The Look of Young America
THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHY, THE ART OF HITSVILLE
The first European country ever visited by a Motown hitmaker – France – is the site of the latest celebration of the company’s legacy.
It was in October 1963 that International Talent Management, Inc., the artist management arm of Berry Gordy’s enterprises, cut a deal for Little Stevie Wonder to perform in Paris. ITMI was paid $4,300 (worth approximately $35,000 today) for the child prodigy to appear at l’Olympia, the city’s popular music palace, for two weeks in December. He joined a bill of French, English and American stars, including Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield.
France was also one of the first overseas destinations for Gordy himself after Motown’s formation. He flew to Paris in March 1963 to meet potential licensees for his label and music publishing operations, as he did in London and Hamburg, among other capitals. With Gordy were Esther Edwards, his business-sharp sister who would later sign the Olympia deal for Wonder, and his savvy sales chief, Barney Ales.
This summer, some 500 miles south of Paris, Motown’s musical, cultural and social achievements of the past 60 years are visually showcased in “Dancing In The Street,” a new exhibit that’s part of the annual photography festival known as Les Rencontres d’Arles. It’s running until September 22 in that riverside city in Provence.
And here’s a declaration of interest: I was a consultant to the exhibit, which was inspired, in part, by Motown: The Sound Of Young America, my book with Barney Ales. “Dancing In The Street” is presented by the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for documentary photography and film. Its curators were Nicolas Havette, artistic director of the foundation, and “Maitre Madj,” a respected French broadcaster, DJ and hip-hop authority. There has also been vital support from Universal Music France, whose A&R executive Nicolas Gautier oversees the Motown catalogue there.
“Dancing In The Street” chronicles Motown’s history through a wide range of album artwork and photographs. There are also reflections of the company’s social impact, such as its connections to Rev. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have A Dream” speeches in Detroit and Washington, D.C. In the same vein is the juxtaposition of the front cover of Eddie Kendricks ‘ People…Hold On album with the provocative photograph of Huey Newton of the Black Panthers which inspired that album artwork.
BERRY GORDY: ON CAMERA, WITH CAMERA
Another display offers a sequence of images of each of Motown’s four primary solo stars – Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson – to illustrate the evolution of their style and “look” during the 1960s and ’70s. In other photos, artists are seen in casual mode, such as Gladys Knight and the Pips playing chess, or on duty, such as the Supremes posing promotionally outside a London music store during an early ’70s visit.
An informally-dressed Berry Gordy is photographed as he holds a camera himself – a circumstance familiar to those who knew him during Motown’s early prosperity.
Among the album sleeves on display, certain titles are enlarged for maximum impact: Little Stevie Wonder’s The 12 Year Old Genius Recorded Live is one, the Temptations’ Wish It Would Rain is another. More nuanced is the presentation of front covers which were altered from their original versions to suit other, overseas markets: for example, the Supremes’ 1964 long-player, A Bit Of Liverpool, became With Love (From Us To You) when it was issued in Britain, several months later.
TOE FAT: ALL THUMBS, THEN A LAMB
Another case concerned the release on Rare Earth Records of the debut album by British rock band Toe Fat, licensed to Motown in 1970 by EMI Records. The original was available in the U.K. with a front cover showing a naked man and woman whose faces had been made to resemble thumbs. For the U.S. edition, the couple was replaced with a photo of, uh, a lamb. Both pieces of artwork are part of “Dancing In The Street,” as are different covers for Michael Jackson’s album Ben: one with a swarm of rats pictured below the singer’s face (a nod to the title song’s film source), and one without the rodents.
There are subtleties to be seen in Arles, too. The artwork of Eddie Holland’s one and only Motown album appears next to another, slightly different image from the same photo session. An early publicity snap of the “no-hit Supremes” is juxtaposed with a different image from the same shoot, as used on the picture sleeve of a single, “Your Heart Belongs To Me.”
By contrast, there’s the power of a plain and simple photograph of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, a variation on the image used on the front of their You’re All I Need album. The application of a ChromaLuxe coating makes the portrait – and the couple – glow as never before.
Motown: The Sound Of Young America has been described as a coffee-table book, so – naturally – there are coffee tables located at various points in the rooms which host “Dancing In The Street.” What makes them unusual are images sealed onto the top of each, including the Miracles on stage, and a smiling, young Marvin Gaye on a London visit. (I’ll have an Americano, please, with hot milk.)
MOTOWN AS MELTING POT
Les Rencontres d’Arles is, first and foremost, a photography festival, presenting many different themes and subjects in exhibits scattered throughout the city each summer. (For more on “Dancing In The Street,” check here.) The work of hundreds of photographers, many of them new to their craft, is represented in Arles, and the festival organisers call it a “melting pot of contemporary creation.” In some ways, that’s also an apt description of Motown in its glory years. The company’s music began as a melting pot of styles – blues, gospel, rhythm & blues, all underpinned by the jazz skills of its studio players – from which came a distinctive sound and signature, and which went on to cross boundaries of race, colour and social class to find a worldwide audience.
“It’s an invitation across the nation/A chance for folks to meet/There’ll be laughing, singing and music swinging/Dancing in the street.”
Book notes: Motown: The Sound Of Young America is published by Thames & Hudson; the paperback edition came out earlier this year. The French-language version is published by Textuel. A previous coffee-table book (in French) was Motown Soul & Glamour by Gilles Petard and Florent Mazzoleni, published in 2009. Petard is a former Motown label manager in France, Mazzoleni the author of books about James Brown and disco, among other topics.
Music notes: One of the Arles photo exhibit’s curators, Maitre Madj, compiled two albums of vintage Motown recordings on vinyl in France in 2018, entitled Motor City: The Artists And Music That Started Tamla Motown. Much of the material has not been available on vinyl since its first release in the early 1960s. Motor City#1 includes music by the Satintones, Eugene Remus, the Golden Harmoneers, Freddie Gorman, Sammy Ward and Lee & the Leopards among its 16 tracks. Motor City #2 includes the work of Barrett Strong, Chico Leverette, the Marvelettes, Mickey Woods, Little Otis, Lamont Dozier and Henry Lumpkin among its 15 tracks.