Motown Remembered

Since the holidays, I have been on Motown Memory Lane.   My wife and I were in the San Diego area after Christmas and saw “Motown the Musical” which premiered on Broadway in 2013.

The play takes place in 1983 when a TV extravaganza celebrating 25 years of the record label was being assembled.   As the story of Motown founder Barry Gordy unfolds, flashbacks of the singers and groups are played out with vintage arrangements, costumes, and choreography of over 40 hit songs.

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s listening to this music, or are familiar with it from movies, TV shows, and commercials, it is remarkable to realize how magical was Hitsville, USA.

Seeing the musical inspired me to watch the Motown special for the first time since it aired in May of 1983.

Taped at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever” won a Peabody Award and an Emmy.  Hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the special was produced.

It is worth watching again mainly to see a unique event:   most of the headliner artists on stage singing together at the end of the show.

The number one moment most recall is Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk for the very first time.  However, there are other special moments such as when Marvin Gaye sits at the piano playing extemporaneously as he talks about the history of black music before doing an emotional rendition of “What’s Going On.”

There’s the reunion of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes with Diana Ross.   And the battle of the boy choirs, the Four Tops vs. the Temptations.

Dennis Edwards, Temptations’ lead singer at the time, died last week at age 74.   While not an original member (over the years there have been dozens of personnel changes), he was viewed as the most vibrant of the lead singers.

Incredibly, the Four Tops remained together from 1953 to 1997, with the same four men.  Today, only Abdul Fakir is still alive while Otis Williams is the only original Temptation left.

When researching the history of Motown, it is tragic to learn how many artists died before their time:  Michael Jackson (50), Mary Wells (49), Marvin Gaye (44), Temptations’ Elbridge “Al” Bryant (36) and Paul Williams (34), Supremes’ Florence Ballard (32), Tammi Terrell (24).

If you have time on Valentine’s Day, consider paying tribute to Motown by listening to some of the songs:

The Temptations’ “Get Ready”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around”

Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”

Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life’

Mary Wells’ “My Guy”

Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”

The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving”

The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”

With the passage of time, it is worth noting that all these talented musicians did not use one obscenity in any of their songs.  And they dressed to the nines, women in dresses, men in suits.

B.B. King once said that it was important for him to wear three-piece suits while performing, and not wear street clothes on stage.

Today’s artists could learn from these masters on how to elevate their work through their language and appearance.