Black history month: Motown

9 Feb

It’s February, the month where we celebrate the lives and times of African-Americans that have changed the historical landscape. During February, In the Key of He will recognize some of the greatest and most stylish black musicians of the modern era.

This week, we look at  Motown soul artists of the 60s.

The Isley Brothers

The early 60s in the U.S. were about the uniformity and conformity that carried over from the 50s when the country was rebuilding after WWII. This period shaped the modern social world; it was a time of questioning that generated enormous social change, an era of movements that took shape and demanded equal rights for all. During that time, the United States was steeped in racial segregation. Berry Gordy, a young musical entrepreneur from Detroit “worked to create a sound and image that would appeal to all and encourage integration.” (Mus Ecology)

Arriving at the height of the civil rights movement, Motown was a black-owned, black-centered business that gave white America something they just could not get enough of — joyous, sad, romantic, mad, groovin’, movin’ music.


My favourite music of all is soul music. Soul is a deep down groove that makes me move; it’s very happy, fun, and uplifting (I defy the pharma companies and suggest a daily dose of soul instead of Prozac!). I like to watch old clips of the Motown groups to see the sharp, skinny shapes of the period in glorious colour moving to tight, groovy choreography.

Take the Isley Brothers for example – a goofy looking bunch of guys from Cincinnati who produced some of the best soul of the 60s. In the early days, Kelly, Rudy, and Ronnie wore the flashy, colourful matching suits very common to this period, and sang deeply impassioned songs (their roots are in gospel choirs). The Isleys are delightful to watch because they look like they’re having so much fun! Check it out.

Trivia: The Isley Brothers recorded Twist & Shout (1962) before the Beatles did (1963).

The Miracles

The Miracles were another of the wonderful uniformed 60s groups that wove choreography into their harmonies and came out with countless hits for the Motown label.

The Miracles original line up consisted of Smokey Robinson, Ronald White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, and one woman – how many of you knew this? Claudette Rogers was actually Smokey Robinson’s wife until they split in the mid-80s. Claudette performed with the Miracles between 1957 and 1964, though she continued to record with them until the early 70s. According to the Classic Motown site, Claudette was the inspiration for Robinson’s “My Girl”, made famous by The Temptations, and Berry Gordy named Claudette the “First Lady of Motown”.

Among the research I looked at for this post, I came across the story about how William “Smokey” Robinson got his nick name: “When he was 6 or 7, his Uncle Claude christened him “Smokey Joe,” which the young William, a Western-movie enthusiast, at first assumed to be “his cowboy name for me.” Some time later, he learned the deeper significance of his nickname: It derived from smokey, a pejorative term for dark-skinned blacks. “I’m doing this,” his uncle told light-skinned boy, “so you won’t ever forget that you’re black.” (Entertainment Weekly)

Smokey was a prolific songwriter, penning more songs for the Temptations (“The Way You Do The Things You Do”, for example), and a few for Marvin Gaye, ultimately helping to shape the Motown sound. Sweet Smokey has been an enormous inspiration and influence to Motown Records as a song writer, recording artist, and vice-president of Motown Records.

The Temptations

The Temptations, one of the best acts to record on the Motown label are absolutely sensational – look at the gorgeous uniformity of these fabulous skinny teal suits with white trim – they look fantastic! Their choreography added to their cool, highly polished act – Motown’s true gentlemen entertainers.

The Temptations line up changed a lot over the years but consistently produced excellent music for the Motown label. Some Tempations singers “spun off” into successful solo careers. David Ruffin, for example, went on to a record some great songs like “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)”.  Martha Reeves of Vandellas fame said “Nobody could sing like David Ruffin,” and Marvin Gaye greatly admired him: “[listening to David Ruffin] made me remember that when a lot of women listen to music, they want to feel the power of a real man.” David Ruffin is the bespectacled Temptation who I think made heavy-rimmed eye glasses cool – real men wear specs!

All of the men in these Motown groups wore neat suits, showed a little cuff under their jacket sleeves (with cuff links of course), and punctuated their jackets with colourful pocket squares, sending a message of stylish respect for themselves and their audience.

Another cool thing about these groups is that they wore colour. This was a decade of enormous change on every front and society was in the process of morphing into something that had never been before and as usual, design reflected these changes. Though still restricted to the uniform look of suits in the early 60s, musical groups of the period exploded in brilliant colour. (I’m reading Keith Richard’s autobiography and he says the Rolling Stones are responsible for musical groups ditching the pretty-boy matching suit schtick – more on that next week.) Today, everyone is in black or some other minimal colour like grey. I suppose that’s its own uniform – what a sad comment about modern humanity!

The Motown groups of the 60s bridged the social divide between black and white, bringing everyone together with solid grooves, gorgeous harmonies, and wonderful visuals. I’m going to leave you with a short video of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (David Ruffin on lead vocal). Like all of the Motown brothers, The Temptations are neat, sharp, and detailed – note the pocket squares, oh, and dig the fantastic yellow suits and kooky shirt collars – outta sight!


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