Motown Spotlight - January/February 2019

Motown Spotlight – January/February 2019

[Site owner David Nathan note: ‘This Motown Spotlight should have been published at the end of January – so apologies to Sharon and all for the delay.”]

Happy 60th birthday Motown!  And a Happy New Year to you – even though it’s now the first week of February! Both belated I know, but, I can assure you, the sentiments are exactly the same. So let’s TCB…Over the past few weeks information has filtered through about plans to celebrate this extremely significant event so I’ll run them past you now and, needless to say, if you know of  others, do please let me know.

So, first off. As part of a year long celebration, the Motown Museum announced plans to run an online video series, “Archive Dives”, bringing into the public arena unseen items from its treasure trove of artifacts.  If I’m right, this started the day before the actual anniversary on Saturday, 12 January, and will continue on a regular basis via its Facebook page, tying in key dates in Motown’s history.  The revealed items will then go on display in Hitsville. The anniversary ball also got rolling with a digital playlist of 70 vintage songs and I think Spotify is the site to check out to hear these.  Robin Terry, Museum chairwoman and CEO told the Detroit Free Press “We have this tremendous collection of artefacts and many aren’t seen by the public.  We’re taking the anniversary year as an opportunity to showcase some of these unique items.”

Motown Museum Facebook Page

Kicking off the series is the actual Ber-Berry Co-op savings account book owned by Berry Gordy Sr, which, among other things, shows the organizational structure put in place by members of the family; minutes from the Co-op meeting dated 8 February 1959, providing a glimpse into how the family conducted their business at this time, and the archival document that was the official accounting ledger certifying the re-payment of Berry’s $800 loan.  “What’s really exciting for us, and for all Motown fans, is that this is just the beginning,” Terry said. “It’s a privilege for us to continue to share more Motown history and artifacts from our vast collection with fans and to tell new stories in new ways.” This stockpile of unseen treasures is also one of the driving forces behind the non-profit Museum’s $50 million fundraising campaign to expand the complex with 40,000 square feet of exhibits, meeting and performing areas, among other things, with expectations of quadrupling the complex’s footprint. These guys don’t do things by half do they?!

Other events planned by the Museum include a 60th anniversary exhibition in early spring and a party in the grounds with live music, free Museum tours and food trucks, which has been tagged as a beefed-up edition of the annual Founder’s Day event that’s held in commemoration of Berry’s late sister Esther, who, as you know, took on the challenge of opening the Museum to the public during 1985. What a stroke of genius that was too!  I have to say, it was a huge thrill and personal ambition to get the chance to meander through the smallish rooms where history was made: in fact, if it wasn’t for the photos I took at the time, can’t believe I was actually there. And from what some other folks have told me, they felt exactly the same although putting into actual words the overwhelming feelings of being there, was somewhat difficult. Only one gripe though was the shop where prices were sky-high and beyond the reach of my pay packet for sure.  I wonder how the former first lady Michelle Obama felt when she wandered around in December? Judging by the video I’ve seen, it was smiles all round. Anyhow, I’m digressing…

So, according to the Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum, the keystone event will be Motown’s 60th birthday celebrations covering 21-23 September on sites across Detroit, opening with a black-tie concert dinner “Hitsville Honors”. A Motown-infused gospel concert in partnership with local churches is planned for the next day, with the weekend closing on a high note with the “Soul-In-One Motown Golf Classic.”  Robin Terry further said the plans were geared to include everyone in the local community because “This is obviously a tremendous milestone year. Our approach is to celebrate six decades of not only phenomenal music but these artists who came out of Detroit.”

We’re used to Motown’s anniversaries aren’t we?  Some are true to the dates while others, well, adopted a certain amount of poetic licence.  Actually, I’m thinking in particular of the award-winning  “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” staged at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California, on 25 March 1983. Broadcast by NBC and later available commercially, didn’t we all sit open-mouthed as Marvin Gaye played at the piano, Michael Jackson moonwalked, Smokey Robinson rejoined The Miracles, Stevie Wonder sang with Wonderlove, the Four Tops and The Temptations performed the “battle of the bands”, and Diana Ross returned to the Supremes to the strains of “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  Thirty second spots were afforded to Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Jr Walker, among others, which did not sit at all well with them or Motown fans, yet it was those who were omitted or not actually invited that caused the most upset. We won’t go there now, but suffice to say the album “The Motown Story: First 25 Years” narrated by Lionel Richie and Smokey, followed.  Now long out of print, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Recording.

