The life of Berry Gordy, songwriter and founder of Motown record label, is the focus of Motown the Musical, coming to the Ohio Theatre February 23-28. Motown was the first African-American record label to reach national acclaim. Five of its most prominent artists went on to have a profound effect on 20th century culture and music.
In celebration of Black History Month and the social changes inspired by Motown, we highlight five artists embodied in the Broadway musical, and their influence on the music industry.
1) Michael Jackson
The Jackson 5 had a slew of chart toppers from “I Want You Back” to “ABC”—and they brought us one of the greatest musical artists of all time, Michael Jackson. Michael went on to sell more than 750 million records worldwide, and break barriers at MTV with his masterpiece, Thriller. He influenced many other artists who have tried to emulate the King of Pop’s genius for singing, songwriting, dancing, and style.
2) Stevie Wonder
Signed to the Motown label at the age of 11, Stevie Wonder was recognized immediately by Berry Gordy as a future star. In 1973, he released Innervisions, rated among the greatest albums of all time. From a man of music to a leader for change, Stevie fought to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday and also collaborated on the “We Are the World” fundraiser to prevent hunger.
3) Marvin Gaye
Signed in the ‘60s to Tamla, a Motown subsidiary, Marvin Gaye started as an in-house session musician and later transitioned into solo work, scoring several hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He is regarded as one of the greatest singers of all time, with albums such as the socially aware What’s Going On and the provocative Let’s Get It On.
4) Smokey Robinson
Signed to Tamla Records in 1959, Smokey Robinson of The Miracles, was Gordy’s first act signed to the label. After racking up hits like “Better Shop Around” and “Tears of a Clown” with The Miracles, he joined Motown’s management as vice president, a testament to his business acumen and prolific songwriting talent. He came back to music as a solo artist in the late ‘70s with solo hits “Cruisin’” and “Being with You.”
5) Diana Ross
Diana Ross rose to fame as the lead singer of The Supremes, signed to Motown in 1961. They went on to be the most commercially successful Motown act and America’s most successful vocal group with 12 No. 1 singles such as “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Baby Love.” Their album The Supremes A’ Go-Go was the first album by an all-female group to reach the US Billboard 200. Their success paved the way for such label mates as The Jackson 5 and The Temptations.