Motown Part 1: from ‘Petite’ to music miracles

Chadd Cawson
Chadd Cawson

Berry Gordy Jr., who turns 87 on Nov. 28, is the man responsible for the conception of Motown, an American record label, a style of music and an era of talent. So much heart and soul went into the lyrics from that era, all starting with the lyrics Gordy co-wrote with his sister Gwen for Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite in 1957. After the song became a modest hit, Wilson laid down six more tracks that Gordy co-wrote including Lonely Teardrops that hit No. 7 on the pop chart. The brother and sister dream team joined creative forces once again in 1960 to write the lyrics for Etta James’ All I Could Do Was Cry.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966.

Gordy sowed and he reaped, turning his writing seeds and profits into successful ventures after first discovering The Miracles in 1957, then known as The Matadors. Inspired by the Debbie Reynolds song Tammy, Tamia Records was born in 1959, to merge with Motown in 1960. The label was first really taken seriously after Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ Grammy smash Shop Around hit No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 2 on the Billboards, paving the way for Motown to become a significant independent label.

Recognizing talent was definitely a strength of Gordy’s; over the next decade he signed acts such as The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, The Contours, The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Even as the label grew, The Miracles were still considered one of Motown’s top acts with hits such as You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, What’s So Good About Goodbye and multi-award winning The Tracks of My Tears.

With 26 top 40 hits under their belt, there is no wonder The Miracles were referred to as Motown’s “soul super group”. Robinson remained the front man of the group until retiring in 1972 to focus on being vice-president for the label. The Miracles set the tone and laid down the tracks of success for many acts to follow.

The Supremes in 1966. Photo courtesy of CBS Television.
The Supremes in 1966. Photo courtesy of CBS Television.

Along with being inducted into the rock ’n’ roll hall of fame in 2012, Robinson will be honoured next month in Washington as he receives The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The other seven recipients of this award are Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Carole King, the songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Sir Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.

“It gives me such joy and gratitude to be included among the past recipients of this most prestigious song-writing award,” Robinson said in a statement issued by the Library of Congress.

In March 2009, Gordy was in Hollywood to pay tribute to his first group and first million-selling act, The Miracles, when the members received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Speaking in tribute to the group, Gordy said: “Without the Miracles, Motown would not be the Motown it is today.”

This November both Robinson and Gordy will have plenty to be proud of as they reminisce and know they were pioneers of the soul only Motown can claim.

Chadd Cawson is co-host of Malts, Mustangs and Memories on Sunday afternoons on CJNU.


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