Also worth a mention is the two-part anniversary special “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” screened by ABC in 1998.  The four-hour documentary featured interviews and performances by Smokey, Diana, Lionel, En Vogue, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, among other A-line names. Also “Motown 50” in 2009 when a variety of artists returned to Hitsville during January to officially launch the year’s celebrations.  Duke Fakir was joined by the likes of Rosalind Ashford, members of the Funk Brothers, Bobby Rogers, Gil Bridges, Mrs Maxine Powell and Paul Riser.   “Fifty years is a wonderful anniversary” Duke told Billboard magazine. “You’ve got to give credit to the songs but, of course, you’ve got to give credit to Berry Gordy for the vision. He had the whole vision, and he made it come true. It’s just great to be part of that legacy and still be alive to talk about it.”

Several discs were issued with the special 50th logo attached, while us Brits were treated to the “Divas of Motown” tour in the November, featuring Chris Clark, Brenda Holloway, the Former Ladies of the Supremes, Thelma Houston, Mable John and Jack Ashford’s Funk Brothers Band.  Wow!  What a concert that was! So what concerts for 2019, I wonder?

This year will also honour Motown’s artists who have passed and those, happily, still with us, like Martha Reeves (who has to be the company’s finest and truest ambassador), Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Otis Williams, Duke Fakir and Mary Wilson. However, I’m not sure as I write this, just what part they will play, maybe over the September weekend.  Anyway, watch this space.

From the musical note to the written word or, to be more precise, colourful pictures. Mark Bego (who you may remember assisted Martha Reeves with her terrific autobiography “Dancing In The Street”) announced on his Facebook page that he helped Mary Wilson compile a 240-page coffee table type book “Supreme Glamour” due to be published this year by Thames & Hudson, the same company behind Adam White’s glorious “Motown:The Sound Of Young America” tome now available in soft back. In a press statement the publisher said, “Marrying sumptuous fashion with insightful biography, ‘Supreme Glamour’ charts the glittering story of  Motown’s most successful act and original pop fashionistas.”

And, let’s not forget either the many hints thrown at us during the past few months about “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” docufilm which focuses on the birth of the company through to its relocation to Los Angeles in 1972.  It will feature new and exclusive interviews with Berry and several of his top artists and creative figures, rare performances and behind-scenes footage from Berry’s personal archives and items discovered in the company’s vaults. Check out https://classic.motown.com/ for more information.

Finally, if you’re planning a trip to New York this year, do try to get tickets for the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life And Times Of The Temptations” based on Otis Williams’ informative autobiography which, I have to say, spares no punches.  The jukebox musical has had a series of regional productions and is expected to hit Broadway next month with previews from the 28th, before the opening night on 21 March.

So, what of the UK and what plans for celebrations here?  Well to be honest, so far, I know of only one very special CD release which hopefully I can talk about next time, likewise a Motown/Northern Soul weekender in Skegness during September featuring three much revered and loved Motown ladies. I’m so happy to read about nightclubs and pubs up and down the country devoting evenings to Motown; tribute groups and shows keeping the sound alive, while radio stations have done the same, with more coming during the year I expect. Actually, on that subject, if anyone cares to spend a little time celebrating with me, do please visit  https://www.mixcloud.com/HailshamFM/sharon-davis-12012019/

Well, that’s about it for now.  Needless to say, will keep you updated as items hit me but, as mentioned before, if you know of any celebrations going on, do let me know and I’ll be happy to share.  We’re in this together remember, so do hope we’ll be holding hands through this year because, to be honest,  it’ll be lonely without you.

