Saturday, January 10, 2009

Celebrating 50 Years of Motown Records

Friday, January 9, 2009

Celebrating 50 years of Motown

Berry Gordy and record label that put Detroit on musical map reach milestone

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

Fifty years ago, Detroit was sharply divided by race. Newspapers still ran ads for "colored" apartments and Detroit police cars weren't integrated until late December of 1959. It wasn't until 1961 that a progressive new mayor, Jerry Cavanagh, promised to fight segregation in Detroit's neighborhoods and public institutions.

Against this unforgiving backdrop, the prospects of one young black man, Berry Gordy Jr., were less than stellar. Gordy had given up boxing (too violent), quit his Ford factory job (too boring) and failed as a record store owner. He sold songs to singer Jackie Wilson, but didn't make any money at it. At the age of 31, the divorced father of three was broke and out of a job.

Still, on Jan. 12, 1959, the Gordy family loaned Berry Jr. $800 from the family fund so that he could start a record company.

Fifteen years later, Motown Records had become the largest African-American-owned business in the United States, turned Detroit into a music mecca and made stars of Detroit-born talent like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson.On Monday, Gordy and Universal Motown Records will launch the 50th anniversary of the iconic Detroit label, which includes an event Monday at the Motown Historical Museum featuring Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, city and state dignitaries and others. Monday will also be declared "Motown Day" by city and state officials.

Gordy sold Motown in 1988 for $61 million, but the energetic 79-year-old is still busy promoting and defending the company he founded. He's about to get busier. Along with launching Motown 50, he's overseeing a Broadway musical based on his life and a multi-part documentary film on what he did "and how I did it" at Motown, using extensive footage filmed during Motown's heyday. He's also emerging from retirement to manage a new singer, "one of the greatest I've ever met," whom he isn't ready to reveal just yet.

Gordy exudes the same confidence he did when building his music empire.

"I never had any big setbacks to knock my ego down, because I was confident almost to the point of being cocky," Gordy said, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles office. "People would say, 'what makes you so sure?' I'd say, 'I don't think it, I know it.'

Back in 1959, Gordy was blissfully unaware of how difficult a task was before him, launching a record company in a city still recovering from the '58 recession.

"I didn't know enough about economics to know," Gordy said. "I was involved in my stuff, and I took very little interest in anything other than my creative activities and the artists I worked with. I know the times were what they were, but I guess in those days I was more concerned about the whole social situation and the racial tensions. Now I'm a lot more aware of economics and how the whole thing works."

Motown launched immortal artists like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, but it was also a symbol of black achievement and a big part of Detroit's international image.

"People identify Motown with the city of Detroit, and the city of Detroit with Motown," said former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer.

They still do; the Motown Historical Museum is one of the region's most-visited tourist destinations, with visitors coming from as far away as the South Pacific.

Such an institution was built not only by Motown's stars, but by many people behind the scenes. One of Gordy's goals for Motown 50 is to point out the hard work of the unsung heroes, the secretaries, accountants and others.

"I had a philosophy and a work ethic that I had gotten from my father and my family," Gordy said. "But people like the Noveck brothers were also so important in my life."

Harold and Sidney Noveck were Motown's tax attorney and CPA, respectively. "I want them to be remembered," Gordy said. "They made me put money aside. Everybody was buying great cars, and I said, 'When can I buy a nice car?" The Novecks said, 'When you can pay cash for it.' "

Other people in the background, without whom there wouldn't be a Motown, were his very supportive four sisters, Gordy said. "They would tell people, 'My brother's a boxer, you have to see him.' Then when I was a songwriter, they said, 'My brother's a songwriter, you have to hear his stuff.' "

Fighter for civil rights

Gordy also praises the courage of his artists who traveled by bus through the South with the Motortown Revue in the middle of the volatile Civil Rights era. "They were shot at; they were the unsung heroes," Gordy said. "All I'm doing now is what I've done for the past 50 years, protect the legacy because people were trying to rewrite Motown history."

Those "people" include the producers of "Dreamgirls," the 2006 film that fictionalized Motown's early days.

"The truth can only win if you can afford to fight for it and are willing to fight for it, and I was," Gordy said.Gordy demanded -- and got -- an apology from "Dreamgirls" producers, who took out an ad that ran in the movie trades. What irritated him the most about the movie was the thuggish record company boss played by Jamie Foxx.

"It's like, a black guy -- a kid -- in Detroit could not start a Motown unless he was a Mafia person," Gordy said, indignant. "It's like, a black man could not lead this country because he wasn't smart enough, but ... now one is."

"The Chairman," as Gordy is affectionately known by his artists, will be in Washington, D.C., next week for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration -- with bells on.

