Why Was Berry Gordy Significant in the Development of the American Soul Music Genre?

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  • Topic: Marvin Gaye, Soul music, Motown
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Why was Berry Gordy significant in the development of the American Soul music genre?

The aim of this essay is to analyse what significance Berry Gordy, the founder of the Tamla record label, had to the American Soul music genre. To accurately analyse this it is important to research and understand how Gordy ran Tamla and why he started the label. All the decisions he made involving Tamla would have an affect on the American Soul music industry because of the huge popularity of Gordy’s music.

Gordy created Tamla in 1959 with a mission statement stating that he aimed to become ‘The sound of young America’ (Ward, 1998. p 161). This is a statement that had great intention; it was music for both black and white people to enjoy, and for many a symbol of the end of segregation. Furthermore, in this statement Gordy opened the soul music genre to all of America, though he did target young people. He may have done this because he had seen the success of country artists such as Johnny Cash with young people throughout America and hoped to imitate this. However, Gordy hoped to be successful with the soul music style that he had started to write in 1957 and 1959, ‘co-writing such hits as Reete Petite, To be Loved and I'll be satisfied for Jackie Wilson, You've got what it takes for Marv Johnson and Money for Barrett Strong.’ (Bowman, para 1)

In 1961 Gordy then created a record label named Motown, a subsidiary of Tamla, which would perform the soul music that Gordy hoped to sell to America. As well as setting up Motown Gordy set up other subsidiaries such as Miracle, Mel-O-Dy, VIP, and Divinity. Ward (1998, p. 260) states that ‘this strategy was primarily designed to protect against the possible failure of individual labels.’ (Ward, 1998) This meant that for example if Divinity collapsed Motown could continue unaffected by the collapse. Furthermore, when the labels made a profit, they could support the other labels that were financially struggling. This led to Motown being able to grow quickly and produce a lot of music unaffected by collapses of other labels owned by Gordy.

Moreover, Gordy was successful in making his company instantly recognisable by the consistent style and sound of his songs. In order to create the Motown style Gordy ‘personally trained all of Motown's early writers and producers’. (Bowman, 2009, para. 2) These song writers consistently wrote in Gordy’s soul style and this led to Motown producing one, very popular, style of soul. This was so successful that if any of the subsidiary labels created soul songs, they were ‘commonly referred to as Motown.'(Bowman, 2009) In addition, Motown had in house musicians, ‘The Funk Brothers’, who would play on every recording. This gave songs the same sounds and feel, as the same equipment and players were being used. With the combination of in house song writers and musicians ‘he [Gordy] developed the Motown sound' (Bowman, 2009) which can be argued to define the sound of soul because of its popularity.

However, in 1957, a recording studio named Satellite Records which later changed to Stax was recording and writing soul music. ‘Stax developed an identifiable sound through the use of a house band [the MGs]’ (Bowman, 2010, para 2) and the MGs ‘performed on most of the Stax recordings of the 1960s’. The style of soul written when Stax had just been created was slow, and the tembre of the music was soft, drums and bass were prominent instruments and the vocal style was very passionate and emotional. This style is known as Memphis Soul. Examples of this genre are represented in Carla Thomas, and William Bell. As Gordy wrote soul in 1957-59 it is very likely he would have known of Stax Records and therefore taken qualities that he liked about the music they produced, such as the house band, the soulful vocals and prominent bass and drums. Gordy then implemented and used these techniques and characteristics when he created Motown in 1961. However, Gordy did increase...
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