Motown wouldn’t be the same without hits like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “My Guy.” Learn about these significant starlets and their contributions to music history.
MICHIGAN—Most Michiganders are familiar with the Motown genre of music that Berry Gordy Jr. created in the ’60s. What they might not know, though, are the Michigan women who helped make it happen.
“The Motown Sound” started as a record label trademark and eventually defined an entire genre of soul music. From 1959 until 1972, Detroit was the hub of Motown Record, the most successful soul music label. Within seven years, Motown Records had created 450 local jobs and boasted profits of $20 million. Though Motown Records moved to Los Angeles in 1972, it’s still a distinct part of Detroit history and culture. Even today, the Motown genre is easily recognizable in restaurants, stores, and marching band shows.
However, the Motown formula was more than male superstars like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. Motown created a niche for female musical groups and Black divas, which further developed disco and dance music in subsequent decades.
Whether the song titles ring a bell or you’re hearing of these ladies for the first time, here are some of the women behind the legend of Motown.
Esther Gordy Edwards (1920 – 2011)
Once upon a time, Berry Gordy was not the record mogul he is today. He grew up as the second-youngest of eight children. One of his older sisters was Esther, who would end up having a significant role in the legacy of Motown, often called the “Woman Behind” Motown or Motown’s “Pillar.”
Esther, older than Berry by nine years, started out as a naysayer of Berry’s initial idea for Motown, but ended up its biggest supporter. Motown might never have been born if not for the $800 loan Berry requested from his parents and seven siblings, which would be worth over $7,000 today. Esther was the manager of a loan company for the family, and she was not convinced the few hit songs Berry had created at that time were worth the large investment. Eventually, Berry convinced her to reluctantly agree to the loan, but he was so inspired by her shrewd business sense that he made her the vice president of the record label.
If Berry Gordy created the Motown Sound, Esther Gordy Edwards created the spirit. She ran the talent management and kept the books at Motown Records. She ruled the recording house with a firm grip, teaching poise and sophistication to performers who had often come from impoverished backgrounds. Esther also hired choreographers to teach the Motown artists how to dance. The record label also had a handful of younger talent, and Esther took a protective, motherly role towards them, especially the women. She helped guide the careers and public images of famous Motown artists like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson.
When Berry shifted Motown’s base of operations to California in 1972, Esther stayed in Detroit and kept tending the iconic Hitsville, U.S.A. location as a corporate office. However, she soon found many drop-in guests were interested in touring the original Studio A, the first Motown recording studio. Esther decided to take the memorabilia she had saved and turn the Hitsville, U.S.A. location into a museum, which first opened in 1985.
Though Esther was not born in Michigan, she ended up a true Michigander. She attended Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University in Detroit, and by 1951 married Michigan state Rep. George Edwards. Esther Gordy Edwards was active in her community, serving as the first woman elected as a board member for both the Detroit Bank of the Commonwealth and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce. She was also a trustee at Interlochen Center for the Arts and a board member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Esther died in 2011, but her legacy lives on in the beloved Motown Museum, which is scheduled to re-open in summer 2022 after a $50 million expansion.
Diana Ross (1944 – )
One cannot even discuss the legacy of Motown without mentioning the woman who was named Billboard Magazine’s 1976 “Female Entertainer of the Century.” Diana Ross is not only a 12-time Grammy-nominated singer and Oscar-nominated actress, her 70 hit singles over her career earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest female artist in U.S. and U.K. chart history.
Ross was born and raised in Detroit, originally residing on Belmont Street in the North End, where she was a neighbor of Smokey Robinson. Her initial musical experience came from singing in church. By the age of 14, Ross was living in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects and attending Cass Technical High School. She met Florence Ballard, a founding member of the Supremes who also resided in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Ross, Ballard, and Ballard’s best friend Mary Wilson joined Betty McGlown to create the Primettes, which would later become the Supremes. When Motown Records got off the ground, Diana Ross asked her old neighbor Smokey Robinson to get the Primettes an audition with Berry Gordy. Initially, Gordy thought the girl group too young, but the Primettes were persistent and kept hanging around Hitsville U.S.A. Eventually, by 1961, Gordy relented, but made the group change their name. Thus, the Supremes were born.
The Supremes created 12 No. 1 hits, including “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The Supremes used their femininity and performance skills to win over audiences across the globe. By 1967, after Ross had become the de facto lead singer, the group was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes. She launched her solo career in 1970, and subsequently released hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Touch Me in the Morning,” and eventually, “I’m Coming Out.” Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues as Billie Holiday and in The Wiz as Dorothy, with Michael Jackson as her co-star. She also became the first Black woman to co-host the Academy Awards in 1974.
In 1981, RCA Records offered Ross the most expensive recording deal at that time—$20 million with a seven-year recording contract. Ross’s career took off, singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the same year.
In 1988, Diana Ross was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with her fellow Supremes members. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2016, and also earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Music Awards and the BET Awards. She has released 25 studio albums to date and continues to perform even in her 70s.
Mary Wells (1943 – 1992)
The Motown Sound would not be what it is today if not for Berry Gordy’s first solo star, Mary Wells. The “First Lady of Motown” created a defining characteristic of the sound.
Wells did not have the easiest life. She was born to a single mother and, and they lived in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Black Bottom in Detroit. As a child, she contracted spinal meningitis at age 2 and tuberculosis at age 10. By the age of 12, Wells was helping her mother clean houses for work. Singing, though, helped ease her pain, and she performed at local nightclubs as a teen. When Wells graduated from Northwestern High School, she initially wanted to become a scientist, but the success of Detroit musicians like Jackie Wilson and the Miracles inspired her to try a music career.
