13 Amazing Years of Hit-Making: An Illustrated History of Motown

The Supremes and the Temptations, 1968. Getty Images
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1959: A Company is Born

Berry Gordy, 1959. Getty Images

In 1959, songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. borrowed $800 from his family's savings club and established Tamla Records in Detroit. Soon after, Gordy purchased a building on Detroit's Grand Boulevard which houses Hitsville USA, the recording studio and administrative offices for the record label. 

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1960: The Company Begins Recording Hits

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1960. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
  • Gordy incorporates Tamla Records as the Motown Record Corporation and begins making hits.
  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles record "Shop Around," the company's first song to sell one million records.
  • Barret Strong's "Money," reaches number 2 on the R & B charts. 
  • The Marvelettes, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye are all signed to the recording label. 
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1961: Signing New Artists

Marvelettes, 1961. Getty Images

While CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was organizing Freedom Rides throughout the South, Gordy was busy signing new artists and making hit records. 

  • The Marvelette's song, "Please Mr. Postman," reaches number one on the Billboard Hot 100 pop single chart. 
  • The Temptations, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder are all signed to Motown. 
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1962: The Motor Town Revue Hits the Road!

Mary Wells. Getty Images
  • The record company launches its first tour, The Motor Town Revue. Featuring acts such as the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, the Marvelettes and the Choker Campbell band, the tour travels to cities throughout the eastern and southern corridors.  
  • "You Beat Me to the Punch," sung by Mary Wells, reaches number one on the R & B chart and number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop single chart. 
  • Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland begin working together as Motown's official songwriting team. 
  • Smokey Robinson is appointed as vice president of Motown. 
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1963: Grammy Nominations and Television Appearances

Martha and the Vandellas, 1963. Getty Images
  • Martha Reeves and the Vandellas song, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” was a hit for Motown. The song stayed at number one on the R & B singles chart for five weeks, reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and the group was Grammy nominated for the Best R & B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.  
  • Speakers from the March on Washington are recorded on Motown's Gordy Label. The album, The Great March to Freedom, featured speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr, A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights leaders. 
  • Mary Wells makes an appearance on American Bandstand. 
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1964: The Temptations Begin Making Hits

The Temptations, 1964. Getty Images
  • The Temptations celebrate their first Top 20 hit with "The Way You Do the Things You Do."
  • Motown launches its artist development department.  
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1965: The Supremes Hit Number One

The Supremes, 1965. Getty Images

As the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is signed and the civil rights movement presses on, Motown continues to expand. By 1965, Motown is employing more than 100 people. In addition: 

  • The Temptations, "My Girl," Supremes, "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops become number one on the charts. 
  • Tamla-Motown, Motown's foreign label, is launched in London. 
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1966: Motown Continues to Expand

Motown songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Getty Images

With top charting songs and sell out tours, Motown Records grosses an estimated $20 million. 

  • Songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson become staff writers for the record label. 
  • Acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isley Brothers, and Tammi Terrell sign recording contracts with the label. 
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1967: Race Riots and Record Hits

Tamla Records was Motown's International Imprint. Getty Images

Grossing an estimated $30 million in sales, Motown boasts five labels which include, Tamla, Motown, Gordy, Soul and VIP.

  • Martha and the Vandellas record the hit “Jimmy Mack.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. records the album, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” on Motown’s Black Forum label.
  • Stevie Wonder tours throughout Europe.
  • The Supremes change their name to Diana Ross & the Supremes to feature Diana Ross as the group’s lead singer. 
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1968: I Heard it Through the Grapevine

Marvin Gaye, 1968. Getty Images
  • Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” reaches number one on the pop charts.
  • Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas launch their Far East Tour.
  • The record label relocates its headquarters to downtown Detroit. 
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1969: The Jackson Five Debut

Jackson Five, 1969. Getty Images
  •  The Jackson Five make their debut performance in Los Angeles. Diana Ross introduces the act. 
  • The Temptations song, "I Can't Get Next to You," reaches number one on the pop charts. 
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1970: War? What is it Good For?

Motown Recording Artist Edwin Starr, 1971. Getty Images
  • As the Vietnam War wages on, Motown releases “Guess Who’s Coming Home, Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam,” on its Black Forum label. At the same time, recording artist Edwin Starr records “War.”
  • Gordy and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. establish Ecology record label. 
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1971: Stevie Wonder Hits Big

Stevie Wonder. Getty Images

 After turning 21, Stevie Wonder negotiates another contract with Motown. 

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1972: Relocating to Los Angeles

Lady Sings the Blues Poster, 1972. Getty Images

Motown moves from Detroit to Los Angeles.

Suzanne De Passe is named creative director of Motown Productions, which features Lady Sings the Blues, a biopic of Billie Holiday's life.