Six Months of Motown 60
PRIDE, PAINTING, POWER OF ZEUS – WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Thirty years from now, who’ll know or care about Motown Records?
Each generation wants to claim its own music, but perhaps some of what Berry Gordy and his team began creating sixty years ago will live longer into the 21st century.
In its own way, Netflix may be helping. Today, the global internet TV network launches the second series of Motown Magic, the animated children’s show featuring the songs with which Hitsville U.S.A. was built. The youngsters who watched the cartoon adventures of eight-year-old Ben may have absorbed the melodies, lyrics and spirit of “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “My Girl,” “Jimmy Mack,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and the other songs featured in the first series, and will perhaps do the same for those in the second. One can but hope.
The Netflix show’s return is merely one highlight in a busy first-half of this Motown anniversary year. The activity has spanned television screens, concert venues and theatre stages, as well as physical and digital music releases, the renaming of a post office in Los Angeles and a street in Detroit, and a mural honouring a son of Saginaw, Michigan. So without further ado…
Broadway bestowed its favour on the Temptations’ musical, Ain’t Too Proud, which officially opened at New York’s Imperial Theatre on March 21, then earned a dozen Tony Award nominations on April 30. Subsequently, the show took just one Tony (for best choreography), but that disappointment has almost certainly been offset by news that Ain’t Too Proud became one of Broadway’s top five highest-grossing shows for the first time last week, taking $1.6 million at the box office. Adding to the pride: an announcement that there’ll be a U.S. touring production from next July, playing more than 50 cities.
In time, Ain’t Too Proud is likely to cross the Atlantic to entertain the many thousands of Britons who saw Motown The Musical in London’s West End during a three-year run, which wrapped up on April 20. The U.K. touring production is still pulling crowds, with dates through to early January of 2020.
A SON’S PRIDE & JOY
This year’s first-half also saw the premiere of Pride & Joy, another theatrical attempt to do justice to the career and character of Marvin Gaye. The writer is no less than the singer’s son by Anna Gordy, Marvin Gaye III, collaborating with Angela Barrow-Dunlap and D’Extra Wiley. Pride & Joy is still a musical, but apparently with a fresh perspective on Anna, Marvin’s first wife, that perhaps only a family member could bring.
The production has its critics, but the show has advanced from its original May opening in Washington, D.C. to play in Baltimore, Chicago and, as of this writing, Houston.
Meanwhile, Gaye’s legacy has been polished by the U.S. Postal Service, which issued a stamp in his honour on his birthday, April 2, and by the renaming of a post office in Los Angeles. This facility was previously identified with a 20th century lawyer and civil servant; now it’s the Marvin Gaye Post Office, thanks to the efforts of Democratic congresswoman Karen Bass.
In Detroit, a street in the university district became known from June 21 as David Ruffin Avenue. LaMont Robinson, founder of the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, persuaded city officials to do this; Ruffin once owned a house on nearby Parkside. Present at the ceremony were Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves and David Ruffin Jr.
Another part of Detroit has honoured a hero, this time with a 100-foot painting of Stevie Wonder gracing the south-facing wall of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. A British artist, Richard Wilson, is responsible: the mural was done at his expense, with the Music Hall’s endorsement. “Music that I listen to inspires me to paint,” he told the Detroit Free Press, as he put the final touches to the work last month.
Wonder continues to play that inspiring music. He was the energetic (what else?) closing act of Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, an anniversary TV special broadcast in the U.S. on April 21. The extravaganza was also notable for the calibre of Smokey Robinson’s performance, and for the personal tribute to Berry Gordy by Diana Ross, singing “My Man” from the Billie Holiday repertoire. Additional programme highlights were a segment about songwriters, with the participation of Robinson, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Valerie Simpson and Mickey Stevenson; a dynamic turn by Thelma Houston, setting light to “Don’t Leave Me This Way”; and a sobering In Memoriam sequence of images of singers, musicians, writers and producers who are no longer alive.
Another celebration of Motown’s history opened in April, namely, an exhibit organised by the Grammy Museum at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. This features a range of Hitsville-related memorabilia, such as stage costumes (with two loaned by the Supremes’ Mary Wilson) and instruments played by the Funk Brothers, as well as several interactive displays. At the launch event, there was a panel discussion involving Wilson, Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, and Claudette Robinson of the Miracles. The exhibit runs to January, and is expected to tour other cities in 2020.
Among further moments of merit during the past six months: Diana Ross’ lively appearance at the annual Grammys telecast in February, and the transatlantic screenings in March – as she turned 75 – of her Live In Central Park drama, filmed in 1983.
