The University Record, October 22, 2001

Detroit 300 symposium reveals how Motown moved Detroit

By Emily Herbert
News and Information Services

Founded in a modest house on Detroit’s W. Grand Boulevard in 1960, Motown is now a multi-million dollar record label famous for promoting the careers of legendary recording artists. As part of the Detroit 300 Theme Semester, “The Motown Sound in Detroit’s History: Music That Makes You Move,” held Oct. 12 featured speakers Suzanne E. Smith and Portia K. Maultsby, currently visiting professors under U-M’s King/Chavez/Parks Visiting Professor Program.

“Re-inserting Motown and its music into the history of Detroit immediately constructs the nostalgia that often obstructs critical analysis of either the company or its sound,” said Smith. “Motown emerged from a city that was not known for racial harmony and civic peace, but rather for chronic patterns of racial discrimination that often led to violent, civil disorder.”

Author of Dancing in the Street, and professor of history and of art history at George Mason University, Smith’s lecture focused on how Motown affected social activism in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement. Motown created a space for Blacks in American popular culture, and also entered into the dynamics of 1960s racial tension, Smith said.

As a case study, Smith focused on the role of the Supremes in the aftermath of the 1967 riots in Detroit. Shortly before the riot broke out, the Supremes were hired as the new spokespersons for the United Foundation’s Annual Fundraising Torch Drive. After the riots, Motown founder, Berry Gordy Jr., was honored at a United Foundation dinner where Motown’s participation in the Torch Drive’s record-breaking campaign was recognized. But in reality, said Smith, the Supremes promotional efforts had little effect on the success of the campaign.

According to an insider at the United Foundation, the Supremes’ United Foundation promotional film, It’s Happening, was not shown to potential white corporate sponsors because it of the film’s perceived negative effect. Yet, this fact has been obscured, and the nostalgia surrounding Motown’s reputation for breaking all racial boundaries is maintained in public memory.

Following Smith’s lecture, Maultsby spoke on the musical features of the Motown sound. Maultsby is a professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University and has written a book about post-World War II popular music in production.

Maultsby discussed the unique style of Motown music and compared it to traditional notions of popular music, and rhythm and blues. Hit music once was produced by white people for popular audiences, said Maultsby. Rhythm and blues was music produced by Black artists for Black markets.

In contrast, said Maultsby, Motown was a crossover phenomenon that appealed to both Black and white youth. “Motown forged its own musical style because it wasn’t rhythm and blues, and it wasn’t pop,” said Maultsby. “Motown moved Black music largely on its own terms, within a popular music mainstream.”

Maultsby makes a distinction between the music of Southern musical artists and the musical style of Berry Gordy Jr. and his Northern, Motown artists. While the South produced such talent as The Contours (Do You Love Me) and Little Richard, Maultsby said that these artists invoked more “choo choo” train rhythms and had a more blues and gospel foundation.

Unlike the Southern tradition, Maultsby said that Berry Gordy Jr. relied less on traditional blues and gospel and instead made a series of innovations that made the Motown sound unique. Maultsby said these innovations included a combined guitar and drum backbeat, walking baselines, Latin rhythms, orchestral strings, and an increased emphasis on lyrics and young love.

For more information on Detroit 300 Theme Semester events, visit the Web at