Founded in 1959 by professional boxer, songwriter, and producer Berry Gordy, Motown Records became famous for it's assembly line production. Artists were shuttled in off the streets of Detroit and into a rigorous grooming process including finishing school, etiquette classes, dance lessons, and stage presence instruction by executive musical director Maurice King. Artists' careers were cultivated slowly, under the watchful eye of Gordy, and his infamous attention to detail. With what he called "The Sound of Young America," Gordy transformed an $800 loan (used to purchase the old studio house, affectionately christened "Hitsville, USA") into a multi-million dollar company. In it's most successful years between 1964-1967 Motown produced fourteen #1 Pop singles, twenty #1 R&B singles, forty-six more Top Fifteen Pop singles, and seventy-five more Top Fifteen R&B singles. Artists like The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, The Impressions, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and Smokey Robinson all thrived for years under the Motown label.
Around the same time down in Memphis, Stax Records was founded amidst a hotbed of racial tension. Despite the fact that in most southern cities, segregation prevaled and perverted nearly all daily interaction, Memphis's "transracial" attitude was unique. Music - particualrily the thriving nightclub scene - allowed for blacks and whites to comingle harmoniously and without incident. Judgments from one musician to the next were predicated on talent, not race or skin color. Like Motown, Stax began with one man: Jim Stewart. A bank worker by day, Stewart started Satellite records out of a garage in 1957, until the financial support of his sister Estelle allowed the duo to move into an abandoned theater. Their first big break came in 1961 when one of their artists, The Mar-Keys (formerly The Royal Spades) hit pay dirt with their single "Last Night." Satellite changed their name to Stax that same year, and "Soulsville, USA" was born. Over the next fifteen years, Stax produced the most extensive catalogue of soul music to date. Artists like Same and Dave, Booker T. and The MG's, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding lifted the label out of obscurity and into the annals of rock n' roll history.
One of the greatest differences between the two labels was their most basic approach to music production. Unlike the assembly line that was Motown, everything at Stax was recorded live, rough, and often unrehearsed. While one label found success in polished (over)production, the other capitalized on the gritty, raw emotional power of their environment. The legend of Motown was built in a studio. While Stax, in their authentic approach, embodied the streets.
It's like typing yourself Lennon or McCartney (Lennon, all the way). Are you a Motown or a Stax? Enter my showdown series. It may help you find out...
1. In Motown's Corner: The Marvelettes - Please Mr. Postman (1961) [mp3]
The Marvelettes were responsible for giving Motown it's first #1 Pop hit. Although their success was ultimately eclipsed by The Supremes (and diva Diana Ross), their mark on the Top Forty had been made. With nine more hits, The Marevelettes hit the beginning of the end when they passed on the chance to record "Baby Love," a single that would become a #1 smash for The Supremes.
2. In Stax's Corner: Carla Thomas - B.A.B.Y. (1966) [mp3]
Besides The Mar-Kays, Carla and her father Rufus Thomas were one of the first acts signed to the label, when it was still called Satellite. "B.A.B.Y." became Carla's most powerful single, reaching #14 on the Pop charts, and #3 on R&B, earning her the title of "Queen of Memphis Soul."
I think you know which kind of girl I am, and therefore where my Round 1 vote lies. But are you Moto or Stax?