Artist Spotlights

Black History: Funk & Motown Masters

By Hoffman Academy Team

Put on your dancing shoes – today, we’re getting funky!

What is Funk?

Before we discuss Funk, we need to talk Soul – the music genre, that is! Soul was an offshoot of jazz, gospel, and blues music that incorporated a hypnotic, danceable beat. Whereas the Blues originated in the Deep South’s rural communities, Soul highlighted the struggles and triumphs of African Americans living in the big cities. It appealed to the younger generations who lived in places like New York, Chicago, and Detroit.

In the 1960s, Soul took on a more distinctive sound and attitude. Pioneered by artists like James Brown and George Clinton, this new genre combined Soul, R&B, Jazz, and Rock and Roll with complex, syncopated rhythms and driving bass lines. Most of all, this new, “funky” music demanded to be danced to!

The Rise of Motown

Motown is known as its own musical genre today, but originally it was a record label in Detroit, Michigan. Founded by songwriter Berry Gordy, Motown’s name comes from a nickname for Detroit – a mix of “motor” and “town,” paying homage to the city’s role in the auto industry. As an African American-owned label, Motown created opportunities for previously unrecognized artists, as well as a brand new sound that appealed to people of all races. One main difference between Funk and Motown-style music is that Funk focuses more on instrumental “riffs,” while Motown showcases the vocals. Many of Motown’s biggest hits actually came from all-female, vocally-oriented groups like The Supremes, The Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are two of the label’s most successful solo artists.

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Notable Names

Martha & the Vandellas

“Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?”

Don’t recognize this name? Well, you’ve probably heard that opening line in their most famous song! Martha & the Vandellas, headlined by Martha Reeves, are an all-female Motown group that formed in the late 1950s. Their name is a mash-up of a street near Martha’s home (Van Dyke) and the name of one of her favorite singers, Della Reese. Funnily enough, Martha Reeves wasn’t the original lead singer! Martha got her big break in 1963 when then-lead singer Mary Wells failed to show up to a recording session. From there, the group gained great acclaim, culminating in the release of the “Motown Anthem” and their biggest hit, Dancing in the Streets.

In the 1970s, Martha Reeves broke away from the Vandellas to pursue a solo career. However, the group reformed in 1983 and has been performing together ever since, though with a few changes in membership. Martha herself has had quite a career on the side, both in and out of music. She served on the Detroit City Council from 2005-2009, and has since joined a non-profit group that helps musicians receive royalties for their work.

Smokey Robinson (1940-present)

“Once you’re a Motown artist, you’re always a Motown artist.”

Without Smokey Robinson, there might not have been a Motown label at all! Singer-songwriter William “Smokey” Robinson met the label’s eventual founder, Berry Gordy, in 1958. Gordy helped Robinson’s group, The Miracles, get a record deal with another local company. Unfortunately it didn’t bring either of them much national success. As a result, Robinson believed they could do better and encouraged Gordy to realize his dream of forming his own record label. Thus Motown was born, with The Miracles as one of its first signees!

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Famous for his smooth tenor voice, Robinson wrote and performed countless love-themed staples, including My Girl and I Second That Emotion. Many of his songs have been covered by other musicians like Diana Ross and The Beatles. Robinson isn’t only a musician, though. For over two decades, he acted as the vice president of the Motown label, helping the company and its artists garner great success in the public eye.

Dianna Ross (1944-present)

“You can’t just sit there and wait for people to give you that golden dream. You’ve got to get out there and make it happen for yourself.”

The Supremes was one of Motown label’s biggest all-female groups, but the name people still know today belongs to its headliner: Diana Ross. Born in Detroit, Ross joined the Supremes (originally called the Primettes) at age fifteen. The group went on to become America’s most successful vocal group to date! In 1970, Ross went solo with her hit single, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

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Ross’s career took her from stage to screen, to great acclaim. She’s won or been nominated for enough awards that the list has its own Wikipedia page! In 1972, she starred as Billie Holiday in the film, Lady Sings the Blues. The role won her a Golden Globe (Most Promising Newcomer, female) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She later played Dorothy in the film adaptation of The Wiz (1978), a musical re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz with an all-African-American cast. She continues to tour today!

Stevie Wonder (1950-present)

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”

When Paul Simon won the 18th Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year, he ended his speech by saying, “And most of all I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.” This was no joke – Stevie Wonder is one of the most awarded and best-selling artists of all time! Born Stevland Hardaway Morris, he became blind due to complications related to his premature birth. Stevie joined Motown’s label at age 11. A true multi-instrumentalist, he played piano, synthesizer, harmonica, congas, drums, bongos, organ, melodica and Clavinet (similar to an electronic keyboard), all of which feature in his wide range of music. One of his most famous “classic” songs, Isn’t She Lovely, was written in 1976 about his newborn daughter, Aisha.

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Let’s talk accolades – as mentioned before, Wonder has QUITE a few!  The 1983 Rolling Stones Record Guide says his classic albums “pioneered stylistic approaches that helped to determine the shape of pop music for the next decade.” In 1984, he became the first Motown and second African American musician to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The movie was The Woman in Red, and the song was I Just Called to Say I Love You. He’s also been a repeat performer at the Olympics over the years and has accumulated 25 Grammy Awards!

Wonder isn’t only recognized for his musical achievements, though. He has an enduring legacy as a political activist. Here are a few highlights:

  • 1980: Successfully campaigned to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday in the U.S.
  • 1985: Honored by the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, after he dedicated his Academy Award to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. (That dedication led his music to be banned in South Africa!)
  • 2009: Named a United Nations Messenger of Peace and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Stevie Wonder still performs today and continues to raise funds and awareness for an extensive variety of causes.

Into the Future

As you probably noticed, all of this post’s featured performers still tour today! Funk and Motown are alive and well, and continue to influence modern pop music.

Have you checked out our other posts for African American Music Appreciation Month?

Remember to check out our special AAMAM Spotify Playlist, and join us next time for Rock & Roll Royalty!

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