Motown 2018: 'Show Me The Way'
Music, movies, and the $50 million museum
Next month sees a notable 60th anniversary: that of the release of the first Miracles record, “Got A Job,” on New York’s End label.
By Berry Gordy’s account, the single came out on February 19, 1958, which also happened to be Smokey Robinson’s eighteenth birthday. And here we are in 2018, with the legacies of Gordy and Robinson as enduring as ever, both men apparently in robust health. Good grief, Smoke’s even publicising his next gig, in Miami in March.
So before any more of the new year falls behind us, here’s a look at the horizon ahead.
Otis Williams of the Temptations is said to have a copy of the group’s 1961 Motown contract, framed on a wall at home. Presumably, his lawyer holds the paperwork for their latest project, an album entitled All The Time and due in March from Universal Music. It features new songs as well as the quintet’s versions of contemporary hits, such as Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.”
Today, the Temptations comprise original member Williams; Ron Tyson, in the line-up since 1983; Terry Weeks, another veteran; and two 2015 recruits, Larry Braggs and Willie Green. Formerly with Tower of Power, Braggs handles many of the group’s lead vocals (Green sings bass). The quintet’s continuing presence on the road should help to promote the new music, with concerts in various parts of the U.S. scheduled for the first six months of this year.
For Temptations fans who favour their work from the ’60s and ’70s, consider the virtues of at least one 21st century track: “Still Temptin’,” from their 2004 Motown album, legacy. Steeped in nostalgia it may be, but the group’s soulful performance reminds us that five voices true to that heritage can still light up the sky, like sunshine on a cloudy day. Here’s hoping All The Time does the same.
MONEY (THAT’S WHAT I WANT)
Throughout last year, the Motown Museum was raising funds for its ambitious expansion plans, which were first announced in October 2016. Just a few weeks ago, the latest pledge of support came from the Hudson-Webber Foundation (the “Hudson” is related to the renowned Detroit department store of that name, where a young Diana Ross is said to have worked.) Earlier in 2017, two other philanthropic bodies promised a total of $3 million, to bulwark the substantial $6 million previously committed by the Ford Motor Company and its affiliated trade union, UAW-Ford.
The museum, which has been fundraising in and around Detroit since the late 1980s, will need every cent. Its newest goals are said to require $50 million by this autumn, to create a 50,000 sq. ft. tourist destination on the site, including interactive exhibits, a Ford-branded theatre, and retail space, plus renovations to the original 2648 West Grand building and to houses at 2654, 2656 and 2658 on the boulevard.
Other interesting aspects of the project: the architect, and the museum’s “national legacy council” (NLC). The former is Phil Freelon, who was involved in designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He is married to respected jazz singer Nnenna Freelon; her 2002 album, Tales Of Wonder, featured versions of some of Stevie’s best-known songs.
Meanwhile, the NLC is thought to include Stevie, Smokey, Detroit rapper Sean “Big Sean” Anderson, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cathy Hughes, founder of America’s largest black-owned broadcast company, Radio One. (In the ’70s, Hughes was general manager of WHUR-FM, the Washington, D.C. station credited with originating the “Quiet Storm” radio format, itself named after a Smokey song.) If the $50 million fundraising goal isn’t reached by this autumn, perhaps members of the legacy council can write a cheque or two.
GOING TO A-GO-GO, AGAIN
Last autumn, a visit to the Motown Museum was part of the Detroit A-Go-Go extravaganza of live music, DJ sets and artist Q&A’s which attracted planeloads of Britons to the city. The event was sufficiently successful that entrepreneur Phil Dick is staging a second edition this year – although attendees might have to forego the excursion to Hitsville, because if the museum upgrade does go ahead, the site is expected to close from this October to next April for construction.
Detroit A-Go-Go 2 has been scheduled for October 24-29, with the St. Regis Hotel and Bert’s Warehouse as its centres of gravity once more. A wide range of Northern Soul favourites are booked again, including Carolyn Crawford, Kim Weston and the Elgins, plus many other, non-Motown acts. Among the latter will be J.J. Barnes. “He was brilliant [last year],” event DJ Neil Rushton told me, “and kind of counts as Motown as he was shunted there from Ric-Tic. His ‘Show Me The Way’ is vintage Tamla.”
