Happy Birthday! Motown Turns 50

Half a century later, the Motown sound is still the soundtrack of American life.

Motown 50
Motown 50

There was a watershed moment when the film The Big Chill was released in September 1983. It featured a soundtrack released on the Motown label that included tracks by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, alongside tracks from Three Dog Night, The Rascals and Procol Harum. On the surface, The Big Chill, which depicted a reunion of white adults who attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s, seems far removed from the social realities that produced Motown. But, the reality was that the movie was about a group of moderately successful whites lamenting the loss of the progressive idealism of the 1960s in the face of advancing Reagan-era conservatism. Throughout the film, the music is a reminder that part of that idealism included a commitment to racial and social justice.

When tracks like Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” blared out of speakers at Obama’s rallies, it was a subtle reminder to a generation who came of age to the music of Motown of those same commitments.

Mark Anthony Neal teaches African-American Studies at Duke University. Neal’s essay “The Otherside” is featured in the Motown Box Set, The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 10: 1970.

A look back at Motown in pictures.