Motown Spotlight - March 2018

Motown Spotlight – March 2018

Can it really be over fifty years ago that one of the most groundbreaking programmes was screened on prime time national television?  Well, indeed it is, and for people as young as myself, we settled in to watch an event that, in my opinion, was a first, not only for Motown fans, but the British public in general. As Rediffusion covered the  London area, and I lived in East Sussex, I needed to secure the indoor television aerial in just the right position to pick up a viewable signal.  Quite an art I can tell you, but possible. So, what am I talking about? The Sound Of Motown, screened at 9.40pm on 28 April 1965 on Associated Rediffusion Television.  To say it was the most exciting of programmes would be a total understatement. It was a dream come true, an ambition realised, and, although not recognised at the time, the programme made significant inroads into breaking down the barriers erected in the entertainment world.

So, how did it come about?  As years passed, different stories emerged but I think it’s fair to say that this is probably what happened. However, let’s backtrack for a second to another programme which, to all intents and purposes, was the launching pad for The Sound Of Motown.  On 9 August 1963, Ready Steady Go, a brand new, and innovative music programme was screened for the first time by Rediffusion. I won’t dwell too much on this because the series – which lasted until 23 December 1966 – has been well documented over the years, but suffice to say, it revolutionised the way in which music was presented to viewing audiences.  Originally filmed in the small Studio 9 in London’s Kingsway, where participating acts mimed to their songs, Ready Steady Go was later transferred to the larger Studio 5 at Wembley, enabling artists to perform live, with an orchestra tucked away somewhere which was difficult due to the layout of the studio floor.  Artists performed on different mini-stages, often in the middle of a dancing audience; occasionally from studio gantries, or from the top of a staircase. As if this wasn’t tricky enough, the ever present cameras were large with rotating lens turrets rather than zooms, and weaved around the audience, often careering into unsuspecting individuals.  But, hey, that was part of the fun and no serious damage was done. RSG was glorious organised mayhem, broadcast live, bringing into our living rooms some of the best soul music of the time, alongside the major names in popular music.

The best remembered presenters, Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan, steered the programme as best they could, often stumbling over their lines and presenting acts that weren’t ready to perform.  Joining them was the now solo Dusty Springfield, riding off her first hit single “I Only Want To Be With You”.  A regular visitor to the programme as a member of The Springfields, and as a member of the audience, Dusty was a Britain’s top female singer and a huge coupe for the RSG team. Besides she loved to party!  By now, of course, it was no secret that The Beatles and Dusty were avidly flying the Motown flag, mentioning the company in interviews and singing its material on live and television shows. What better ambassadors could Motown have had!  “I suppose I had a lot to do with promoting them,” Dusty once said. “I didn’t realise it at the time.  It’s only when people have told me that, including Motown people themselves.  (Motown was) running my motor so to speak, so it never occurred to me that I was doing PR for them.  I was just entranced.”

Due to her immense drawing power it was decided to give Dusty her own television programme and, as she and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were now best friends, -after meeting up when Dusty appeared on Murray The K’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Extravaganza at New York’s Fox Theatre with a host of American acts including a Motown contingent – they were lined up to be her special guests.  This was to change, Dusty told me, when Berry Gordy planned to send his first Motown Revue to tour Britain to celebrate the opening of the Tamla Motown label during March 1965. Following a licensing deal with EMI Records, it was deemed logical to include all the touring acts with Martha and the girls. Besides it was a brilliant marketing tool to promote the new label, marking the longest free advertisement for a relatively unknown American artist roster on black and white commercial television.   The Motown Revue was to kick off at the Finsbury Park Astoria on 20 March, before hitting venues in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Wolverhampton, among others.  Twenty-one towns in twenty-four days, with a television programme to rehearse, film and complete before they left London.  No mean feat!

