This blog considers every single released on every Motown label between 1959 and 1988. However, Motown didn’t just pop into existence in January 1959 with the first release on Tamla Records; the story leading up to Tamla’s foundation is worth going over, however briefly, to fill in the gaps prior to Tamla T 101.

Motown was really the vision of one man, Berry Gordy Jr., a former boxer and auto worker who ran a failed record store before taking the next step and forming his own record label.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gordy was also an excellent songwriter, racking up some early credits in the mid- to late-Fifties with hits for Jackie Wilson (Reet Petite and Lonely Teardrops were two of his), and this reputation gave him, and his fledgling label, a credibility with artists that other tiny indies couldn’t match.

It was the paltry returns from Gordy’s early songwriting efforts, in particular a run-in with a non-paying publisher, which inspired him to get involved with the business side of the music industry as well as the creative side. Gordy’s first business venture of this kind, named “Rayber” – for Raynoma Liles Gordy (his then-wife, universally known as “Miss Ray”) and Berry Gordy – was primarily a songwriting and arranging company, but together with William “Smokey” Robinson of local band the Matadors (later Miracles) and a number of other local songwriters and performers, Rayber also dabbled in recording and production. They had access to a cramped, makeshift home studio, and corraled together a loose choir of backing vocalists who were christened “the Rayber Voices”, and who would later feature on a number of early Motown recordings.

Gordy also took a major step during this era in forming his own publishing house, Jobete Music Publishing, which would enable his fledgling label to sign songwriters as well as performers and hopefully open up a steady stream of revenue from that angle as well.

There definitely was at least one release on “Rayber Records”, I Can’t Concentrate by Wade Jones (more of which on the following page), but it’s unclear what relationship this bears to the Motown stuff. My guess was that this predated the formation of Tamla, perhaps as a tentative toe-in-the-water effort, a “dry run” at actually releasing a record rather than simply writing songs and licensing recordings; Robb Klein, in the comments section below, gives a much more plausible version of events, whereby “Rayber Records” only existed to shop the Wade Jones record, as a way of advertising Berry and Miss Ray’s services as writers, producers, arrangers etc.

Whatever the case, with the money from these early ventures, and an $800 investment from the Gordy family co-op fund – which wasn’t granted straight away, meaning the history of popular music might well have been irrevocably changed by a reticent plasterer had the family not been persuaded – Berry finally took the plunge and started a record label proper.

(That $800 turned out to be one of the all-time great investments; when Gordy finally sold his business in 1988, he made more than 61 million dollars, for a profit of some 76,250%, not to mention a lifetime of royalties. Not bad going for a self-proclaimed semi-literate boxer.)

Berry and Miss Ray had seen local teenage vocalist Marv Johnson in action – according to some accounts, they’d actually been present in the studio while Marv recorded his debut single for the Kudo label – and subsequently decided to release a local Detroit-area single by Johnson themselves, renting some studio time to cut the record (this being in the days before the famous “Hitsville USA” house on West Grand Boulevard was purchased).

It was therefore little-known Marv Johnson who had the first release on Tamla Records, which is where our story starts in earnest, and where my life disappears for the next couple of years. Buckle up.

You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.

You are at the start! Wade Jones
“I Can’t Concentrate”


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