For these artists, there was no luck involved. It was blood, sweat, and beers. In some cases, it was a healthy heaping of cocaine and heroin too, but that’s the life of an artist.
While Motown Records did not have exclusive rights to the success stories of black recording artists, they do take credit as the single most influential black artist record label for the 20th and 21st century. For that reason, you won’t find Ray Charles on this list. Charles recorded albums with many labels, but not Motown.
To single out five artists from Motown as the ones who changed music forever is like selecting the most important gems in the crown jewels. It’s impossible to rule out the subjective. Despite this, we’ve endeavored to do just that.
To make this list, the artist had to have at least one solo album on Motown. Of their albums, at least one had to go gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) standards.
Prior to 1989, gold albums were awarded when an artist sold 1-million copies of an album. The RIAA lowered that number to 500,000 after ’89.
After the change, 1-million units sold qualified the artist for platinum. In today’s world, for example, Diana Ross would have received both platinum and multi-platinum sales.
Group acts did not make our list, so while groups like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Commodores, and Boyz II Men paved highways through the music industry, they did not make this list.
These are not in any particular order, but we will differentiate why some of these artists may or may not be more influential than the rest as we go. To that end, we’ll take the ladies first approach for no other reason than men get enough attention.
Born Diana Ernestine Earle Ross, Diana Ross fit better on album covers. Ross was a founding member of the Supremes, which was the most successful Motown act of all time.
When Ross left the Supremes in 1970, she recorded many albums before her first gold album in 1980, entitled, The Boss. She recorded that one in 1979, but her 1980, self-titled Diana went platinum in ’81.
In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records crowned Ross the most successful female music artist. Between her work with the Supremes and her solo work, Ross was a part of 70 hit singles. No other female artist on Motown can hang her hat on so many accomplishments.
Ross is not only a talented vocalist, she’s a competent actor too. She earned Golden Globe and Academy Awards in the 70’s.
Ross not only paved a way for black recording artists but women of any heritage.
Born Arica Abi Wright, Erykah Badu took the world by storm in the ‘90s with her unique style of R&B mixed with Hip Hop.
Her first album, not recorded with Motown, titled Baduizm, went triple-platinum. Then her second album, a live album titled Live, went double-plat.
It was after that she recorded her third album, Mama’s Gun, with Motown in 2000. That album went platinum that same year. She also recorded Worldwide Underground with Motown, which went Gold in 2003.
While fans loved Badu for her mashup musical style and biting lyrics, they also loved her eccentric fashion sense. Although she’s transformed herself many times over the years, her signature look back in the day was large head wraps.
Like Ross, Badu has enjoyed a successful acting career. It is her competency as a performer on vinyl and on the silver screen that earns Badu a spot on this list.
Younger performers who want to make a soulful career, but stay tied to their heritage have a better opportunity to shine thanks to Badu.
If you grew up in the ‘80s it seemed you couldn’t escape the sweet sounds of Lionel Brochman Richie, Jr, or just Lionel Richie.
Richie started out with the Commodores in ’68. By ’82 he was solo. The list of hit songs with his name attached is endless.
Women fawned over his smooth singing style, his dancing on the ceiling, and that mustache. Men knew Richie was the right music to play when you wanted to do some of your own dancing on the ceiling. You put on Lionel between Marvin Gaye albums.
In 1984, Richie’s ’82 self-titled album went multi-platinum, then his 1983 album Can’t Slow Down went diamond (10x platinum). All told, he had four albums go multi-plat. Six went Gold.
So far in his life, Richie has won four Grammys, one Golden Globe and one Oscar for best song.
After a long hiatus from the late ‘80s into the ’90s, Richie returned to music producing the same sound that made him famous. In fact, he still does, albeit at a slower pace than the younger version of himself.
Richie’s music crosses cultures, enjoyed by people around the world, including a huge fan following in the middle east. Any R&B, soul or funk act can thank Lionel for paving that pathway.
You can’t talk about Lionel Richie if you don’t mention Marvin. Gaye was born in ’39 and lived until 1984. He takes credit as one of the early voices that shaped the sound of Motown.
Without him, there might not have been a Richie, not at Motown. Like Richie, Gaye started out in a group in the ‘50s, The Marquees, but by 1960 they disbanded. Gaye relocated to Detroit where he met Berry Gordy, the guy who started Motown.
Gaye’s sound was unique, though many have since tried to reproduce it. (Ahem, Robin Thicke.) He sang R&B for the most part, but later in life, that sound mellowed into more soulful sounds.
Most people know Gaye for his 1982 hit song, Sexual Healing. Gaye produced a couple of gold albums, 20th Century Masters – The Best of Marvin Gaye, which went gold in 2003), and What’s Going On, which made it 1993.
The life of Marvin Gaye ended in tragedy. His own father shot and killed him in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Born Stevland Hardway Morris, it’s hard to imagine him as anything other than Stevie Wonder. The man is a musician, a songwriter, singer, and producer.
Despite being blind since shortly after birth, Wonder started life as a musical prodigy, signed by Motown when he was only 11-years-old. That was in ’61. Wonder would continue to record with Motown as recently as 2010.
In addition to a record-breaking 25 solo Grammys, Wonder has sold over 100-million records worldwide. In 1976 she recorded the album Songs in the Key of Life. By 2005 that album earned a diamond award by the RIAA.
Other platinum albums include The Woman in Red (1984), Characters (1988), Song Review: Greatest Hits (2003), The Definitive Collection (2005). Wonder’s gold albums include A Time to Love (2005), At Close Of The Century (2004), Conversation Peace (1995), and the Jungle Fever Soundtrack (1991).
By his accomplishments, no solo artist did more than Wonder on the Motown label. He’s not only received accolades, since an early age he broke through racial barriers with his music.
It’s fair to say, without Wonder, there would have been no Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson – Bonus
Ripped from the world in 2009, no artist from Motown would enjoy such worldwide domination as Michael Jackson. Like Wonder, he was a prodigy, singing in the family musical group, The Jackson Five. That was age six.
Whereas Wonder shared all his success with Motown, Jackson had more success after he left Motown. It was seven years after his debut with the Jackson Five, he started his solo career, working on Motown.
While Richie and Gaye made their way into the bedrooms of hopeful young men, Jackson dominated the dance floors of the ‘80s. In many ways, his sound defined the decade.
Jackson would only record four albums with Motown. One of those albums, Got To Be There, went gold in 2013. He never recorded a platinum album with Motown.
It was after Motown, with Epic Records, that Jackson recorded Thriller, the highest selling album ever. You can still hear Jackson’s influence across races and nations. Like Sinatra to crooners, everyone carries a piece of Michael’s sound in pop.
Before you scream, “Where is Smokey Robinson? Where’s Rick James? Where the heck is Gladys???” Take it easy.
It wasn’t easy narrowing this list to five. We couldn’t even do it. Michael pushed his way onto the end there, because, well…. he’s Michael.
Whatever your opinion, Motown’s scope of influence swings well beyond this short list. These are just the best solo acts. If we open this up to the groups, we’ll never get out of here.