Neil added, “The Brits loved seeing 26 acts in an authentic Detroit soul venue, backed by some of the Motor City’s finest musicians, honed to perfection by bandleader Ronnie Nelson. We had 300-plus locals in on Saturday night, mixing with nearly the same amount of Brits, and the Detroit people were stunned at the fanatical love of all things Detroit soul from the Northern Soul crowd.”
The DJ recalled another highlight: his Q&A with Al Kent, John Rhys and Dennis Coffey. Plus, securing a rare Groovesville Music acetate of Darrell Banks’ “I’m The One Who Loves You,” signed by songwriter Melvin Davis. So good luck, Neil, Phil and everyone involved, for the 2018 return visit.
AIN’T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING
If you’re a fan of television’s Stranger Things, you probably know that the series’ principal actors appeared on James Corden’s The Late Late Show in November with a sketch about them – plus Corden – as a Motown covers group. It was pure entertainment, with no resemblance to truth.
What is true is that Corden is a partner in Fulwell 73, a British firm which makes TV programmes and feature films (The Late Late Show is among its U.S. productions) and is currently at work on an official documentary about the history of Motown, commissioned by Universal Music.
The Story of Motown is directed by Fulwell 73 partners Gabe and Ben Turner, and has the participation of Berry Gordy himself. It will feature footage and recordings from his personal archive, with a primary focus on the period from Motown’s birth in Detroit until its relocation to Los Angeles.
This isn’t the first time that Gordy has endorsed a project like this, but Fulwell 73 may be the first to deliver. In 2004, NBC-TV trumpeted a partnership with De Passe Entertainment to make a 12-hour “mega-mini” series about Motown, comparable to HBO’s Band of Brothers. Suzanne De Passe, a BG confidante from the 1970s onwards, was identified as executive producer, but the project never materialised. Instead came Motown The Musical.
In 2004, De Passe spoke to Variety about the planned TV mini-series. “It’s going to be challenging to find the right balance between objectivity and subjectivity,” she said. “[But] it’s important that we be as honest and straightforward as possible in presenting the facts as we know them.”
The same imperative holds true in 2018. Fingers crossed.
PEOPLE GET READY
Staying with cinematic portrayals – not to mention the virtues of being honest and straightforward – there are two other Motown-related movies in prospect, although neither is likely to appear in 2018.
“The guys who did Ray are doing a script on my life to make a movie,” Smokey Robinson revealed last month in a TV interview. That’s as specific as he was, so we can’t be certain whether he meant Taylor Hackford, who directed the 2004, Oscar-winning biopic about Ray Charles, or any of its producers. The screenplay for Ray was written by the late James L. White, while the “story” (in Hollywood parlance) was the work of White and Hackford.
The star of Ray was, of course, Jamie Foxx, who won an Oscar for powerfully portraying Charles, the so-called “genius of soul.” And, intriguingly, it is Foxx who – together with Suzanne De Passe – is said to be executive-producing a biopic about Marvin Gaye. That’s been a crowded avenue: Cameron Crowe, James Gandolfini and Scott Rudin are among those who tried to do the same, without apparent results. Can Foxx and De Passe prevail?
Meanwhile, Lionel Richie has secured the rights to produce a film about the life of Curtis Mayfield. The deal is said to be with the late singer/songwriter’s estate, and with his widow Altheida and son Cheaa. There was no mention of Mayfield's second oldest son, Todd, whose illuminating and well-written (with Travis Atria) biography of his father, Travelling Soul, was recently published. The book was not authorised by the estate, but, nevertheless, let's hope Lionel has read it.
Two months after the Miracles’ “Got A Job” was released, the Impressions auditioned for VeeJay Records with “For Your Precious Love.” In the years which followed, Smokey and Curtis took the right fork on their respective roads from Detroit and Chicago to the wider world, to become poets and priests, inspirations and torch-bearers for successive generations. Do them justice, filmmakers.