By Mike Householder and Jeff Karoub
updated 11:54 a.m. ET, Sat., Sept . 5, 2009
DETROIT - On Jan. 12, 1959, Elvis Presley was in the Army. The Beatles were a little-known group called The Quarrymen casting about for gigs in Liverpool. The nascent rock 'n' roll world was a few weeks away from "the day the music died" — when a single-engine plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens.
It's also the day a 29-year-old boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. used an $800 family loan to start a record company in Detroit.
Fifty years later, Motown Records Corp. and its stable of largely African-American artists have become synonymous with the musical, social and cultural fabric of America. The company spawned household names, signature grooves and anthems for the boulevard and bedroom alike that transcended geography and race.
Motown may be 50 years old, but it isn't any less relevant with current hitmakers — from Taylor Swift to Coldplay — citing the label's signature "sound" as an influence.
"Berry Gordy — people think of him as an entrepreneur, but he's a songwriter at heart, which makes total sense. You have a songwriter here and amazing songs. A guy has the brilliance to understand that it starts with great songs." — Anita Baker, R&B singer
The problem with today's music business is that it is run by business people, not by music lovers.
"That sound is just as alive today. And that sound still stands up. ... Everybody in the whole wide world has been influenced by Detroit and the Motown sound." — Dolly Parton, country singer, songwriter and actress
Swift, a country singer-songwriter, admits it: She's one of the those whose sound is influenced by Motown. The 19-year-old, who has entered the realm of superstardom after back-to-back multi-platinum albums, says she and her father listened to his Motown greatest hits CD on the way to school.
"From an early age I had a bunch of different musical influences, but Motown I was just always so fascinated by the chord progression and how the lyrics and the melodies are so simple but they made you feel so much. I think that's the art of Motown," Swift said.
Another of the music world's hottest young acts, the Jonas Brothers, couldn't hide their glee at performing on this year's Grammy Awards telecast with Wonder, saying beforehand both they and their father grew up on the Motown legend's songs.