The Low Country’s Motown History

Over sixty years ago, in January 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records Corporation, with an $800 loan. Music history was born in Detroit, but people forget from where musicians and their inspiration came. 

Charleston and the low country have more ties to the revolutionary music one may think. Edisto’s own James Jamerson played bass on classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Bernadette,” and more. Jamerson played with iconic Motown artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson. The story goes that Gaye himself went looking around the bars of Detroit to find Jamerson, and personally brought him back to the studio to play for him. 

Anthony McKnight, Jamerson’s cousin, still resides in the Lowcountry and continues to advocate for Jamerson’s rightful place in the South Carolina history Hall of Fame.  Jamerson and his musical legacy are already memorialized at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Fender Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, Jamerson is not included in his own home state’s hall of fame. How could that be?

McKnight was invited as a special guest to attend “Celebrating 60 Years of Motown,” held on November 19, at the downtown Forte Jazz Lounge. The event, hosted by Charleston’s Sophia Institute, featured local talents Zandrina Dunning and Stephen Washington kicking off the night, followed by the featured act: David Anthony and Stephen Washington. The room was packed with guests, dancing and singing along to old-time favorites. 

As Berry Gordy once said, “Motown was about music for all people – white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone.”  

Since Charleston’s founding, the city has also been a center of cross-cultural interaction, from the long era of the slave trade to the local development of Gullah culture to its place as a prominent tourist destination today. Despite the well-documented history linking the African American experience and the rise of American music, surprisingly little information chronicles Charleston’s place in the music industry.

When celebrating Motown and the ways that its music crossed racial and generational barriers, challenging implicitly and explicitly racial oppression and discrimination, we must also remember the specific places and people that came together to make it possible. James Jamerson and the people of Charleston are part of that story.

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