Motown 50

In January 1959, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was refining the strategy and building the profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as Dick Clark's star-maker machinery recommended teen pop idols to airwaves on which African Americans were conspicuous by their absence, Detroit native Berry Gordy took an $800 family loan and started the process of transforming popular music.

Pop music, the civil rights movement and Motown—the company Gordy founded 50 years ago today—would dovetail over the next decade, as Motown came to both define the popular sound and create a spiritual soundtrack for the civil rights movement.

Motown wasn't the first black recording-industry vehicle. Other labels existed but failed to thrive: See: Bee Records, founded in 1922, disappeared in short order; Vee-Jay Records, launched in 1953, enjoyed some mainstream success (even a few early Beatles releases) but went bankrupt in 1966.

For the most part, black artists were forced to record on white-owned labels that regarded their work as novelties, one-offs and curiosities. It was an ad hoc approach that both overlooked the wellspring of black American musical talent and underestimated the popular appeal for that music.

When Gordy launched Motown Records (originally named Tamla), he capitalized on the growing popular fascination with black music, and the former Ford Motor Company worker would soon do it in assembly-line fashion, with a roster of talent big enough to definitively chronicle the vast diversity of "black music."

Early Motown songs didn't communicate the message of protest implicit in the civil rights movement, but the label's talents were hardly immune to the social agonies of the time. Between 1962 and 1965, the cream of the Motown roster, including the Miracles (with vocalist Smokey Robinson), the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, the Four Tops and the Supremes, formed the Motortown Revue. They traveled by bus to perform at venues across America, including the Jim Crow South. There, they endured some of the same harrowing experiences as the early civil-rights activists moving through the region.

Early on, the message was never about sit-ins, riots and protests in the streets. But Motown—more as a spirit than a sound—was all of a piece with the civil rights movement in the way it carried and communicated itself to the wider world: witty, urbane, accessible, a conveyor of universal truths and desires and emotions that didn't care what color you were.

Gordy's fledgling company would capitalize on the changes in American society. With catchy songs and melodies, and thanks in part to Gordy's finishing-school technique of stagecraft, Motown acts held themselves up as behavioral models, the orchestrated, choreographed vision of poise and style.

That touch of class, the diversity of sounds under the Motown name, and the way those sounds captured the airwaves of urban America, were emblematic of what the civil-rights struggle really was: a resistance to being viewed as exceptions or pathological abstractions, a drive for black people to be perceived in the context of the American normal.

"Motown shaped the culture and did all the things that made the 1960s what they were," NAACP chairman Julian Bond told Vanity Fair last month. "So if you don't understand Motown and the influence it had on a generation of black and white young people, then you can't understand the United States, you can't understand America."

In time, the Motown sound made a shift to become the music of social conscience. The Supremes' "Love Child," a statement song tackling the stigma surrounding out-of-wedlock births, topped the charts in 1968; Edwin Starr's "War" (1970) launched a sonic assault on the Vietnam conflict; and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" (1971) helped elevate environmental awareness in the world of pop culture, as the first Earth Day had done in the political world the year before.

In the 2002 book, Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power, historian Gerald Posner quotes Gordy, who reveals a clear understanding of what Motown was capable of: "In all the camps there seemed to be one constant—Motown music," Gordy said. "They were all listening to it. Black and white. Militant and nonviolent. Anti-war demonstrators and the pro-war establishment."

This was Berry Gordy's assimilationist victory: producing music that emotionally resonated no matter where you were on the ideological spectrum.

The Motown name, one of the most recognizable brands in the world, would come to represent numerous other stars. Fielding the work of stars from the Commodores to Rick James, from Boyz II Men to Brian McKnight, Motown adapted to the times as much as its artists helped define the music of the times.

For Edna Anderson-Owens, now co-CEO of the Gordy Company, the artists under the Motown banner were bigger than the sum of their parts.

"I had come out of the civil-rights movement, had come from the South," Anderson-Owens, Gordy's administrative assistant in 1972, told Vanity Fair. "I never thought of [Motown] as just being a record company, even as an entertainment company. It was more than an entertainment company. In a sense, it replaced the civil-rights movement for me; it became another movement. It became more of a cause."

Thanks to Motown—and any number of other musicians remaking the popular idea of black music during one of the nation's most racially polarized eras—revolution wasn't just in the air. A revolution was on the air as well … one you could dance to.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.