Initially, Wells wrote the song “Bye Bye Baby” for Jackie Wilson and wanted to give it to Berry Gordy when Motown Records was Tamla Records. Gordy, though, made Wells perform the song in front of him. After being impressed by her musicianship, he took her to record the song herself, with only 22 takes. At the tender age of 17, Wells was signed to the expanding Motown subsidiary of Tamla. Wells became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single and the label’s first fully successful solo artist.
Wells teamed up with Smokey Robinson, lead singer of the Miracles, and together, the team created her biggest hits. They produced “The One Who Really Loves You” in 1962, then “You Beat Me to the Punch” a few months later. The latter was nominated for Best Rock & Roll Recording in 1963. With “Two Lovers,” Wells became the first female solo artist with three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart.
Though Wells continued to produce hits, her biggest hit was “My Guy” in 1964. “My Guy” started charting in the U.K., where the Beatles became big fans of her. Wells became the first Motown star to perform in the U.K. and one of three female singers to open for the Beatles. Due to the song’s success, she recorded “Once Upon a Time” and “What’s the Matter With You Baby” with fellow Motown star Marvin Gaye.
Unfortunately, Wells had contract disputes with Motown and she asked to be released from the contract. She won a lawsuit and accepted a generous contract with 20th Century Fox Records, but with the added cost that she could not receive royalties or her likeness from her previous works. Her follow-up album was a flop. She then moved onto Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco for two years, before moving on to Jubilee Records. Here, she had her final pop hit, “The Doctor.” In 1974, she retired from music to raise a family. After a divorce, she signed with Epic Records and released “Gigolo.”
By 1990, Wells was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer which permanently damaged her voice and forced her to retire for good. She struggled financially with her medical bills, so much so she had to sell her home, but her old Motown friends made donations for her cause and even hosted a benefit concert. Shortly before her death, she testified before the United States Congress to encourage government funding for cancer research. She succumbed to her cancer at the age of 49.
Martha Reeves (1941 – )
What started as Martha and the Vandellas eventually became Martha and the Detroit city council. Martha Reeves came from a Detroit family of 11 children; the entire family was active in Detroit’s Metropolitan Church, as Reeves’ grandfather was a minister. She developed her love of music from her parents, but little did they know they were raising a future Motown legend.
Reeves received vocal training at Northeastern High School, but did not catch her big break until after high school. Reeves had become part of a group known as the Del-Phis, which she joined in 1960. At the same time, Reeves became a hard worker, juggling multiple jobs by day and singing in Detroit’s nightclubs by night. Eventually, she was discovered by Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s A&R director, who invited her to audition at Hitsville U.S.A. Reeves made herself invaluable to Stevenson by answering his phone and even administering payroll. Before long, she was working as Stevenson’s secretary. She called the Del-Phis in for a few jobs, and eventually, the group became Martha and the Vandellas. Before long, they were providing backup vocals for Marvin Gaye.
Martha and the Vandellas started charting with hits like “I’ll Have to Let Him Go,” “Come and Get These Memories,” and “Heat Wave.” The two original members aside from Martha left the band, but Martha and the Vandellas continued to produce hits, with their biggest hit being “Dancing in the Street.” The group disbanded shortly before Motown moved to Los Angeles. Martha and the original members filed a lawsuit against Motown Records for unpaid royalties since 1972, but Motown did not reach an agreement with them until they settled out of court in 1992.
Reeves moved to Los Angeles, where she was signed by MCA and started a solo act. Her self-titled album was the most expensive album at the time, costing $250,000 to produce. She had a number of projects, including composing for the soundtrack to blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite. Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. She eventually returned to her home, Detroit, where she served a controversial term on the Detroit City Council from 2005 to 2009. Of the experience, Reeves said, “I’m not a politician” because “You have to be dishonest to be a politician.” After her term, she returned to her first job of performing, which she still does to this day.
Syreeta Wright (1946 – 2004)
Though she may have started as a secretary, Syreeta Wright became a woman of both performing and songwriting talent, and even married Stevie Wonder.
Wright moved to Detroit permanently during high school. She had been singing since the age of four, and since her financial situation prevented her from pursuing a career in ballet, she joined several singing groups. She got a job as a receptionist for Motown Records in 1965 at the age of 21. Later, she was promoted to secretary to Mickey Stevenson, like Martha Reeves had before her.
While working for Motown Records, Wright snuck her way onto several other artists’ demos. She did backup vocals for The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. She released her first solo single under the name Rita Wright.
Wright met Stevie Wonder in 1968 and they were dating within a year. Wonder convinced Wright to become a songwriter, and the two collaborated on “It’s a Shame” recorded by The Spinners. She later co-wrote and provided background vocals for Wonder’s famous hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” They married in 1970 and continued to work together on Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From album. Cementing their identity as a power couple, Wright and Wonder moved to New York City after Wonder’s departure from Motown Records in 1971.
Though the couple’s marriage only lasted 18 months and ended in 1972, Wonder continued to help Wright with her first solo album post-divorce. With that album and her follow-up sophomore album, Wright performed multiple covers. She finally earned chart success with “Your Kiss Is Sweet” and “Spinning and Spinning.” She continued to produce music, and collaborated with fellow Motown artist Billy Preston for the song “With You I’m Born Again” for the movie Fast Break.
Wright retired from show business in the mid-90s to settle in Los Angeles with her children, where she lived for the remainder of her life. She died in 2004 from congestive heart failure after enjoying a long career.