Can we live in a world without Motown?

OPINION - When the Civil Rights Movement needed a soundtrack, it supplemented the hallowing sounds of gospel music to deliver an in-your-face sound that crumbled down walls...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There was a time when Motown meant something.

I mean, really meant something.

When the Civil Rights Movement needed a soundtrack, it supplemented the hallowing sounds of gospel music to deliver an in-your-face sound that crumbled down walls. It gave some of the best future singers and songwriters ever to get behind a microphone — or connect their hands to a pen and pad — an outlet to produce some of the most timeless music ever created.

Most importantly, it gave Detroiters something to believe in.

That was then.

Click here to view a slideshow of the 25 greatest Motown songs of all time

It’d be difficult to find someone from Detroit who doesn’t have conflicted feelings about the historic and game-changing record label that is Motown Records. Count me as one of them. When the world discounted our industrial city post that horrendous 1967 riot — the kind that captured the nation’s attention and the same riot we’re still trying to rise from the ashes – we felt abandoned by much of the country.

Let’s be honest. We felt abandoned by some of our own.

Long time, proud Detroiters deflected from the city, crossed that 8 Mile boarder and headed for the ‘burbs. Businesses shut down, and most everyone — if you let the elders who lived through that time tell it — pulled their money out of the city, lived in fear of people who shared similar hues as they did and felt there was this quick progression of people leaving the city that at one point was the cornerstone of the Midwest.

That’s when Motown music came hardest.

It continued an incredible chart-topping reign post-riot, and released No. 1 hits like “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & the Pips (the same single topped the charts the next year by Marvin Gaye); “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5 in 1970 , Edwin Starr’s protest classic “War” in 1971, “What’’ Going On” by Gaye in 1971 and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in ‘72.

It was an awe-inspiring run, and those last three tracks really spoke to the climate of not only what was going on nationally (and internationally, in the case of Starr’s hit) but what was happening inside the city limits.

So it was a burn to the ego when Berry Gordy uprooted in 1972 and took his talented roster west.

Where there once was this incredible, 10 story building where Motown Records’ headquarters were, now is an empty lot.

“The armpit of the Midwest,” a woman scuffed to me years ago.

Once upon a time, the label’s roster was for the most part made up of homegrown talent. And it boasted of in-house songwriters like Smokey Robinson and the legendary, talented trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland.


Not so much.
Erykah Badu, currently on the Motown roster, created a firestorm earlier this week when she tweeted that the label had folded. The furious response, I’m fairly certain had more to do with the label’s history, and almost nothing to do with another American company possibly being hit by this rough economic climate.

I’m not saying that the label is irrelevant — we Gen X Detroiters collectively cheered when Kem first got signed to the label, he was the first Detroiter in our generation to be signed to a label that bears the name of our city.

But it’s just not the same.

Historically, Motown will always be cited for the greatness it generated and how the music that came from the label changed the world. That label introduced us to unforgettable talents like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder.

But modern day Motown is a different story altogether.

Obviously, we’re still waiting to see what is to come of the label.

The last news we got came from, which cites an unnamed Universal Music Group insider saying “they are searching for someone to bring in in a senior creative role. If it’s someone that’s really creative-oriented, then it might be a different title, but if they find someone creative” with business qualifications, then it could be president.

The company released a statement, saying “we remain committed to [Motown] as a strong presence in the contemporary music scene. We will soon announce important additions to the staff and will further invest in building its artist roster so Motown can continue to bring to market the highest quality music that is best positioned to succeed artistically and commercially.”

But not historically.