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Motown: Hitsville in Turbulent Times


The mid-1960s was a period of unrest in the United States with citizens protesting for their rights. The Civil Rights Movement was in full force in America starting in 1963 as the country witnessed the March on Washington and the assassination of President JFK.

Black Americans were tired of the inaction regarding civil rights. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education desegregating schools was not being enacted in the South without force. Violence occurred during this period including a bombing at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls in 1963.

Peaceful protesters rallied and marched and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and others lobbied to secure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which legally ended “separate but equal” discrimination - and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Detroit was the automobile capital of the world and the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy, worked previously on an assembly line in the Ford factory in the auto industry and had an idea – why couldn’t this efficient system be applied to entertainment?

Berry Gordy utilized assembly line techniques like the auto industry. Artists were teens from Detroit housing projects groomed and polished to appeal to a mass audience. Motown was deliberately integrating African Americans into the mainstream culture.

Berry Gordy put the teens through a finishing school at Motown and hired a choreographer and dancer who had performed at the Cotton Club in the 1930s.

The music coming out of Motown was deliberately not blues – it was gospel-based pop music. Berry Gordy was the first African-American to own a record label and he was aiming for a mass pop market.

Motown had a stable of hit-making artists during its heyday of 1964-1967 including the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes.

These were transformational years for America and the soundtrack was Motown.

Motown’s popularity contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by achieving crossover success. Through Motown African-American songs and faces entered the homes of every American in the country. 

Motown was integration exemplified.


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