There are a handful of record labels that have influenced and changed the course of the music industry. Def Jam, Aftermath, Death Row, Columbia, Atlantic, Geffen, Bad Boy, Island—each label spawned their own set of chart-topping artists that we call our favorites. Yet, when you hear the word “Motown,” you aren’t just referencing a group of artists who were molded under the creative hands of Berry Gordy; You’re talking about a label who shaped its own genre of music.
Sixty-one years after Motown Records was founded by Gordy—a songwriter with a dream and an $800 loan from his family—the collective is still hailed as one of the most important record labels in music history. The artists that were birthed from the Detroit, Michigan headquarters are all-around icons in the industry, yet there are few who were apart of the vision before Motown’s formation.
Claudette Robinson – Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff / Getty Images
Every record label has its First Lady, and for Motown, that woman is legendary singer Claudette Robinson. As apart of The Miracles— along with Bobby Rogers, Marv Tarplin, Ronald White, and Smokey Robinson—Claudette watched as the label grew to the extraordinary powerhouse it became. However, the First Lady of Motown, a name bestowed on Claudette by Gordy himself, has watched as younger generations have grown deaf to Motown’s glory days. So, she’s taken steps to make sure kids don’t forget one of the greatest music collectives in the history of the world.
“I was speaking to my granddaughter, this was some time ago as she’s now 22,” Claudette shared with us exclusively. “I don’t remember specifically what the conversation was about, but it was about performers, entertainers, et cetera. So, I said, ‘You know Diana Ross…’ something. Whatever. And she looks at me, a couple of her friends were with her, and she said, ‘Granny, they don’t know who Diana Ross is.’”
While there are names from those peak Motown days that we believe should be recognizable to everyone, there’s an entire generation who isn’t familiar with the label’s influence. “I was like, something has gotta be done to let our young folks know what happened prior to their even existing,” the 77-year-old said. “In the early years, Diana used to come by the house and she would bring her children, the two older ones that actually played with my daughter, so in my mind, everybody knows who Diana Ross is. Much to my surprise and amaze, that’s not correct,” she added with a chuckle. “And not only Diana Ross but so many others.”
“As we were celebrating the 60th year, I thought, these kids were not even born,” Claudette recalled. “Their grandparents, some of them, were not even born. Or great grandparents.” This inspired the singer to create her children’s book Claudette’s Miraculous Motown Adventure with characters named after her The Miracles groupmates. “The book is really talking about music saving the day,” Claudette shared. “It’s kind of helping our younger generation and perhaps even older ones, to know how important music is to life, not just to be listening to music.”
The Miracles – including Smokey Robinson and Claudette board a plane in March 1965. They were on tour in the UK for the Tamla-Motown Revue tour – Evening Standard / Stringer / Getty Images
Claudette is filled with stories about her time on the road, bonding with her groupmates, and building relationships with the other young women like The Supremes who were added to the label. She spoke about how back then, everyone did everything together, even travel in packed cars from one gig to the next. Claudette and her The Miracles groupmate Smokey even married in 1959, but later divorced in 1986.
“There wasn’t a Motown when we began, we began with Mr. Gordy in 1957,” Claudette recalled of her first interactions with Motown founder. “Motown actually did not begin until January 12, 1959. At the time, everybody probably was singing. There were groups on every block and it was sort of like a form of recreation.” In today’s technology-driven culture, we’re used to having access to the world at our fingertips. Claudette said people occupied their time by creating singing groups and focusing on their crafts.
Initially, Claudette’s brother Emerson was in the singing group, but he didn’t feel as if their career was moving fast enough. He eventually joined the military and his group would later ask Claudette if she’d like to come on board as a vocalist. Soon, they were going out for auditions and singing in competitions. It was during one of these runs that they met a lesser-known songwriter named Berry Gordy who wanted to work with them.
“Being the first group of performers with Motown, I personally would like that fact to always be recognized and known,” Claudette explained. “Because the guys and myself worked really hard in those early days to accomplish something in terms of not only just being good performers but being good people. In terms of carrying yourself well, that you wouldn’t be an embarrassment to your company,” she added with a laugh. “I think we did a pretty good job because we were able to carry that on to the newer artists that came after us and I’m very proud of that fact for the group.”
Speaking of a new generation of artists, we wanted to know what advice a legend like The First Lady of Motown had for young creatives trying to build a legacy such as hers that includes a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Vince Bucci / Stringer / Getty Images
“If you have a dream and a goal and a passion, just stick to that,” Claudette said. “You must, at all times, practice whatever it is that you’re doing. You can’t just think that it’s okay because you have a great voice—there are many people in the world that have a great voice. Millions of people have great voices but they’re many times never heard.”
She added that people should make personal goals, set boundaries that they’re not going to cross for fame, and stick with the rules they’ve made for themselves. “The only person you’re going to disappoint is yourself,” said Claudette. “You can be practically anything that you desire to be, but it does take work and it’s harder from some than others. It can definitely be done.” Listen to a few of The Miracles’ hits below.