the 1950s and '60s. In her scholarly, informative "Dancing in the Street," Suzanne E. Smith reconsiders Motown not just as the background music of the city's struggles, but as an integral component of black Detroit's march for civil rights and social justice.

"Throughout the 1960s, Motown and the other cultural work of black Detroit offered not only a symbol of what was possible, but also a means to empower the city's often embattled African-American community," she writes. Motown "emerged from a city in which African-Americans felt they had little influence over white power structures and within an economy that was wholly dependent on the patterns and fluctuations of the auto industry. Given these circumstances, the remarkable rise of a company that was black owned and whose product -- music -- was independent of the auto industry demands further examination."

By the late 1950s, Detroit had the nation's fourth-largest black community, and one of its most restless and discontented. Hundreds of thousands had migrated to the city in the war years in search of better jobs and lives, but they were often met with the same discrimination they had fled in the segregated South. In 1943, the tensions exploded in riots that left 34 people dead. Four years later, the city established its devastating Detroit Plan, which called for the purchase and demolition of properties in disenfranchised neighborhoods. By 1953, more than 2,000 black families had been displaced, and in the Motor City, urban renewal became known as "Negro removal."

From this turmoil was born Motown Records. Gordy was the son of a successful black businessman who migrated from rural Georgia to Detroit in 1922, and instilled in his eight children the black self-help doctrines of Booker T. Washington. That drive led the younger Gordy to abandon his US$86.40-a-week job as an upholstery trimmer on a Ford assembly line and to pursue a career in the music industry.

The company's first hit, Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," perfectly captured Gordy's ambitions, and showed black Detroit that there were opportunities beyond the monotony of the assembly lines. And although Gordy was often wary of overtly political songs (especially during Motown's nascent years), by 1963 Motown's music "was emanating from radio waves and turntables across the country and challenging the racial categories that the music industry imposed upon it," Smith writes. The company's success also encouraged others who thought of starting self-reliant black-owned businesses.

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