Final words then from Robin Terry;  “This year the whole of  Detroit will salute its legacy. The world is going to be celebrating Motown throughout this 60-year anniversary but no other city can claim the birthplace.”

Motown Spotlight - November 2018

Motown Spotlight – November 2018

I’m a little late with this because I’ve not been at my desk for the last few weeks or so, and then there was a delivery hiccup but, hey, we’re here now with this review of Thelma Houston’s mega release featuring her last four Motown albums on one CD package, courtesy SoulMusic Records. Not only are we treated to the full track listings on “The Devil In Me”, “Ready To Roll”, “Ride The Rainbow” and “Reachin’ All Around”, but also bonus titles and extended editions like 1977’s non-album flipside “If You Won’t Let Me Walk On The Water”, and 1978’s “Love Masterpiece” from the “Thank God It’s Friday” movie. Phew…

As you know, Thelma has been performing for over forty-seven years, recorded more than twenty-three albums, and is still wowing audiences with her “Motown Experience”, a ninety-minute tribute to the music of Motown and More. “My show is about celebrating love”, she says. “With the backdrop of Motown, I take you on a passionate journey that will have you singing along from the beginning to the end.” Featuring twenty-plus Motown songs, Thelma takes her audiences on a musical and inspirational journey chronicling her career, and from what I’ve seen on her website, it’s a pretty exciting adventure too. She also pays tribute to Jimmy Webb through the glorious “Sunshower” album and visits her gospel roots. “You are never too old to follow your dreams!” Of course, we’re hoping that one day we’ll get to see this show over here but, for now, she’s committed to performing in America through to the new year.

While at Motown, Ms Houston may not have been given the best material but she certainly turned around any inferior tracks, personalising them by injecting her stylish presentations into the grooves, bringing the songs alive. She easily adapts from ballad to dance, and, believe me, there’s a few monster cuts across these four albums. Disc one, kicks off with “I’m Here Again” – the follow-up to “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, although her duet with Jerry Butler, “It’s A Lifetime Thing” was squashed in between. “At the time that song (“I’m Here Again”) happened I was changing labels [at Motown] and that had an effect” she told me. “It was manufactured to be the same as ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and I didn’t really like it but felt obligated to do it. Then after that was ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ which I thought was a far better song. You think about things like this, try to analyse and figure out why something happens, but in the end you decide no one thing can be blamed.” Other titles to mention are the mesmerising “Baby, I Love You Too Much”, and the absolute highlight “Your Eyes”. A sizzling ballad; an unrelenting emotional experience, which has been high on my playlist since its original release. An awesome song on so many levels.

>Disc two opens with the afore-mentioned “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” (from 1979) leading into a couple of the most compelling songs I’ve heard – “I Wanna Be Back In Love Again” and “Imaginary Paradise” – yet there’s the intoxicating “Lies” and “(I’ve Given You) The Best Years Of My Life”. Of her time with the company, Thelma had few regrets, as she explained while still a signed artist. “They are good to me and have taken a genuine interest in me….and they don’t make me do anything I don’t really want to do. ….I wanted to go to acting lessons, and Motown paid for me to do that. I also wanted to do an album in 1975 for Sheffield Lab and they let me. The album was called ‘I’ve Got The Music In Me’ and I honestly loved doing it.”

I’ve known Ms Houston since the seventies, from our first meeting when we sipped drinks in London’s Serpentine Bar, and to now have her last Motown recordings in one package kinda rounds off that phase in her recording life. As an aside, she looks great and quirky, with her funky hairstyles and glamorous stage gowns. Her cheeky smile and twinkling eyes, and, of course, her voice!

Talking about Ms Houston leads me to the second release I’d like to highlight now – “The Essential Motown Northern Soul” 3-CD set, featuring a staggering sixty-six tracks. As with any compilations like this, it’s a foregone conclusion that fans will have several, if not, the bulk of the tracks. However, for someone like myself this release will save me dipping into other releases like the “Cellarful” series because there’s more than enough here to satisfy my hunger in one listening session. I can quite understand though that some, more in the know than myself, will find this release quite disconcerting, wanting unissued items to replace duplicate titles. It’ll come I’m sure. Obviously I won’t attempt to talk about each title as we’d be here forever and beyond, so will just mention a few.

