Does the Rest of R&B Suffer in the Shadow of Motown?

"Motown brought people together who didn't realize they had so much in common," offered music industry icon Berry Gordy as the label he founded celebrated another milestone a splashy tribute show.

Motown 60 aired on CBS Sunday (April 21) night, the broadcast of a tribute concert recorded earlier in February. The show was hosted by actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer and Motown mainstay Smokey Robinson, and featured a mix of classic label stars like Robinson and Diana Ross alongside contemporary artists like John Legend and Meghan Trainor. It comes on the heels of the semi-backlash against Jennifer Lopez’s highly-publicized tribute performance as part of the Grammys in February -- a performance that was included here -- with the Latina pop star’s centering in the tribute becoming a point of contention due to Motown’s legacy as a Black R&B institution.

Grammy salutes are commonplace for so many Baby Boomer favorites. Over the years we’ve seen celebrations of the late, great Aretha Franklin, Motown stalwart Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, Elton John and the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show performance, among others. But as music’s most prominent platform fawns over legendary artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, one can’t help but feel that so much is being passed over for well-worn mainstays. And in the case of R&B, we should consider whether it’s past time to show more reverence to R&B’s multi-faceted history -- including other arbiters of classic soul, as well as more contemporary sounds of the 1980s and 1990s.   

Motown’s legacy was famously celebrated with Motown 25: Yesterday Today and Forever in 1983 -- then in 1998 with ABC’s Motown 40: The Music Is Forever, and that same year, the wildly popular Temptations mini-series (which aired on NBC and followed the network’s even more successful 1992 Motown-produced Jacksons: An American Dream). Meanwhile, American Idol still routinely features a specified “Motown Week.”  As another tribute show paid homage to the iconic powerhouse label, there is still a question of how well mainstream America has preserved Motown’s legacy. Sure, we celebrate the label, but Motown’s contemporaries and descendants have gotten short shrift in contemporary American pop culture.

To be certain, there can be no diminishing of the house that Berry Gordy built. Motown’s legacy is indisputable and far-reaching. The label born of Gordy’s ingenuity and so much in-house talent; an institution born of a focus that reshaped the dynamics of American music and, as such, recalibrated pop stardom and changed the way Black artists were recognized and received worldwide. Even beyond the significance of its oft-celebrated Hitsville era, the late 60s push into psychedelia helped to further mainstream the kind of hippie-fied funk Sly Stone was doing and the label’s classic disco years delivered some of that era’s most definitive music from acts like Thelma Houston and the Commodores. In the new jack swing era, Motown (having been sold to MCA) was home to stars like Johnny Gill and Boyz II Men and scored late-’90s acts like Erykah Badu and Brian McKnight before a merger with UMG. Today, the label’s Quality Control imprint is home for hip-hop artists like Migos and Lil Yachty.

The “crossover” aspirations of so many superstar Black artists during the 1980s have often been tethered to Motown’s ‘60s ambitions as “the sound of young America,” but even as we celebrate the doors blown off the hinges by label legends like The Supremes and The Temptations, it’s just as important that there was another major soul label of the 1960s that became successful going in a somewhat different direction.

During their respective mid-’60s peaks, Memphis-based Stax/Volt was the Death Row Records to Motown’s shinier Bad Boy. Unlike Motown, Stax wasn’t founded by a Black entrepreneur, but by white brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. But it didn’t come into full bloom until the arrival of Al Bell, whose marketing savvy put Otis Redding at the forefront of the label’s push onto the charts. With a stable of artists that would include soul legends like Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor and Eddie Floyd, Stax’s run was formidable.

Bell became co-owner of the label in the late 1960s after Axton’s dismissal, and emphasized Stax as the uber-Black “Soulsville” counterpoint to Motown’s “Hitsville” image. But mismanagement and misfortune led to the label’s mid-’70s demise and shuttering. In the aftermath of Stax’s 1975 closure, there was no one to preserve the label’s legacy. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when Motown tributes became commonplace, Stax faded into the distance.

Another label that became a pillar of classic soul is the famed Philadelphia International. Founded by producers Leon Gamble, Kenny Huff and Thom Bell, the lush, romantic sound of the label became the foundation upon which quiet storm and so much contemporary R&B was built. Gamble & Huff, along with Bell and his partner Linda Creed, were among the most successful songwriters/producers in R&B, penning hits for label acts like the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle and Lou Rawls. The smoothness of Philly soul was a major part of ‘70s music and their funky grooves set the groundwork for the disco era; the Philly sound became a touchstone for the Jacksons (who famously landed with Gamble & Huff after signing with CBS upon their acrimonious exit from Motown in 1975) and Philly rock 'n soul crooners Hall & Oates.

