West Grand Blog


Motown 60: The Second Half



How long does it take for truth to emerge?

      The second half of Motown’s 60th anniversary year will see the release – or technically, the re-release – of various albums in vinyl form. Dedicated followers of Tammi Terrell and Syreeta, to name but two, may appreciate the opportunity to buy their work once more. Better still if these and other forthcoming reissues attract new, younger fans.

      Similarly, there can never be enough Marvin Gaye music available – whether or not it’s been heard before – and so that, too, will be welcome.

The original pop fashionistas!

The original pop fashionistas!

      More revealing, perhaps, will be the reminiscences and recollections which are due in print and on screen over the next six months. Will the imminent books by Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, for instance, illuminate – and agree upon – the reasons why these three magicians left Motown at the height of their creativity?

      What about the internal disputes between the Hollands and Dozier, which occurred in their post-Motown careers? And how will all this be reconciled with the claims and counter-claims codified in the endless litigation – well, it certainly seemed endless – which the trio pursued against Motown over the years?

      How Sweet It Is: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse is the title of Lamont Dozier’s entry, due in late October from BMG Books. Scheduled to arrive one month earlier from Omnibus Press is Come and Get These Memories: The Story of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown’s Incomparable Songwriters. The Hollands have written their book with Dave Thompson, Dozier with Scott B. Bomar. (Eddie and Brian’s contender also comes with an introduction by Barney Ales, Berry Gordy’s longtime consigliere at Motown.)


      The advance publicity promises, in Dozier’s work, “personal stories of his encounters with such icons as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy,” and in the Hollands’ book, “their creative and intimate relationships with Motown’s biggest stars.”

      You will have your own curiosity about the storytelling, the individuals, the music, the business. Holland/Dozier/Holland have been media-accessible for decades, so the responsibility for making these books fresh and compelling lies largely with their collaborating wordsmiths. Eddie Holland once told me that the grievous conflict with Berry Gordy began with “a disagreement about something that was very sensitive,” but he wouldn’t be more specific. Considering everything which followed, I hope we learn more about that, at least.

Reflections through the mirror of his mind

Reflections through the mirror of his mind

      The illumination in Mary Wilson’s Supreme Glamour, written with Mark Bego, is primarily and powerfully visual. She’s told her life story in prose in two previous books, Dreamgirl and Supreme Faith. Now it’s time for fashion. “They wore matching tassel dresses and fly shoes, their faces beat and their hair up in a bouffant (except for Flo, who had a flip),” declares an admiring Whoopi Goldberg about the Supremes in this book’s foreword. “They were three of the most beautiful women I had ever seen,” she says of studying them (in black and white) on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. “Little did I know until much later that the dresses and shoes were salmon color; who knew we could look so good in salmon?”

      Supreme Glamour is a coffee-table tome set for release in September by Thames & Hudson. As illustrated, the gowns are glorious, each set of three captured in full colour across page after page: everything from “Pristine Supremes” (1964) to “Cranberry Ruffles” (1977), by way of “Green Swirls” (1968) and “Tropical Lilac” (1972). There are close-ups of the costumes’ component parts, with couture commentary by Mary, recognition for the designers, and notes of the occasions when the Supremes wore them.

      The book is not only about fashion: with Bego, Wilson engagingly retells the group’s saga, from their formation in Detroit in 1959 to their farewell show in London 18 years later, and everything in between. This is accompanied by a range of photos, including a couple of seldom-seen snaps of the Primettes (“Betty, me, Flo and Diane styled ourselves with pearls and button earrings”) and a half-dozen candids from an off-duty visit by Diana, Mary and Florence to Disneyland in Anaheim.


      Wilson will be among the Hitsville alumni due to gather in Detroit during September for the “Motown 60 Weekend” organised by the Motown Museum. She will perform in concert on September 22 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, as will the Temptations, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Four Tops and – from Motown Records’ latterday roster – Ne-Yo, Big Sean and Kem. This night is identified as the “Hitsville Honors,” so there’ll be an awards presentation, too. Let’s hope the Chairman will be present.

      Preceding that show will be a gospel concert on September 21 at the Detroit World Outreach church in Northville, including turns by Regina Belle, Tasha Page-Lockhart and a 125-member choir. On September 23, a “Soul In One” celebrity golf tournament is to be held at the Tam O’Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield Township, with honorary chairmen Duke Fakir and Mickey Stevenson welcoming guests.