It was Motown Records that released Dr. Martin Luther King's key Civil Rights speeches on records. It was Motown groups like the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and the Temptations who insisted that the rope dividing their Southern audiences into black and white be taken down.

And it was Motown that provided a romantic soundtrack and black musical idols for white teenagers around the world, many of whom went on to vote for a black president in 2008.

Jerry Herron, dean of Wayne State's honors college, sees a direct link between what Gordy did in launching Motown and Obama being elected president. "It's like Martin Luther King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, saying, 'I am claiming this space, I can be here, too.' "

Herron grew up in segregated Abilene, Texas, in the '60s, and his "Rosebud" memory from his youth is directly linked to Detroit and Motown.

"In 1966, at the high school dance, my girlfriend cooed into my ear as we were dancing, 'Baby love, my baby love ...' Something fundamental happened, if two white kids at an all-white dance in Abilene are dancing to Berry Gordy's music out of Detroit. It wasn't just my experience too, it was all the kids I knew. Gordy moved a kind of music around the world that we had not heard."

Musical legacy

Gordy believes that "there could never be another Motown."

"To have another Motown you'd need another perfect storm," he said. "You don't have the '60s, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, a lot of things. It was a creative period in our history, that's why there will be other companies, other things, but another Motown? How are you going to duplicate a Marvin Gaye, a Levi Stubbs, a Smokey Robinson, a Gladys Knight and the Pips, a Rick James?"

There may not be another Motown, but Berry Gordy isn't done yet.

"One thing that shocks me a bit, is when I come to the Motown museum and see, 'This is where Berry Gordy lived,' and stuff like that. I want to say, 'Wait a minute, that's not me. I'm still a kid!' Because I'm still feeling really great, the life I live, with the inspirations I have, the Broadway show, a new artist I'm handling ... "

The music he's already produced isn't a museum piece either.

"It really is a rich record of what it felt like at that moment when things were beginning to change in the '60s," said Wayne State's Herron. "It's a part of 'I have a dream,' the marches, the boycotts. It's an anthem about us rising to the highest levels. Motown music has so much exuberance, people feel it in their bodies, they need to move around. I play Motown for my classes sometimes, and these kids in their teens don't have any geezer memories of it. Yet they still have to move when they hear it."

Berry Gordy on ...
Motown's legendary studio band, the Funk Brothers:

"I fought with them all the time trying to keep them from playing all the jazz things they wanted to do. They looked down on what they were doing at first, as did the great players from the Detroit Symphony ... until they really got it. But they were great; (drummer) Benny Benjamin and (bassist) James Jamerson, all the Funk Brothers were great."

When he first realized how great bassist James Jamerson was:

"When I knew I couldn't fire him. James would always defy me. I would say, 'James, this is not a jazz session, this is R&B, soul music, whatever it is.' He'd say 'OK, OK' because he really wanted the gig, we were the only game in town. So he would play it straight for a long time. Then he would throw in three or four jazz beats... but even though he defied me, I could never have gotten rid of Jamerson. He and I had this great relationship where he tricked me and defied me whenever he knew he could get away with it, because if it was something good, he knew I would leave it in. And I did."

The uniqueness of each

Motown act:

"All of them were talented, all of them were magical, because they were doing their own thing. Although we were using the same band, Marvin sounded nothing like Smokey, Smokey sounded nothing like Stevie, Martha sounded nothing like Diana. It came from the philosophy of being yourself, you are you. The first song I ever wrote was "You are You." They believed in that and they lived that and they're still living it today, still paying their taxes."

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or

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January 9, 2009

Tributes go global for Motown's 50th


For diehard Motown Records buffs, the label's upcoming 50th anniversary could be a time to fling around some fun numbers.

Figures like the 10 million all-time radio plays for "Baby I Need Your Loving." The Supremes' dozen No. 1 hits. The $250 million that changed hands when Berry Gordy Jr. sold the song catalog.

For everyone else, Motown's anniversary could be a time for some plain old fun.

Motown Records turns 50 years old on Monday -- half a century to the day since Gordy secured the $800 family loan that would transform Detroit and popular music.

Get ready for a winter blast of warm nostalgia. A slew of anniversary activity is afoot, including events at the Motown Historical Museum, on the airwaves and on record store shelves.

For Detroit -- the city that gave the label talent, a work ethic and its very name -- the good vibes come at a good time. While the city has maintained a dicey relationship with Motown since the label's departure for California in 1972, the bonds remain deep.

The 50th commemoration will remind the world that Detroit isn't all mayoral scandals and auto industry crises.

"This time, we get to celebrate," said Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves, the veteran Motown star. "Maybe we get to heal some of the tension, ease some of the bad feelings. It's good timing."

Motown 50 fever

Just like Motown's music in the 1960s, the celebration is going global.

