The Origins of Tamla Motown

As Webmaster, I should first like to acknowledge the contribution to this page of the following website which, incidentally, holds copyright to all of the photographs which illustrate this page.

The story of the birth and development of Tamla Motown is a well told story. It's worth reflecting on the growth of a musical genre which has stood the test of time and which is so greatly loved to this day. Here, then, is a composite account generated from a number of authoritative sources. That said, I cannot take responsibility for the accuracy of these data and can only apologise if some inaccuracy may have crept in. Your e-mailed comments would be most welcome if this should be the case.

Berry Gordy Jr

The train of key events in the development of Tamla Motown records started in 1959. This was the dream of Berry Gordy Jr who had borrowed $800 to make his dream a reality. The location was Detroit, Michigan, the home of Ford cars, and Motown was the popular shortened name of ‘Motor Town’. Tamla was taken from the hit Debbie Reynolds film ‘Tammy’.

The studios were based at West Grand Boulevard, the music was from the ghetto, it was good for dancing and so it was that the original Motown became mainstream. A vocal group, The Miracles, and the classic ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, issued originally on Anna  records, struck early gold. The lead singer was Smokey Robinson and it was he who persuaded Gordy to produce and distribute his own records. ‘Shop Around’, written by Smokey, was a great success and became the label’s first million seller.

The Miracles

Holland, Dozier and Holland were a dominant writing and production force in the early sixties. Groups such as the Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Junior Walker and the All Stars were attracted as well as the individual talent of Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Ruffin and the Isley Brothers.

One hit followed another. The Miracles’‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On’ and ‘Mickey’s Monkey’,  Marvin Gaye’s ‘Pride and Joy’ and ‘Can I Get A Witness’,  Stevie Wonder with ‘Finger Tips’ and ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’,  Martha and The Vandellas ‘(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave’, ‘Dancing In The Street’ and The Supremes with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and ‘Baby Love’.

The list of successes continued to grow. Mary Wells with ‘My Guy’, Four Tops added ‘Baby I Need Your Lovin’ ‘ and ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)’ and The Temptations  provided ‘My Girl’ and ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’. Gladys Knight and The Pips brought success with ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and Isley Brothers with ‘This Old Heart Of Mine ( Is Weak For You).

The Temptations

Gordy did not stop with the Tamla and Motown labels. Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s A&R chief was set on staying away from music which, as he put it, ‘could create a heaviness in the soul’ so Gordy added the Soul label and opened with Shorty Long’s ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On’ which Stevenson produced. In 1966, Shorty recorded the chart hit ‘Function At The Junction’. Sadly, Shorty died in June 1969 in a boating accident and the four singles and two albums he recorded suggest he was most probably a very under-rated talent.

Motown was no longer the only label in Detroit to have success: Ed Wingate’s Ric-Tic label was having some chart success and Motown bought him out to add more artists such as Rare Earth, Laura Lee, Edwin Starr,  J J Barnes and Fantastic Four. So it was that Edwin Starr had the biggest hits on the Gordy label with ’25 Miles’, ‘War’ which sold more than three million copies and ‘My Weakness Is You’.

Motown had reached the UK where early Motown records were issued on a variety of labels. First, in May 1959, was Marv Johnson and ‘Come To Me’. In 1961, ‘Shop Around’ by the Miracles was released. Around eleven Tamla Motown productions were released before the Fontana label distributed four more singles in the period up to March 1962 including ‘Please Mr Postman’ by The Marvelettes and ‘Jamie’ by Eddie Holland which is now a particularly rare single.

Stevie Wonder

Fontana pulled out and another independent label, London American, took over. They worked hard at promoting Motown and this included a radio show on the increasingly popular Radio Luxembourg. Little Stevie Wonder ( real name Steveland Judkins Morris) a blind singer and songwriter was a success as was Mary Wells whose ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’, ‘The One Who Really Loves You’ and ‘Two Lovers’ made such a contribution to the early success of Motown together with the production and songwriting abilities of Smokey Robinson. Mary was the first of the Motown artists to tour the UK.

Marvin Gaye was later to become one of the really great male performers and demonstrate the sophistication of black soul music. ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ and ‘Pride And Joy’ were issued in 1963. Marvin had actually started out doing session work for Berry Gordy from the early sixties and had married Berry’s sister, Anna, in 1961. In 1965, he had consecutive Number 1’s. Addicted to cocaine, sadly he was shot by his own father in 1984.

Marvin Gaye

The Stateside label issued around forty singles from 1963 until March 1965. There were early hits for The Supremes with ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go’. Many of these records have become very collectable and demo copies even more so. Then, in March 1965, EMI launched the Tamla Motown label which issued recordings only from Berry Gordy’s labels - Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul and VIP.

Motown’s history of success also has the distinction of having created the largest black owned business in the whole of America. Owners of some of their offerings now possess items with considerable rarity value. The Motown session band was led by Earl Van Dyke who played organ and was mainly responsible for the development of the Motown studio’s sound. His only album issued in the 1960’s TML 11014 ‘That Motown Sound’ is a collector’s gem of instrumentals with copies in good condition fetching more than £130. Another instrumentalist, Choker Cambell,  also had one issue ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ which is also highly collectable. After Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, a tribute album was issued TML 11076 ‘The Great March To Freedom’ which included extracts from his speeches. This album is now very rare indeed.

The Supremes
The Tamla Tigers would also like to thank Robert Dennis, Alexander Magazine and the Recording Institute of Detroit, Inc.for also providing some excellent background data for the production of this brief account of some of the key events in the development of Tamla Motown.

Webmaster June 2005