Marvin takes flight once more, this time in Arles

Marvin takes flight once more, this time in Arles

      Who could have imagined that in January 1959, when Tamla 101 was released? Then again, while I was interviewing Mickey Stevenson late last year for Mojo magazine, the session ended when Smokey Robinson turned up for a round of golf with him. “We’d get to the office early, write, record, do our business, and by noon be out at the links,” wrote Robinson in his autobiography, although this was presumably well after Motown had become the sound of young America. Truthful of Smokey to admit he was hooked on golf, though.     

      Whether the truth – or individual versions of it – comes in the form of prose, photos or moving pictures, there’s much anticipation for Hitsville: The Making of Motown, the new documentary directed by Ben and Gabe Turner of Fulwell 73. Among their credits are highly-regarded portrayals of a world-class athlete (I Am Bolt) and legendary footballers (The Class of ’92), and they’ve made this film for Universal Music’s Capitol label group, of which “modern” Motown Records is part.

      The premiere of Hitsville: The Making of Motown is now expected this autumn, although its U.S. outlet, Showtime, is currently advertising an August airdate. I was modestly involved with the making of Hitsville, so discretion must be my watchword here, but others who have seen the final cut agree that the interplay between Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson is a particular highlight. As importantly, this is the first Motown documentary to have Gordy’s participation (he is also an executive producer).


      Those of us with long memories will recall the “mega” miniseries about Motown which was to have been made with NBC-TV by Suzanne de Passe’s production company, based on Gordy’s To Be Loved autobiography. “The story of Berry Gordy’s Motown is the soundtrack of America,” declared an NBC president in 2004, saying that he’d been “working with Suzanne to make this happen for over two years.” De Passe herself admitted to Variety at the time, “It’s going to be challenging to find the right balance between objectivity and subjectivity. [But] it’s important that we be as honest and straightforward as possible in presenting the facts as we know them.”

Stevie in Hyde Park, 2019 (photo: Lester Cohen)

Stevie in Hyde Park, 2019 (photo: Lester Cohen)

      Packaged and pitched by the William Morris Agency, what was billed as Berry Gordy’s Motown was never made, or never finished. Instead, his autobiography became the basis for Motown The Musical – hardly the same as a 12-hour documentary series. So hopes are high for Hitsville: The Making of Motown. Throughout its production, the Turner brothers and the Fulwell 73 team were dedicated and imaginative, determined to find fresh ways of telling a familiar tale. Soon enough, you’ll be the judge of how balanced, straightforward and honest (not to mention entertaining) the result is.

      Images from Motown’s history are also the subject of a newly-opened exhibit, “Dancing In The Street,” at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in southern France. It is largely based on (ahem) my book with Barney Ales, Motown: The Sound Of Young America, and features many of the photos published in that volume, but enlarged and presented in different rooms of the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation, on the city’s Rue de la Calade. Additional images have been sourced from the Motown archives of Universal Music and elsewhere. The exhibit vividly underscores how important was the “look” of those Detroit youngsters as they changed popular music, and their own lives. A future West Grand Blog will – surprise, surprise – focus more fully on what’s on show. “Dancing In The Street” is running now in Arles until September 22.

      In November, Berry Gordy will be 90, a milestone almost as remarkable as once-Little Stevie Wonder turning 69 this past May. This second half of Motown’s anniversary year began with speculation about Wonder’s health, followed by confirmation and explanation during his July 6 concert at London’s Hyde Park. The media attention is sure to continue in the lead-up to the musician’s scheduled kidney replacement in September. Wonder’s concerts in London and Dublin were well-received, and it’s notable that he didn’t cancel the shows. But then his appetite for performing has seldom wavered over the decades. Songs in the key of life, for sure.

Book notes: Peter Benjaminson, an author familiar with the work of Eddie and Brian Holland, was originally connected to Come And Get These Memories, before Dave Thompson picked up the baton. Both have substantial credentials in music: Thompson has written books about U2, Genesis, Kurt Cobain and ZZ Top, among others, and Benjaminson, of course, is responsible for a number of Motown-related titles, including deep-dive biographies of Florence Ballard, Mary Wells and Rick James, as well as 1979’s The Story of Motown, recently republished by Rare Bird Books. Peter’s latest is Crazy Man Crazy: The Bill Haley Story, a collaboration with Bill Haley Jr., son of the rock & roll firestarter.

Adam White4 Comments