Shortly after 7am on Monday, 15 March 1965, the Motown contingent arrived at London Airport on their chartered Boeing 707.  Berry Gordy’s artists were accompanied by lawyer George Schiffer, Maxine Powell, chaperones Evelyn Johnson and Ardena Johnson, road managers, assistants and hairdressers, while Berry Gordy brought his three oldest children (Hazel, Berry and Terry), his mother and father.  Carrying customised B.O.A.C. Cunard flight bags advertising the Tamla Motown label, they were all enthusiastically welcomed by members of Dave Godin’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society.  Prior to the visit, Berry had written to Dave confirming that 15 March was a red letter day because his new label would be launched on that date. “It is as a result of such loyal and devoted efforts as yours that such an historic event is possible. All the artists and entire staff join me in thanking you for your loyal and unwavering support of Tamla Motown and its artists.”

Once everyone was settled in the Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone, meeting up with The Temptations was first for obligatory photo shoots around London’s tourist attractions. This was supervised by Motown UK’s Peter Prince and, my, how those historic visuals have remained relevant through the decades.  Almost magical. Next was free time where they explored the West End. Incidentally, The Supremes were the only group to occupy the penthouse suite next to the Gordy family, confirmed by the ladies in later press interviews. They also talked of the gifts Berry lavished on them, including diamond rings.

Anyway, back to the plot, and following hasty meetings between Dusty and Vicki Wickham, producer of Ready Steady Go, Rediffusion were asked to approve the  revised plan for the television programme.  Dusty was now to host a Motown show featuring Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Earl Van Dyke Sextet, whose membership was the company’s finest – Jack Ashford, Eli Fontaine, Robert White, Bob Cousar, Tony Newton, led by their leader, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke.  Not surprisingly, Berry Gordy wouldn’t allow his two most valued musicians, drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson, to tour. They stayed in Detroit to head up the remaining musicians, to keep recording sessions flowing in the artists’ absence. Martha Reeves was happy with this new concept. She still had an ace up her sleeve.  By the way, The Temptations, who weren’t on the Revue, were already in Britain on a promotional trip, and returned to Detroit following the show’s taping. Stevie Wonder was also in town prior to the Revue arriving, while Gordy’s most in-demand soloist Marvin Gaye was unable to join them due to a serious viral infection.

Originally, called Dusty Springfield Presents The Sound Of Motown, it was during production abbreviated to The Sound Of Motown, although the concept remained untouched.  Music journalist, Bob Dawbarn, who attended the rehearsals at the Wembley studio wrote “It was the usual shambles as the fast-moving show was assembled. With artists streaking like greyhounds in and out of dressing rooms for quick costume changes and sweating cameramen given only seconds to switch from one group to the next.”   Supremes, Florence Ballard told him – “We’ve brought fourteen changes of costume on this trip. The big problem is sizes.  Finding something that we all liked, that will look right in all our sizes.”  However, Bob’s immediate impression was one of complete and polished professionalism of the participating artists which, he wrote, “makes some of our miming monsters look the rank amateurs they really are.”

The acts worked for twelve hours solid at the studio, with no retakes, singing live to pre-recorded tracks although upon viewing it did seem Earl Van Dyke’s musicians were also playing in the moment.  The studio itself was more like a large industrial yard and looking at a picture of it now, showing all the acts for the finale, there was scaffolding to one side of the studio, the audience seated on the other, with a backdrop of the artists’ names littered across the skyline of Detroit. Immediately in front of the backdrop was a raised area for the dancers which stretched from one side to the other; in front of this, the musicians, who looked out onto the huge space in front of them. On this particular picture, Martha and the Vandellas were next to The Temptations and Dusty on one side, in the middle The Miracles and Stevie Wonder, and on the other side The Supremes.  Scattered around them were cameramen, steering cumbersome equipment, varying in size.

