The female recording artists at Motown played a pivotal role in the success of the label and were pioneers for women, and not just African-Americans, but women in general in the music industry.
At a time when all male British bands were beginning to invade the airwaves across the world, Motown was nurturing and promoting the talent of young female R&B vocalists. The key to their success was in the development of a new sound, different to the booming voices of gospel and soul singers such as Aretha Franklin, and something more accessible and marketable than the jazzy improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald. It came in the form of a sweet, soulful voice that still commanded attention. If anyone personified this new emerging sound, it was ‘the first lady of Motown’, Mary Wells.
Wells was the first female artist to score a number one hit for Motown in the R&B charts with ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’ in 1962, which also made her the first Motown artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award. After a string of hits and collaborations with producers Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, Wells finally scored her first number one hit on the Billboard Chart with ‘My Guy’ in 1964. This propelled her to international stardom after The Beatles stated that she was their “favourite American singer”, and chose her to open for them during their UK tour, subsequently making her the first Motown artist to perform overseas.
While these are all remarkable feats in their own right, it’s impressive to consider that during a time in the industry even more male-dominated than today, and in the height of the civil rights movement, all of this was achieved by an African-American woman.
There was a heavy push for all female vocal groups at Motown too, namely Martha and The Vandellas and The Supremes. R&B female vocal groups broke away from the manufactured pop sounds of lollipop girl groups such as The Angels, and instead, offered a more sophisticated sound both musically and lyrically.
A perfect example of this is the 1964 hit from Martha & The Vandellas, ‘Dancing In The Street’. The song features a driving rhythm, who some consider a pre-curser to disco, blaring horns, and raw, emotive vocals from Martha Reeves, all played out over a pounding rhythm and beat made literally by chains being beaten against a piece of lumber:
Another female vocal group featured on more hits than any of the female solo and group artists combined. They were The Andantes, and much like their male counterparts The Funk Brothers, they received little to no credit as they were session back-up singers.
However, the most recognisable and perhaps well-known female artist in Motown’s history is Diana Ross. Ross was part of the trio that made up The Supremes. The group would eventually become the most successful female group at Motown, although their career was plagued with tensions amongst themselves and with other female recording artists.
Many Motown artists felt that Berry Gordy Jnr. was devoting far too much of his attention and efforts on The Supremes, and in particular, the young Diana Ross. Martha Reeves would have many heated arguments with Gordy over this matter, as she felt he was completely ignoring the accomplishments of her band, Martha & The Vandellas.
This came to a head when Gordy Jnr. made an executive decision to place Ross as the leader of the group, and change their name to Diana Ross & The Supremes, kicking the very talented Florence Ballard out of the group shortly afterwards. While Diana Ross may have been loathed by many of her fellow Motown artists, she had the full support of Gordy Jnr. but most importantly, the charisma and talent which led her to forge her own prosperous solo career by the early 70s.
The monumental achievements of these female artists and many others carved a way for women in the music industry today, and influenced a generation of female artists such as Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey. However, the music industry continues to be quite heavily male-dominated, and as Lily Allen famously sang in 2014, “It’s hard out here for a bitch.”
At a glance, this may not be as obvious, but statistics suggest otherwise. Firstly, all the heads of the major labels are men. Secondly, and this may come as a surprise, 80% of the most played songs on radio are by male artists. Even on the Australian radio station Triple J, which is generally considered to be more inclusive and alternative, female artists make up only 29% of the most played songs. Live music events and festivals also seem to feature considerably more male artists than female artists.
It’s quite an astonishing difference.
Clearly, women enjoy music just as much as men do, and there are just as many female artists out there trying to make it in the industry. So why is there such a disparity? Do women in the industry simply give up sooner compared to men? Or is there a more patriarchal problem at play?
Either way -and although slow progress is being made – a re-working of the current system needs to be considered, but until then, it seems that sisters will continue doing it for themselves.