Those labels and others like Hi in Memphis, Invictus, T-Neck and Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago-based Curtom defined the classic soul era. But again -- great R&B labels picked up the musical baton a generation later and forged new paths for Black music. And they did it while echoing Motown in spirit and impact.

Of course, R&B didn’t stop mattering after disco, and our society’s elevation of pre-disco R&B/soul belies the racism that fueled the disco backlash, as well as critical dismissals and/or downplaying of later permutations of contemporary R&B such as quiet storm, urban contemporary, new jack swing, neo-soul and hip-hop soul. In the 1980s, Black and white audiences were largely re-segregated musically but by the mid-1990s, there was a new burgeoning wave of white artists and fans who’d reconnected with “urban” music. Hip-hop and R&B were prominent on the pop charts and it happened a handful of significant labels.

The Atlanta-based LaFace Records was founded in 1989 by songwriting/production duo Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, a pair who’d already been responsible for R&B hits by their own group The Deele, Babyface himself, and solo stars Bobby Brown and Karyn White. Throughout the 1990s, the hitmaking label would churn out some of the biggest stars of the decade—from TLC to Toni Braxton to OutKast and Usher. Albums like Crazy Sexy Cool, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Confessions are among the industry’s all-time best-selling. And the success of those artists put Black music squarely at the top of pop culture, and in a less pandering presentation than so many Black pop stars of the 1980s. Acts like Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston were huge, but their “safe” images didn’t reflect the same culture as Usher and Mary J. Blige.

As new jack swing came to dominate late-’80s R&B radio, Uptown Records became a force unto itself. Founded by former Jekyll & Hyde rapper Andre Harrell, the label’s first stars were the Teddy Riley-led trio Guy, Al B. Sure! and new jack-friendly hip-hop star Heavy D. By the early 90s that roster had ballooned to include Christopher Williams, Jodeci and “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige. Uptown would serve as a launch for Blige, as well as Sean “Puffy” Combs—and it’s sound became an indelible part of 1990s R&B. As the genre moved into edgier, even more hip-hop-inspired sounds, the sound of Uptown Records came into full focus. MTV gave the label its own showcase the popular Unplugged series, and FOX’s hit police drama New York Undercover was executive produced by Harrell and prominently featured Uptown music in every episode. Even after Combs’ departure to found his hip-hop-centric Bad Boy Entertainment label, Uptown would continue to score mid-to-late-‘90s hits by artists like Heavy D, Soul For Real and Monifah.

Oftentimes, the elevation of Motown has dominated so much of the conversation surrounding the history of R&B. It’s even more telling that, at 60, it’s still the most consistently celebrated Black institution in popular music. A large part of Motown’s legacy is its standing as a label that appealed to white middle America -- and how in doing so, it set the stage for a host of Black superstars that sprang both from its own roster and from that wider cultural imprint. But there was always more than just one Black label redefining popular music, and because of racism’s propensity to culturally reset, there has been an ongoing fight to break through the racial confines of how music is marketed and consumed. Labels like LaFace and Uptown recalibrated the racial complexion of mainstream radio in a post-Thriller world.

This Motown celebration comes during a time when the belief persists that R&B has been diminished by contemporary popular culture; with some fans bemoaning the current state of a genre that, for decades, was the most visible and enduring form of Black popular music. R&B’s obscuring by by hip-hop and pop is complex, as those genre distinctions have all become blurrier in contemporary music than they may have seemed 25 years ago -- as evidenced by popular acts ranging from Drake to Anderson.Paak. One reason for the anti-J. Lo sentiment was that there are a dearth of traditional R&B artists given this kind of mainstream platform today -- even in celebration of an R&B label.

Gordy’s assertion that Motown brought a diverse swath of people together is an aspect of the label’s history that is certainly worthy of celebration; but its prestige is also honored by recognizing how such R&B institutions have shaped our culture -- Motown and beyond. Compared to hip-hop and rock, R&B’s extensive history has been under-celebrated for its nuance and scope. As we recognize the 60-year legacy of Motown, let’s also remember that for younger generations, that legacy is manifest in the institutions that carried its tradition. LaFace is now older than Motown was when the world was wowed by Motown 25 in 1983. Classic soul gave birth to contemporary R&B -- what better way to honor that than to celebrate the “new classics” with the same gusto and visibility with which we canonized their forebears? “A Grammy Salute to LaFace” certainly has a nice ring to it. Here’s hoping the world doesn’t wait another 30 years to see it.