No one has ever succeeded in fully and concisely explaining the reason for the massive appeal of the music created by Motown Record Corp., a popularity that is worldwide in scope and is beyond time and generations.
That is because Motown is a phenomenon, and phenomenons are not easily defined, if they can be defined at all.
One has to be careful in using a word such as “forever,” but it seems safe to say that Motown actually is forever. It is etched in the hearts of untold millions, and woven into the fabric of America. The company ranks second only to cars with regard to what Detroit is known for.
Motown moving to Los Angeles in the early 1970s — which is still a sore spot for many — had no effect on its Detroit association.
Indeed, in the days after the historic 1983 television special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” the Detroit office, located in the famous Hitsville U.S.A. building on W. Grand Blvd., was flooded with calls from around the world. It occurred to very few to call the West Coast headquarters because Motown was Detroit, period.
Hitsville, of course, became the Motown Historical Museum, founded by Esther Gordy Edwards, sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and a former Motown vice president.
Mrs. Edwards was known (and teased) for “never throwing anything away,” and because of this proclivity, and an unwavering commitment to preserving history, the Motown Museum exists, and continues to be a popular tourist attraction.
She is now retired and her granddaughter, Robin Terry, ably took over the reins as chairwoman and subsequently took to museum to the next phase.
MOTOWN IS lavishly celebrating its 50th (golden) anniversary this weekend.
The main event will be the black-tie Golden Gala on Saturday night, Nov. 21, at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Hotel. Hosted by Sinbad, the glittering affair will feature Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin and Kid Rock.
Dinner, dancing and guest performances will begin at 7 p.m., preceded by a VIP reception at 6. The evening will include memorial tributes to Michael Jackson, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops and producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield.
On Friday starting at 6 p.m. at the Roostertail, there will be Spirit of Detroit award presentations, an autograph session, plus performances by the Miracles and the Contours. Then at 8 p.m., John Mason will host a “Bop to Ballroom” party.
For more information on any of these events, call (313) 875-2264. Tickets are very pricey, but those who can afford them will be helping the Motown Museum to survive and grow.
IT WAS AS if Motown was somehow meant to be, as though the Almighty had a hand in its founding and blossoming. It seems unlikely that all of those artists, musicians, songwriters, producers, etc. just happened to be in Detroit. But if it was happenstance, then thank God anyway for such a special instance of “time and chance.”
Motown scored its first major national hits in 1960 and 1961, including “Shop Around” (the Miracles), “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Barrett Strong), “Please Mr. Postman” (the Marvelettes) and “Bye Bye Baby” (Mary Wells).
Throughout 1962 and 1963, the hits came out one after another, by most of the above named artists joined by Little Stevie Wonder (“Fingertips”), the Contours (“Do You Love Me?), Martha & the Vandellas (“Come and Get These Memories,” “Heat Wave”) and Marvin Gaye (“Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Can I Get a Witness?”).
The record industry began taking a closer look at the small, Black owned company in Detroit that was so hot.
But no one could have imagined what was on the horizon.
IN THE SUMMER of 1964, “the Motown sound” literally exploded, sparked by a song written and produced by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland titled “Where Did Our Love Go?” recorded by the Supremes, who would enjoy many more No. 1 hits and become the most successful and influential female vocal group of all time.
The Motown roster was nothing short of amazing: the Supremes, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, and later on, the Jackson 5.
There were plenty of other artists as well who, though not superstars, had a substantial amount of success and made important contributions to Motown’s history, such as Jimmy Ruffin, the Undisputed Truth, Brenda Holloway, the Originals, Tammi Terrell, Rare Earth, the Isley Brothers, Kim Weston, Edwin Starr, the Velvelettes, the Spinners, Shorty Long and Syreeta.
In the 1970s and 1980s, after the move to the West Coast, Motown continued to be a major player with top sellers by the Commodores, Lionel Richie, Rick James, Teena Marie, DeBarge, the Mary Jane Girls and others. However, the golden era was clearly the mid to late 1960s.
And we would be remiss to not mention Motown’s famous house band, the Funk Brothers, and the amazing trio of background singers, the Andantes.
It is not far-fetched to imagine the 100th anniversary of Motown being celebrated in 2059. That is because Motown’s best music, like the monumental classics of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, is forever.