From Motor City to Hitsville: The Story of Motown (55+)

In 1959 Berry Gordy Jr., a young songwriter from Detroit, decided to take his career into his own hands. In a small photography studio on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, he created Tamla Motown, which went on to become one of the world’s top independent record companies. The hits of Motown dominated the charts during the ’60s and ’70s, creating the soundtrack of a generation. Gordy also helped break down racial barriers by establishing the most successful African-American-owned business in the United States.

We’ll look at the artists, the songwriters, the producers and the musicians who brought us the Motown sound and who turned Detroit, Michigan, into Hitsville, U.S.A.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2019.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Give examples of important musicians and business-people in the story of Motown
  • Explain the elements and evolution of the Motown tradition of music
  • Explain how US politics and society influenced the music of Motown

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture and music, with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: How it began

The huge success of the auto industry in Detroit attracted many African-Americans from the USA’s South. In 1922, Berry Gordy Sr., whose grandmother had been a slave, followed the migration north. In 1929, the seventh of his eight children, Berry Gordy Jr., was born. After returning from the Korean War, Berry Jr. settled into a job on the assembly line but never gave up on his dream of song writing and, in 1957, he wrote “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson. This was the beginning of one of the most successful record labels in history.

Week 2: The assembly-line

Gordy learned a lot from the assembly line. He absorbed the two central principles of Fordist production, which he applied to great effect at Motown. The first of these is vertical integration, the consolidated management control of all aspects of production. The second was “create, make, sell”; artists performed, writers wrote and producers produced. As well as the musical production, Gordy controlled every facet of the image and marketing of Motown.

Week 3: The guy groups

Gordy modelled Motown’s three-, four- and five-piece male groups on the traditional male Gospel groups that were popular in the South. He took the Gospel format and substituted secular lyrics to appeal to a modern audience. Matching suits, catchy melodies and smooth choreography helped these groups appeal to a wide audience—especially young teens, and especially young white teens. In this way, Motown broke racial barriers while on its way to being one of the most successful music labels.

Week 4: The girl groups

As with the male groups, Gordy modelled girl groups on the traditional format for performing Gospel songs. Again, he substituted secular lyrics for religious lyrics, and he dressed the women in evening gowns, while having them perform sedate choreography. This was years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and he knew that, to reach a broad audience, he had to tread carefully.

Week 5: The solo stars

Although Gordy preferred groups, some artists’ popularity outgrew the group format. Some of music’s most iconic performers came to stardom as Motown’s solo artists: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Darlene Love, Lionel Ritchie, David Ruffin, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Kendricks and, of course, Michael Jackson. For all of them, Gordy always demanded the elegant and controlled presentation of catchy songs.

Week 6: The move to L.A.

In 1972 Gordy whisked the label’s operations off to Los Angeles on a whim, leaving most of his “family” of musicians and support staff stranded. A few weeks later, the L.A. office revealed the next wave of its plan—$15 million budgeted for TV and theatrical projects. Motown had gone Hollywood and, though it continued to make hits, it was the end of a magical Detroit tradition.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with the Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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