West Grand Blog

Where will Stevie sit?

Hitsville U.S.A. hits the road: a journalist’s first-hand account

 

On this date in history – March 23, 1965, to be precise – the Tamla Motown Show (as it was so billed) pulled into my hometown of Bristol, England. I knew who I would see on stage that evening, but I had no idea who was behind the curtain. And at the time, the name of Van Gordon Sauter would have meant nothing to me.

      Readers of the Detroit Free Press might have recognised his byline. Two days earlier, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine carried Sauter’s four-page profile of a local company (“Motown Records, Man, Which Is Big, Really Big”), including an interview with proprietor Berry Gordy, Jr. and an engaging drawing of his “Golden Record Machine.” But on the day it was published, the 29-year-old Sauter from Middletown, Ohio was many miles away in London, “an unlikely person working in an unlikely place to end up spending nearly a month with the Motown family touring England,” to use his words.

05.Colston Hall.jpg

      The Tamla Motown package tour of the U.K. during March and April 1965 is one of the most documented – some might say, over-documented – music caravans of the decade. It figures in autobiographies by Gordy himself, Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson and Otis Williams, as well as in other Motown histories. There have been broadcast programmes about it, too, including a BBC Radio 2 documentary aired when Hitsville U.S.A. celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009.

      But a fresh perspective is always welcome, and for this, I turned to Van Sauter. In the decades since the tour, he has enjoyed a remarkable career in American journalism, including posts as president of CBS News and Fox News; he also co-wrote Nightmare In Detroit, a book about the city’s tragic riots and rebellion of 1967. Earlier this month, he recalled for me his experience with Motown abroad.

      “I was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press at a time when the motor city was an industrial powerhouse. Fraying at the economic and racial edges, but still an economic force. Our newsroom was virtually all white. Indeed, I can recall only one African American journalist in the room…a man who went on to become a senior editor of Newsweek magazine. In the entertainment section of the paper, I can recall only one black: the classical music critic, who was highly regarded. I was a general assignment reporter who spent time reporting from Vietnam and covering civil rights.

      “And there was little consciousness in the newsroom of the popular culture. Or, at least, popular music. I did write the obituary for Dinah Washington, which I managed by visiting a music store, buying four of her albums and cribbing them into a good yarn. I even flew to Chicago to report on her funeral. As they began to lower her casket into the grave, it was discovered the cemetery dug too narrow a hole; or, the casket was far larger than expected. The burial was the following day.”

      Sauter doesn’t recall how Motown first came to his attention, but he visited its headquarters on West Grand Boulevard to meet Al Abrams, who he describes as the company’s PR man, design expert, policy consultant and adroit jack of all trades. “He was a fine man. Good at his job.” Later, Sauter returned for interviews with Berry Gordy, Smokey, Eddie and Brian Holland, and Barney Ales, among others.

"You sensed that Motown had no sense of rank"

      “They were in the original house, a baffling maze of rooms and offices and recording spaces. Walls had been torn down and new walls erected. One had the sense of being in a chaotic clubhouse. A baffled white guy could flail through the stairways and halls without attracting any curiosity.  You sensed that Motown had no sense of rank. It had the feel of a family. Collegial. Also, in those days Detroit was a relatively congenial town. A white could walk anywhere in the Black neighbourhoods, outside of the housing projects, with a sense of safety. On the other hand, regrettably, there were white neighbourhoods where Blacks would feel in jeopardy. And be so.

      “Somehow, Abrams and I conjured up me going on the forthcoming tour of England, with, as I recall, one concert in Paris. Motown would carry my costs and inevitably there might be things I could do to help the tour.  And I would do stories or a large story about the tour for the newspaper.

   Tamla Motown touchdown

Tamla Motown touchdown

      “The newspaper apparently thought it was a terrific idea, though today those arrangements are highly uncommon. I really think the editors were embarrassed that something of considerable importance to the community – particularly to the black community – was emerging at Motown and the newspaper was basically oblivious. Personally, it would be my first trip outside the country. I grew up in an Ohio steel town with the assumption I would only travel abroad if I was dragooned into the military and brandishing a rifle.”

      Sauter has no recollection of the transatlantic flight in mid-March 1965, but correctly notes that the tour group (artists and support staff) stayed at London’s Cumberland Hotel. This was a short distance from Manchester Square, where Motown’s U.K. business partner, EMI Records, was headquartered, and from Marble Arch, where one of the most iconic photographs of the tour was taken. Shown in front of the 19th century arch were Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Temptations (not on the tour, but in town for promotion) and the Supremes. Stevie Wonder, although he was with the roadshow, was not pictured there.

      “There was a lot of professionalism about the Motown group. People were on time for buses and prepared to perform. I don’t recall any awkward occasions with parties or conduct. There was a lot of friendly humour. One morning at breakfast, there was a discussion as to where Stevie Wonder would sit. One of the band members said it shouldn’t be near him as his room the prior night was next to Stevie’s and the youngster had kept him up night walking into the wall that separated them. But Stevie was thoroughly adopted and celebrated by the group. He had a lot of big sisters and Dutch uncles on that trip.