Concerts by Ross, Robinson and others have peppered the year to date, including Stevie Wonder in Colorado, Valerie Simpson in Nashville, Lionel Richie all over America on his “Hello” tour, the Jacksons at Hampton Court Palace, and – also in Britain – Gladys Knight. On June 1, the Commodores, with original members William King and Walter Orange, kicked off a self-styled 50th anniversary trek. The group is scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles thirteen days after Richie.
And let’s not overlook the physical and digital output of the proprietor of the classic Motown catalogue, Universal Music. In fact, today sees the release of a slightly-expanded edition of Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, which first appeared in 2008 as a ten-CD set, bundled in a box resembling the 2648 West Grand house.
The 2019 package adds an eleventh CD with a rather parsimonious six tracks, including “Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Miracles and the Jackson 5, and two Diana Ross remixes (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Coming Out”/”Upside Down”) which topped the Billboard dance charts in 2017-18. The 100-page booklet retains the first edition’s introduction, “A Tower So High,” by Smokey Robinson, as well as detailed track annotations and striking photographs. (Of the latter, my favourite is Jimmy Ruffin collecting his laundry.)
The Motown release which has attracted the most media attention so far this year is Marvin Gaye’s You’re The Man, sent to market on March 29 as “the lost album” after What’s Going On. It does, indeed, comprise various tracks cut by the singer in 1972 after his career masterpiece, but it’s highly debatable whether this assembly was ever intended as an album in its own right.
Even so, the calibre of the work is high, especially the near-autobiographical “Piece Of Clay,” first available in 1995 on the CD set, The Master: Marvin Gaye 1961-1984. Another virtue is the singer’s alternate rendering of “You’re The Man,” funkier than the first.
THE KING, THE EARL, THE JUDGE
Preceding You’re The Man in March was an expanded, digital version of Gaye’s 1965 album, A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole, as previously examined in West Grand Blog. Also of note: the two final Undisputed Truth albums for Motown, put together onto one CD by the estimable Ace Records, and a most welcome 3CD compilation, Walk In The Night, from SoulMusic Records, featuring Jr. Walker & the All Stars’ 1970s studio albums
The single-largest Motown reissue effort of 2019 – also in March – was executed by Universal Music’s company in Japan. No fewer than 60 catalogue albums became available again as jewel-boxed CDs, with their original (not expanded) track listings. There were familiar titles by the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5, among others, but also some relatively rare ones: Earl Van Dyke’s The Earl Of Funk, Shorty Long’s Here Comes The Judge, Kiki Dee’s Great Expectations, the Spinners’ 2nd Time Around, Scherrie & Susaye’s Partners and Mandre’s self-titled Motown debut, to name but six.
Worldwide, record companies’ appetite for marketing vinyl stays strong. A number of Motown albums have come back in this ancient form, and doubtless there’ll be more. But this year’s most unexpected returnee? The Gospel According To Zeus, surely. The Power Of Zeus was a hard-rocking outfit from Michigan, previously known as Gangrene, and signed to Rare Earth Records as Motown expanded its repertoire base.
The album was not a hit on first release in 1970, but one track, “The Sorcerer Of Isis (The Ritual Of The Mole),” later became a popular hip-hop sample, used by the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem and KRS-One. The Gospel According To Zeus testified again in the ’90s on compact disc, but it was eclectic U.K. label Mr Bongo which reissued the vinyl pressing for Record Store Day this year, under license from Universal Music.
To quote the LP’s liner notes: “We can depend on no one but ourself: The Power of Zeus must be in our own Mind!” Not a message, perhaps, for the audience which is watching Motown Magic on Netflix today, but “The Sound of Young America” took many forms, after all.
Its architect and alchemist, Berry Gordy, has been visible a few times this year. As noted above, he was the object of Diana Ross’ affection during Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, and just last week in Los Angeles, he was presented with the Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award by music-rights giant ASCAP, together with current Motown Records president, Ethiopia Habtemariam (a name as splendid as The Power Of Zeus).
Speaking to the audience in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Mr. Gordy reprised a familiar refrain. “My vision at Motown has always been to make music for all people: black, white, red, yellow, young, old, the cops and robbers. It’s exciting to hear how you’re constantly trying to do the same thing that we were trying to do to make this a better world. I’m so proud and thank you all for continuing the fight.”
That the company’s founder was on stage, delivering this message, only a few months ahead of turning 90 is remarkable in itself. Let’s call it Motown Magic.
Next time: West Grand Blog looks at what’s in store for Motown 60 over the next six months.