However, although the running order was planned in advance, it became apparent that as rehearsals progressed Berry Gordy was calling the shots. Martha Reeves, who was Dusty’s first choice, noticed these changes, as she recalled in her autobiography “Dancing In The Streets”. “I took offence when Berry began moving acts around until The Supremes were in a co-starring position.  The Supremes didn’t even know Dusty but suddenly they were incorporating a cover version of Sam Cooke’s ’Shake’ to supply them material for an additional spot.”  She also commented that The Supremes’ records were just starting to sell in Britain, while she and the Vandellas had toured once before, cementing a solid fan base, therefore her group should have been awarded the extra spot.  She told Berry of her feelings and balked at his response which went along the lines of that The Supremes were on the top rung of the ladder and Martha and the Vandellas were on the lower one. “My disappointment showed clearly on my face and in my voice. As we lined up for the finale, I was directed by the producers to a spot where the camera did not reach.  Standing off to the sidelines for the finale, I must have looked real ugly because I was so sad and hurt.”

However, what Martha didn’t realise at the time, because the comments came from the television viewers, her duet with Dusty on “Wishin’ And Hopin’” was voted as one of the programme’s highlights, even to this day.  “I could see Diane in the wings eating her heart out because she hadn’t been chosen to do it,” Martha further wrote in her book. “On another number (‘Can’t Hear You No More’) we also sang backup for Dusty.”  I’ve just watched a video of “Wishin’ And Hopin’” and smiled because  Dusty is gooning around part way through the song, which I suspect, is a reaction to being plagued by nerves.  In her book “Dreamgirl”, Mary Wilson wrote that she enjoyed working with Dusty.  “Her and the crew treated each one of us like a star, but it was clear that Martha and the Vandellas were their favourites.  That was okay. I always thought there was room for all of us at the top.”

Once the cameras had rolled for the last time and the programme was in the bag, the Motowners  headed for a party hosted by singer Dana Valery in Holland Park.  There they joined Vicki, Dusty and her brother Tom, members of the Rolling Stones, Madeline Bell, Sandie Shaw, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, among others. A who’s-who in British music, all wanting to bask in Motown’s magic.

So, it’s now the evening of 28 April and The Sound Of Motown is about to start.  And one by one, we’re introduced to the Sound of Young America on a whistle-stop tour of classic songs, iconic dance routines and lifetime memories.  We salivated to Martha and the Vandellas with “Heatwave”, “Nowhere To Run”, “Dancing In The Street”;  The Supremes and “Baby Love”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go”.  We loved The Temptations impeccable choreography while performing “My Girl”, “It’s Growing”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, while soaking up The Miracles’ smooth deliveries on “Ooo Baby Baby”, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”. Little Stevie’s “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues” and “Kiss Me Baby” was compulsive viewing as, in one instance, he performed on top of a pedestal without falling off.  Then, before you can catch your breath or believe your eyes, the finale “Mickey’s Monkey” with all acts singing and dancing, rounded off this once-in-a-lifetime programme, in true Motown style!   “The actual sound of Tamla Motown is always distinctive and unmistakable” said Dusty at the time. “The music is light, lifting but strong..and never boring. The songs are excellent and because of this many have become standards.  The artists are as exciting as their records. All professional and knock-out performers. There’s the phenomenal Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas.  Their ‘Heatwave’, ‘Live Wire’ and my all-time favourite ‘Dancing In The Street’ make them one of the most exciting acts I’ve ever seen.”

As time passed fans were desperate to own a copy of the programme, but nothing seemed to be available either legally or not. Dave Clark International bought the rights to the programme and it appears refused, for some reason, to make it commercially available. Then in 1985, “Ready Steady Go! Special Edition” was released, featuring The Sounds Of Motown including a clumsy insert of Marvin Gaye singing two songs, “How Sweet It Is” and “Can I Get A Witness”.  Until 2018, Dave Clark retained the rights, whereupon it was announced that BMG Rights Management had acquired ancillary rights to the whole Ready Steady Go series which I’m assuming, includes the Motown special.  Could it be a re-issue is on the horizon?

There’s much more that could be written about this extraordinary time in Motown’s British history, and the programme that’ll always remain a highlight, but I just thought an overview of how/where/when it came about might be of some interest. Sure, I realise I’ve neglected the actual Revue, so maybe we’ll get to this another time.

As always, thank you for being with me this month and, believe me,  there’s loads more coming your way this year.

Watch the entire show on YouTube…