Across the Atlantic, Motown 50 fever already has kicked in. Broadcasters in Britain, France and Germany are to air Motown specials during the next week. In Berlin, the Miracles, the Contours and Reeves are among those starring in a new stage musical, "Memories of Motown," which premieres Sunday night.

At the Motown museum, which is launching a year of anniversary celebration, journalists from France, Britain, Australia and elsewhere will be on hand Monday.

"We're getting inundated with all kinds of requests," said museum chief operating officer Audley Smith. "The Motown brand is still platinum."

The 50th project was hatched during the past year, the work of three parties: Gordy, the museum and Universal Music Group, which now owns the label.

Gordy sold his Motown empire in pieces starting in the 1980s.

Today, beyond some songwriting credits, he is no longer financially invested in what was once the world's biggest black-owned corporation. But he's still the figure everyone looked to as the anniversary campaign came together.

"Whether I own it or not, whether I make money from it or not, the legacy is still mine," Gordy said. "And it's still the legacy of all the artists -- people that are here and not here. And that's what's important to me."

A celebration of Motown is as much a celebration of its founder. Most of Motown's alumni still speak of him in reverential tones. Well-done men in their 60s, people close to him for decades, still habitually say "Mr. Gordy" when discussing the man who led them to success.

Protecting the legacy

But for all the romance, Motown is still part of the record business and all that goes with it. Some ex-Motowners have dared to speak out over the years, claiming unpaid royalties and other financial shenanigans.

That grittier side of the Motown fairy tale was captured in "Motown: Money, Music, Sex and Power," a 2005 best seller by investigative reporter Gerald Posner. The topic retains its own public allure. At the Detroit airport's Motown tourist shop -- not operated by the label itself -- Posner's tome is the only Motown book for sale. (PANW Editor's Note: This book by Posner has been challenged openly by people directly associated with the Motown legacy during a public lecture by the white author at the Detroit Public Library several years ago. His facts were brought into serious question to say the least).

Gordy doesn't directly address such allegations. But in conversation he frequently alludes to them, noting that he's OK with personal criticism as long as the bigger legacy is protected.

"We've been fighting for the legacy for 50 years, because it's so rich and wonderful," he said. "For 50 years, I and a few other artists -- Smokey and some other people -- have been fighting to keep the legacy proper, with the truth. It was not always easy. It was very tough."

Until the latter half of this decade, Gordy shunned publicity, declining news media requests and letting his 1994 autobiography do his talking.

But with the 50th anniversary looming, Gordy began to drop his guard. A series of honorary doctorates, including one from Michigan State University in 2005, also pulled him back into public settings.

"It's about time," said former Motown president Skip Miller, laughing. "We've been trying to drag him out for years."

Miller is one of many who say the 50th celebration is timely, letting the world pay tribute to Motown's luminaries while they're still here.

The point was driven home in the fall with the deaths of the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, producer Norman Whitfield and the Spinners' Pervis Jackson.

For Duke Fakir, the last surviving Top, the timing is apt for an even bigger reason: As America prepares to inaugurate its first black president, Fakir heralds Motown's role in the long process that brought the country there. Motown's crossover success, he said, prompted white Americans to "begin to look at black America a little differently."

"It's one of the steps that took us up that ladder. There's no doubt about that in my mind," he said. "Motown music was an integral part of softening the blow, little by little. And that's the part I'm really proud of."

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or


January 9, 2009

Celebrating Motown all year long

Monday starts a week of activities at the Motown Historical Museum on West Grand Boulevard, including a news conference with Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., on-site radio broadcasts and half-price admission Monday through Friday. Motown figures such as Duke Fakir and Maxine Powell are to act as tour guides from noon to 4 p.m. each day.

The museum's 2009 events include its annual fall gala presented as an old-style Motortown Revue concert.

The popular "NOW!" singles compilation series spotlights Motown with a 25-track hits disc; it's due Tuesday.

Fakir and Martha Reeves are to reminisce at 7 p.m. Friday at Borders in Dearborn.

Hallmark's 3,500 retail stores are embracing Motown for Valentine season, selling Motown-themed cards, gift wrap and other merchandise.

"Motown: The Complete No. 1s," a 192-song CD set from Universal Music Group, is to be boxed in a replica of the Hitsville, USA, house. Universal's ongoing Motown releases are to be presented with a 50th theme this year.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland last week unveiled "Motown: The Sound of Young America," an exhibit that pulls together memorabilia from its collection.

Universal's official 50th site is to include anniversary merchandise and in-depth podcasts. (

A 2-hour documentary, produced by Berry Gordy Jr. and slated to premiere in September, is intended as a survey of "the whole Motown experience, through my eyes," said Gordy. It's being aimed for theatrical release.

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