There’s the familiar titles like the NS Motown anthem, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” which rightly kicks off the adventure, followed by the Four Tops’ “Something About You” and “I’m Grateful”; Tammi Terrell’s “All I Do Is Think About You” and “Give In, You Just Can’t Win”; the Isley Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s Just A Rumor Baby”; The Velvelettes’ “Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I”; Earl Van Dyke and the Motown Brass’ “6 By 6”; The Undisputed Truth’s “You Got The Love I Need”; Thelma Houston’s “I Ain’t Going Nowhere”; Stevie Wonder’s “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”…. you get the picture?

Personally speaking, I was overjoyed to see “Why Am I Lovin’ You” from Debbie Dean, and from Patrice Holloway “The Touch Of Venus”, while “Can’t Hold The Feeling Back” and “We’ll Keep On Rolling” are included from her sister Brenda. There’s a couple of interesting slices from The Temptations, “A Tear From A Woman’s Eyes” and “Angel Doll”, alongside a few from Gladys Knight And the Pips, including the mesmerising “No One Could Love You More”. No NS compilation would be complete without Chris Clark, so check out “Something’s Wrong” – you won’t be disappointed. Likewise, Barbara McNair’s “It Happens Every Time” – sheer magic. So with Kim Weston, The Monitors, Al Kent, The Supremes, The Dalton Boys, David Ruffin, Tommy Good, among the other featured artists, this is a well-rounded, thoughtful and entertaining release that, I think, will be welcome in any record collection. However, I have one gripe – there’s no accompanying booklet and, as you know, this annoys the hell out of me!

Let’s move on…with an update of the Motown Museum’s expansion project which began filtering through some months ago. Some of the original plans have been scrapped to be replaced by new conceptual designs and ideas. With over 70,000 visitors a year flooding into Detroit to walk the sacred boards in the Hitsville building, it seemed logical to use this historical site in a redevelopment programme. Just recently, Berry Gordy hosted meetings with Suzanne de Passe and Museum officials, including its CEO Robin Terry (Berry’s great niece) because, with the company’s 60th anniversary looming, plans for the 50,000 square foot complex that will be built around and behind Hitsville, need to be escalated. The plan (at this time) includes transforming the West Grand Boulevard site into a contemporary cultural experience, a cutting-edge complex, with Hitsville being the jewel in the crown. After sitting idle for over a decade, the building was, as you’re aware, taken over by Esther Gordy Edwards, who, with tireless dedication transformed it into a museum in 1985. Berry was intent on keeping his company’s legacy alive by different means and, it appears, creating a museum wasn’t a priority for him. However, his mind was changed when he realised just how important it was to preserve the birthplace of his company.

Financial support for the proposed project was initially pledged by conglomerates like the Ford Motor Company, William Davidson Foundation and the DTE Energy Foundation, but now its drawing interest from out-of-state donors. Although Robin Terry was unable to confirm the targeted timeline in an interview with Brian McCollum in the “Detroit Free Press,” she did confirm the philanthropic momentum was growing. “The next six months are game-changing. People are being extremely generous. The work we’ve been doing, these kinds of gifts, they just take time. And now you’ll start to see (the results)” she told McCollum. With promises of a major album campaign and event in Detroit next year, the highlight of the 60th anniversary will be “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown” which has been filming since early last year. Directed by the London production company Fulwell 73, the film has Berry Gordy’s total support and input, alongside artists and archive footage.

The heart of Motown may have left Detroit during the seventies, but the city never abandoned one of its biggest assets, and that needs to be preserved, as Robin Terry further said. “There’s a legacy that’s been created here that has had tremendous impact, maybe the most profound in our lifetime, on our culture and this world. ….We have to figure out how to translate this important, authentic Detroit story to (the) next generation.”

As exciting as this is, I have to say – what of the UK?

(My sincere thanks to the Detroit Free Press)