The Grammys Celebrate Motown, But the Relationship Got Off to a Slow Start

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Smokey Robinson and Cedric the Entertainer speak onstage during Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration at Microsoft Theater on Feb. 12, 2019 in Los Angeles.

On Sunday night, the Grammys will celebrate Motown's matchless legacy. But Grammy voters weren't always dancing in the street.

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, which airs April 21 on CBS, pays respect to a history-making, game-changing record company. The two-hour show, co-hosted by Cedric the Entertainer and Motown legend Smokey Robinson, features such Motown icons as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, as well as non-Motown artists like John Legend and Little Big Town.   

Motown, founded in 1959, was 14 years old before the label received its first Grammy nominations for record, album or song of the year. The recognition came in 1973 when Wonder was a finalist in all three categories for "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and Innervisions, which won for album of the year.

That means Grammy voters passed over such classics as The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," The Temptations' "My Girl” and Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for record and song of the year, as well as Gaye's What's Going On and Wonder's Music of My Mind for album of the year. 

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The Grammys didn't have anything against Motown. They were struggling to keep up with the changes in contemporary music in the '60s. Early members of the Recording Academy, which was founded in 1957, loved jazz and traditional pop and hadn't yet come around to most rock 'n' roll and R&B. These genres were threatening to topple the music that early Grammy voters knew and loved best, by such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. It took the Grammy voters some time to recognize that there's greatness in all genres.

The first Motown recording to receive a Grammy nom was Mary Wells' "You Beat Me to the Punch," which was nominated for the 1962 award for best rock and roll recording (rather than best rhythm and blues recording, where it would have more comfortably fit). The first to win a Grammy was The Temptations' "Cloud Nine," which took the 1968 award for best R&B performance by a duo or group. By then, the label had already had dozens of national hits.

The Grammys have long since gotten onboard with Motown. Wonder is one of only three artists in Grammy history to win album of the year three times. (The others are Sinatra and Paul Simon.) And Wonder is the only artist to achieve the feat with three consecutive studio releases: InnervisionsFulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. Wonder has amassed 25 Grammys to date, which puts him in a tie for fifth place on the all-time winners list.

Lionel Richie is also a major Grammy winner. Richie won the 1984 award for album of the year for Can't Slow Down and the 1985 award for song of the year for "We Are the World," which he co-wrote with Motown alumnus Michael Jackson. Richie has received six song of the year noms, which puts him in a tie with Paul McCartney for most noms in the history of the category.

Other Motown hits winning Grammys in performance categories include Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)," Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," the Dazz Band's "Let It Whip," Commodores' "Nightshift" and Robinson's "Just to See Her.”

Just as Grammy voters' conservatism hurt Motown in the '60s, that same tendency came to help Motown in the '70s and '80s, when their artists were the established veterans and their music was in Grammy voters' comfort zone. Can't Slow Down's album of the year victory in 1984 may have been due to two rock blockbusters -- Prince and the Revolution's Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. -- splitting the votes of more progressive, rock-leaning voters.

That same year, Motown had two of the five song of the year nominees for the first and only time with Richie's "Hello" and Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You,” showing that by this time, Motown (and these two artists in particular) were universally known and embraced. 

The Recording Academy has bestowed various honorary awards on Motown and its artists over the years as well. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. received a trustees award in 1991 and an industry icon award in 2008.

The academy has granted lifetime achievement awards to seven artists associated with the label: Four Tops, Gaye, Jackson, Robinson, Ross, The Temptations and Wonder, as well as the Funk Brothers, the band of studio musicians that played on countless Motown classics.

In addition, two songwriting teams that wrote many of these hits -- Holland-Dozier-Holland and Nicholas Ashford & Valerie Simpson -- have been voted trustees awards. (Ashford & Simpson are due to get theirs this year.)

A total of 31 Motown recordings have been voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. 

Among the other artists appearing on Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, which taped at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Feb. 12, are Lamont Dozier, Brian and Eddie Holland, Simpson, Houston, Martha Reeves, Mickey Stevenson, Chloe x Halle, Ciara, Fantasia, Tori Kelly, Ne-Yo, Pentatonix and Meghan Trainor