ICYMI: Detroit Music Education Program and the Rise of Motown
The importance of music education and access to arts education is a critical component for developing a passion for music. Every note produced by talented musicians across the world directly results from the influence of a music teacher and music education – a theme we frequently hear expressed in NAMM’s Oral History interviews. Whether presented formally or as a casual presence in an artist’s life, without music and arts education, it is fair to say that the world would be a lot less inspiring.
A prime example of the power of music is the rise of Motown. Marie McCarthy directly connects the access to a powerful music curriculum to the birth and success of Motown and its artists in a 2013 article entitled, “The Young Musicians of Motown: A Success Story of Urban Music Education.” Published in The Music Educators Journal, the article dissects the factors that contributed to the rise of a strong music program within Detroit Public Schools that began during the 1920s and provides an example of Motown artists harnessing their experiences within their schools to churn out hits under the label.
Motown Records was launched by Barry Gordy Jr. on January 12, 1959, and derives its name from a blending of motor and town honoring Detroit’s rich motor industry history. Gordy had a talent for music both as a songwriter, penning tunes like “Lonely Teardrops,” “ABC,” and “Do You Love Me,” and he possessed an innate intuition for spotting talents like Smokey Robinson, Mable Johnson, the Marvelettes, and The Supremes. Gordy ran Motown’s first studio, nicknamed Hitsville U.S.A., out of an old photographer’s studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Music could be heard 22 hours a day from the small ground floor studio and would turn out hit after hit and now operates as a museum that has been open to the public since 1985. Editors Note: The museum recently completed phase one of a multi-phase expansion project.
McCarthy’s article attributes the success of Gordy and Motown to the talent that was fostered by the Detroit Public School system both during the height of Motown and in the decades leading up to it. McCarthy states, “Urban school systems in the first half of the twentieth century had a reputation for administrative efficiency, innovative programs, and high educational standards.” Detroit schools had a history of employing strong music administrative leadership, a professional music teaching staff, and a unified music curriculum across the schools from the 1920s through the 1960s. By valuing the importance of music and music education, schools throughout Detroit were able to foster young talent at an unprecedented level.
The now-iconic names of Motown often credit their education for their success, and schools mentioned in biographical works of these artists include Detroit’s Cass Technical, Northern, Northeastern, Northwestern, Pershing, and Sidney Miller High Schools. Each school offered a variety of rigorous music opportunities: Cass Technical and Northeastern had an official performing arts curriculum, Sidney Miller had its concert and swing bands, and Northeastern employed choir director Abraham Silver who was instrumental in developing the talent of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (founding members of The Supremes) and Martha Reeves of future Martha and the Vandellas fame.
Another Detroit Public School and Motown success story is Smokey Robinson. According to McCarthy, Robinson began developing his songwriting and musical skills within public school programs. It was in elementary school that Robinson honed his writing skills by joining a writing club set up by a teacher and had his lyrics featured in school plays. By fifth grade, Robinson had joined his school’s glee club and continued singing in choirs at Hutchins Intermediate and Northern High School. While in high school, Robinson started the Five Chimes (later the Matadors, then the Miracles) with Ronald White (who later brought Stevie Wonder into the Motown family) in 1955 while attending Northern.
One of the more inspiring stories from McCarthy’s article is that of the Marvelettes. The group consisted of Gladys Horton, Georgia Dobbins, Georgeanne Tilman, Juanita Cowart, and Katherine Anderon. Formed while attending Inkster High School, the group, under the name the Casinyets (or the Can’t Sing Yets), performed in a 1961 talent show where the prize for the top three acts would be an audition for Gordy and Motown Records. After falling just short and placing fourth, Inkster’s principal decided the girls were too good to miss out on this opportunity and extended the top prize to them as well. From there, the Casinyets (later the Marvels, and then the Marvelettes) auditioned, signed, and recorded the number one his, “Please, Mr. Postman” within their first year with Motown.
Other notable alumni from these school include Funk Brothers (Motown’s house band) members James Jamerson (Northwestern), Uriel Jones (Moore School for Boys), members of the Four Tops (Pershing) and The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Mable John, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier.
Gordy, Motown, and its artists transformed the musical landscape and became influential in the development of musical stylings for decades to come. While Gordy may be responsible for signing and recording these iconic voices, the world reaped the rewards of the immense talent found within this small urban population. Central to the development of all these skills and ultimately contributing to the success of Gordy and Motown was the strong presence and access to rigorous music education programs within the public schools. McCarthy says, “One of the unique features of the Motown company was its dependence on the artistic talents of young, local black musicians. They were key to its success, bringing to that small house on West Grand Boulevard their creativity, performing skills, enthusiasm, and ambition.”
To read McCarthy’s article in its entirety, please visit https://www.jstor.org/stable/23364259?mag=music-education-and-the-birth-of-motown&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. For access to the collection of NAMM Oral History Interview from Motown contributors, please visit /category/term/motown. For more on Motown, check out “Ep. 50 – Motown Pt. 1” (/library/blog/ep-50-motown-part-1) and “Ep. 51 – Motown Pt. 2” (/library/blog/ep-51-motown-part-2) of The Music History Project podcast.