Founded in 1958, Motown Records forever altered the course of American popular culture. Through its remarkable commercial success in the 1960s as an African-American-owned label, Motown served as an entertainment industry ally of the civil rights movement. This effect rippled out beyond Detroit to the nation as a whole, and especially nurtured younger generations who were hungry for social change. In that sense, Motown and its artists played a key part in a major historical turning point in the United States.
The pull is still there. With my first steps into the exhibit Motown: The Sound of Young America at the Oregon Historical Society, I was captivated. This touring exhibition, put together by the GRAMMY Museum and continuing at OHS through March 26, 2023, spans the history of Motown from pre-Motown Detroit to the present-day label.
The first exhibits I noticed were stage outfits worn by B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles, three of my all-time favorites. These pre-Motown relics already had me hooked. After inspecting one of B.B. King’s old Gibson guitars, I read about Detroit’s rich musical history before Motown existed. A bold red vinyl cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Walk That Walk” highlights Detroit’s blues roots. The exhibit also describes the Great Migrations of the early 20th century, when African-Americans migrated out of the South to places like Detroit and Chicago, hoping to find better lives freer from the scourge of racism.
Motown wouldn’t have been possible without its creative founder, Berry Gordy Junior, and his part of the exhibit sets the stage for what is to follow. Visitors can see the original $800 loan contract he wrote and signed to create Motown Records. This is accompanied by a newspaper clipping referring to early Motown as the “fastest-growing Negro owned, integrated recording company in the nation.”
Berry Gordy’s exhibit also underlines some of the tools and practices he used to develop Motown into a recognizable label. It describes how he tapped into his background in boxing, the automotive industry, and songwriting to produce and promote records. He also paid for etiquette lessons for his recording artists, helping them to gain more respect and confidence in a still-segregated America.
This transitions to information and memorabilia about The Miracles, Motown’s first signed group. Across the room is a recorded interview with Smokey, the bandleader of the Miracles. In the recording he answers the question, “How was there so much talent in Detroit?” by saying it was because they “had the blessing of Berry Gordy Junior.” “Talent,” he continues, “exists everywhere.” But the talented artists of early Motown made it because Berry, an honest man and creative mastermind, was there to help make it possible.
Another crucial element in Motown’s groups “making it” was the label’s house band, the Funk Brothers. As mentioned in the earlier news clipping, Motown was integrated. That statement may have referred to its variety of studio musicians. The Funk Brothers’ tribute explains a bit about their background and accomplishments. Those interested to learn more can watch the 2002 documentary about them, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Moving on, I was pulled over to the Supremes exhibit by three stunning “butterfly” evening gowns on display. Covered from head-to-toe in psychedelic sequin patterns, each unique in its exact design, they’re a marvel to behold for any lover of fabric art and fashion. In this section you’ll also see the first mention of the civil rights movement, with a photo of the group at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
To my left was a small stage area with three microphones. Visitors are invited to do a karaoke-style sing-along with the Supremes. However, in the relatively quiet museum setting, I didn’t see anyone take up the challenge. This is one of the more “active” of the interactive exhibits, the other being an open area where visitors can learn how to do the “Temptations walk.”
For those with an interest in how songs are written, Smokey Robinson’s handwritten lyrics to “Tracks of My Tears” are on display. They’re accompanied by a video backstory of his songwriting process and the “a-ha! moment” of the song. May I also mention that Smokey has lovely handwriting? Finally, wrap pingup the songwriting exhibit is a nod to the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, which wrote more than 50 Motown hits.
By that point my excitement about the power of creative collaboration had grown, and was a perfect segue into the placard on Black Forum, Motown’s spoken-word subsidiary label. I learned this short-lived label had recorded powerful speeches and poetry by major Civil Rights and Black Power leaders of the early 1970s. Black Forum even won a Grammy for Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” My already profound admiration for Motown Records continued to grow even deeper.
I also appreciated the exhibit’s respectful nods to major Motown competitors, Atlantic Records and Stax Records. It’s worth taking the time to watch the David Porter interview about Stax: If you aren’t already a fan, you might become one.
After stops to learn about the legendary Four Tops and the Temptations, I made my way toward post-Detroit Motown and modern-day highlights. I enjoyed the collection of photos and info cards about The Commodores, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross. Memorabilia from this era included one of Stevie Wonder’s well-worn keyboards and a giant Hohner harmonica. As a diehard funk fan, I was also thrilled to see Rick James’s comic-book-style tour flyer, “Bustin’ Out of L Seven.”
The last quadrant of the Motown exhibit is highlighted by slick gold-and-black stage outfits from Philadelphia’s finest, Boyz II Men. Visitors can also see a set of four gorgeous brocade suits from Atlanta’s fashion-forward hip-hop group, Migos. Wrapping it all up is a suit worn by singer, songwriter, and now senior vice president of A&R at Motown, Ne-Yo. All proof that Motown is still in business and making hits.
As a cultural and musical journey, the Motown: The Sound of Young America exhibit is awe-inspiring. Starting with an $800 loan and a dream, Berry Gordy Jr. and his label affected American culture in a remarkably positive way. I walked into the exhibit expecting to learn some fun facts about musical history. I ended up being deeply moved by how music is such a powerful medium for influencing and transforming society. Now, when I hear Motown songs, I’ll remember what they mean to me: collaboration, possibility, and ultimately, liberation.