“We travelled by coach…There was a certain chaos to it"

      “There were two whites on the tour, Stevie Wonder’s tutor, Ted Hull, and myself. I always felt like one of the guys. It was, however, the first time I really witnessed black men in open relationships with white women. It was a long way from a steel town with a portion of its work force drawn from Kentucky and West Virginia.”

   From West Grand to Marble Arch

From West Grand to Marble Arch

      As part of the roadshow’s backroom team, Sauter and Hull worked alongside Esther Edwards, Maxine Powell, Booker Bradshaw, Thomas “Beans” Bowles and, of course, Berry Gordy himself – who also brought to London his three eldest children and his parents. Before the opening concerts, Sauter witnessed the taping of The Sound of Motown, the one-hour TV special hosted by Dusty Springfield, which was subsequently screened in April. Then, the Tamla Motown Show took to the road, with shows in the capital on March 20 and 21 – to substantial, enthusiastic audiences – followed by the journey to Bristol and beyond.

      “We travelled by coach…seemingly a large one. There was a certain chaos to it, but everybody seemed to enjoy the sleeping, storytelling and occasional singing. Sometimes it was hard to find rest stops. On one occasion, we stopped in a small town – or at least a small commercial area – and the performers tumbled out the bus door, laughing and stretching and look for places to eat. And wham! Some of the local merchants, stunned by a busload of blacks, some wearing decidedly un-British outfits, began locking their doors and pulling the curtains. Sometimes, the merchants were “invaded” before they could sense a new variety of customer. But there was little grousing. And generally, johns were found, food was served, trinkets and souvenirs purchased, etc.

      “There was also a bus moment that set off a current of emotion that I didn’t get at the time. And I don’t fully understand it now. I sensed it, but it seemed to be something highly important and personal to the group. Too consequential for an outsider to grasp or engage. One morning, Diana Ross (and maybe the other Supremes, but I don’t recall) began to travel in a luxurious automobile. A Rolls, I think.

"There was a lot of joy in just performing"

      “They left the bus. To me – and I could be quite wrong – it was a moment when the equality of the group was ruptured. There was no tangible change in relationships. But something was different. I never went into the history of that moment. On one occasion, a person began to explain it to me. I stopped her, saying it wasn’t something that I needed or wanted to know.

      “The shows themselves went from crowds to half crowds. The artists didn’t seem to react to the crowd size. Or its responsiveness. There was a lot of joy in just performing. And working out the movements and repartee on stage. I thought the crowds were good and generally filled with enthusiasm. The music was thoroughly contagious. I could be backstage or out in the audience and inevitably experience the wave of energy and exhilaration in the sound. It was a wave that just swept you away.”

      As we now know, the number of Britons who were swept away were fewer than Gordy – not to mention the tour’s promoters, Harold Davison and Arthur Howes, and EMI’s Tamla team – had expected. Back home, Al Abrams’ hopes that newspapers would pick up the Sauter despatches were also dashed, as the late publicist confirmed in his own book, Hype & Soul! Nonetheless, the journalist’s reflections here vividly capture the aspirations of Motown in 1965, and the spirit of that U.K. tour.

   Diana, Berry in London (photo: Douglas Jeffery)

Diana, Berry in London (photo: Douglas Jeffery)

      “As I recall, on one occasion Berry suggested that I take Martha Reeves on a tour of Edinburgh. ‘Go see the sights,’ he said, to my joy. Martha was a good sport. Neither of us knew a whit about Edinburgh or Scotland. But Martha was incredibly smart. Very intuitive. And I like to think she had a good time.

      “The British media was generous to the tour. And, I think, quite complimentary. As it should have been. I have somewhere a picture of myself and the Supremes talking to some reporters. The young women were devoid of guile. They were, I believe, thrilled at being asked questions. It was flattering. Today, the Brits are pretty rugged reporters. In those days, they were surprisingly polite and interested in their subjects. I don’t recall one bad interview.”

      To Sauter, the trip was a magic carpet ride. On the flight home, Esther Edwards offered him a job at Motown. He says he was honoured, flattered, but knew his career in journalism would quickly expand into new, intriguing worlds. And so it proved: mere months after the Tamla tour, he took an extended assignment for the Detroit Free Press in Vietnam, covering America’s most divisive conflict. Later, Sauter relocated to Chicago, joining one of the first all-news radio stations, then moving into television news and securing ever more senior posts in that field.

      “I visited Motown on West Grand a few months ago, on a brief trip to Detroit. I spent a few moments out of the car, looking at the house, ignoring some shrill ‘guide’ who wanted to give me a tour, and then I left. Motown – like the city itself – is now something else. But we’ve all changed. Inevitably. Appropriately. The formidable newspaper office where I once worked is a humbled shell, a vacant building.

      “But sometimes, late at night, relishing the soft warmth of Los Angeles, I fire up some of the classic Motown. It’s fabulous music. And so, years ago, were the people I knew who made it.”

 

Music notes: performances in Paris from the 1965 tour were made available on a live LP that November, which was reissued on CD in 2005 as part of The Motortown Revue Collection. In 2016, the original album was re-released on CD and vinyl with previously unavailable tracks. Most of the Paris recordings are available on digital streaming services.

 

 

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