By Mike Householder and Jeff Karoub
The Associated Press
ETROIT - On Jan. 12, 1959, Elvis Presley was in the Army. The Beatles were a little-known group called The Quarrymen casting about for gigs in Liverpool. The nascent rock 'n' roll world was a few weeks away from ''the day the music died'' - when a single-engine plane crash claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. ''The Big Bopper'' Richardson and Ritchie Valens.
The Associated Press
Anita Baker talks about Motown’s anniversary in Studio A of the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit.
It's also the day a 29-year-old boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. used an $800 family loan to start a record company in Detroit.
Fifty years later, Motown Records Corp. and its stable of largely African-American artists have become synonymous with the musical, social and cultural fabric of America. The company spawned household names, signature grooves and anthems for the boulevard and bedroom alike that transcended geography and race.
Motown may be 50 years old, but it isn't any less relevant with current hitmakers - from Taylor Swift to Coldplay - citing the label's signature ''sound'' as an influence.
The Associated Press, on the occasion of Motown's 50th, invited both Motown greats and heavyweights from the worlds of music and beyond to discuss how the legendary Detroit musical movement's sound, style, savvy and sensuality have stood the test of time.
''The thing that struck me was how ferociously determined he had to be to borrow that 800 bucks and start with nothing.'' - Bill Clinton, former U.S. president
The tale of the $800 loan has become the stuff of legend.
Gordy worked at a Ford Motor Co. plant and wrote songs when he could, all the while dreaming of owning and running his own record company.
The loan from his family's savings club allowed him to make that happen.
He had the vision and the seed money, but next, Gordy needed the talent - the singers, songwriters and musicians.
He didn't have far to look.
Detroit alone produced many of the creative wizards who gave Motown its initial burst.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles attended high school together, while Diana Ross and future Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard grew up in the city's housing projects.
Gordy plucked from Detroit's flourishing nightclub scene a group of supremely talented jazz musicians who would become the label's house band, the Funk Brothers. Strings, winds and brass came from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other classical outlets.
And the prolific songwriting trio known as Holland-Dozier-Holland - Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie - also were local hires.
The talent was there. Now what?
''Berry Gordy - people think of him as an entrepreneur, but he's a songwriter at heart, which makes total sense. You have a songwriter here and amazing songs. A guy has the brilliance to understand that it starts with great songs.'' - Anita Baker, R&B singer
Of course, it started with songs, but even that came with a competition more common to commerce than art.
Gordy knew cooperation was crucial, but rivalries among singers as well as songwriting teams would be the best way to get a record out the door and onto the top of the charts.
''If (songwriter) Norman Whitfield had a No. 1 hit on The Temptations, Holland-Dozier-Holland would say, 'Shoot, we gotta get a No. 1 with The Four Tops. Come on in here, Tops,''' recalled Abdul ''Duke'' Fakir, the lone surviving original member of The Four Tops, which signed with Motown in 1963 and produced 20 top 40 hits during the next decade.
''I'd say, 'Yeah man, you'd better hurry up, man. I got a bet with The Temptations we're gonna have one in the next two weeks.' We would just push and push and push.''
Fakir says there was a relentlessness on all levels of the recording process.
''Nothing was done generically. I've been to a lot of sessions outside of Motown where the session is very generic, very laid-back ... very professional, and there's no guts and blood,'' he said. ''But here, everything was done with passion.''
''You had naturally gifted engineers and producers that didn't let that technical expertise interfere with that rawness. ... Somehow the ... engineer/producers, thank God, either admittedly or just instinctually saw when these guys started jamming, it just sounded good.'' - Ted Nugent, rock guitarist and singer
Gordy may have been blessed with an unparalleled ability to recognize hits, but many say those great songs probably would've been a bit more ordinary if not for Studio A.
It didn't look like anything special - certainly by today's standards of digitized recording - but the sounds it produced were.
''You didn't have Pro Tools. It was perfectly imperfect,'' said country star Wynonna Judd. ''You had a lot of people who were sweaty and tired and who were singing from their toenails. ... If you can't cop it live, get off the porch.''
A square, smallish room, Studio A was accessed by descending a small flight of stairs. Its below-ground standing earned it the nickname ''The Snake Pit.''
There, artists, writers, producers, engineers - anybody associated with music-making - gathered to record.
For 13 years, nearly every Motown hit was cut in Studio A and the adjacent control room.
The Funk Brothers set up shop - James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on drums and so on - and the singers did their thing, all face-to-face in the same room.
''The studio itself is its own beast. It can take away or it can add to the sounds you're making with your instruments,'' said pop singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw. ''Some rooms are dead. You play a note, and the sound disappears.
''Some rooms they ring too much. Acoustically, they're just too active. But some of them, they just have good sound. The (Motown) recordings I've heard come out of that room. I listen to those recordings all the time, and I think: 'Why does that room sound so good?' There's something to be said for it.''
''That sound is just as alive today. And that sound still stands up. ... Everybody in the whole wide world has been influenced by Detroit and the Motown sound.'' - Dolly Parton, country singer, songwriter and actress
Motown was groundbreaking in many ways - from its signature sound and lengthy list of high-profile artists to the unique way it created and recorded music - but what's harder to pin down is what's kept the sound alive all these years.
''You hear (Motown) in almost everything,'' said Wilson, one-third of The Supremes. ''I think Motown music, the Motown sound, is the model, the template that people use today in the music, and yes, you can hear it.''
Swift, a country singer-songwriter, admits it: She's one of the those whose sound is influenced by Motown. The 19-year-old, who has entered the realm of superstardom after back-to-back multi-platinum albums, says she and her father listened to his Motown greatest hits CD on the way to school.
''From an early age, I had a bunch of different musical influences, but Motown I was just always so fascinated by the chord progression and how the lyrics and the melodies are so simple but they made you feel so much. I think that's the art of Motown,'' Swift said.
AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York contributed to this report.