The sixties were a glorious time, unlikely to ever be repeated or rivalled. The fifties had been a cautious decade, where women stayed home after marrying to take care of their men, kids didn’t sass parents, and no one questioned authority in the family or in their country. Well, at least on the surface.
But the sixties were all about breaking free of rigid expectations. The kids were loud, and demanding that their culture be not only accepted but respected. Feminism, the civil rights movement, and counter culture in general flourished. And into this heady mix, Berry Gordy, a guy from Detroit, working out of a house on W. Grand Blvd, brought his own dream to life by creating Motown – Hitsville U.S.A.
Motown: The Musical is a heady ride, a pastiche of the songs that mirrored and urged on a youth culture exploding in front of our parents’ shocked eyes. The story, written by Gordy, traces the determination , grit and greed that was necessary to bring the music of young, black performers out into the open , and into the spotlight, after decades of being relegated to touring under Jim Crow laws and on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Much of early rock and roll was unacceptable to a white, uptight audience in North America. The music written and performed by black artists was routinely filtered through clean cut and very white vocalists who better exemplified what the society of the day wanted to see and hear. As Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis once said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
The charts of the day were wide-ranging; a radio station’s top ten might include everything from rock to country to instrumental movie soundtracks, to a song scooped from a Broadway musical. And into this blessedly catholic mix, Gordy dropped the songs that exploded minds once closed to racial diversity.
When I first heard Motown songs, they were often filtered through the music of The Beatles, and other British groups who were eagerly seizing upon this new form, a rhythm and blues concoction that stepped all over early rock and roll structure, and brought attention to lyrics with heart and soul, accompanied by dazzling melodies and angelic harmonies.
The Beatles, always hip to finding hits where others might not have looked, recorded three Motown hits for their second album, With The Beatles, in 1963; “Money”, Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and The Marvelettes “Please Mr Postman.”
“Money (That’s What I Want,) “was the first hit for Gordy, on the Tamla label operated pre-Motown, and released in 1959. And right from the beginning, Gordy was ruthless. “Singer Barrett Strong claims that he co-wrote the song with Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford. His name was removed from the copyright registration three years after the song was written, restored in 1987 when the copyright was renewed, and then excised again the next year. Gordy has stated that Strong’s name was only included because of a clerical error.”
But Motown’s legal scramblings and shenanigans didn’t come to our attention until years later. What we were hearing and enjoying were songs that burst out of the radio, as Martha and the Vandellas called us to come “Dancin’ In the Streets.”
Gordy’s musical stable included The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. He loved to pit the performers against each other, believing that “competition breeds champions.” He was a showman who understood what the people wanted, and the young artists that flocked to his label soon learned that their street cred was about to be vigorously scrubbed off them.
“Maxine Powell ran the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. Most people have probably never heard of Powell, who died this week, but music fans have unknowingly enjoyed her handiwork at Motown since the ‘60s.
“When I opened up, in 1964, the finishing school, the purpose was to help the artists become class, to know what to do on stage and off stage, because they did come from humble beginnings. Some of them from the projects and some of them were using street language. Some were rude and crude, you understand, but with me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.”
It was Powell’s job to teach the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Tammi Terrell, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, and Smokey Robinson how to present themselves charmingly during interviews, performances, and off-stage public appearances. When they were in Detroit, Motown singers were required to attend two-hour session with Powell, learning public speaking, posture, walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming. Powell had studied African-American cosmetology at the renowned Madam C.J. Walker training school in Indianapolis.” (http://dangerousminds.net/comments/motowns_charm_school)
Motown: The Musical takes all of that background and lays it out beautifully at our feet. Over 50 songs from the rich catalogue are sampled, in small or large bites, and the audience visibly thrills, sitting a little taller in their seats, as their own musical memories are stimulated.
Josh Tower plays Berry Gordy, whose long love affair with Diana Ross, portrayed by the lovely Allison Semmes, is pivotal to his life. Consequently, a large part of the musical is devoted to her work, first as a teen, and one of The Supremes, through her machinations to become the acknowledged star of the group, her foray into film, to her eventual break with Gordy and Motown.
But it’s tiny Michael Jackson, ably brought to life by Leon Outlaw Jr., (the role is shared between Outlaw and Nathaniel Cullors,) who steals our hearts. Outlaw plays the young Berry Gordy, and a young Stevie Wonder, whose over-bearing stage mom terrifies Gordy. But it’s when we hear Outlaw as the 10 year old Michael Jackson auditioning with the song, “Who’s Loving You,” that we’re galvanized.
The song was written by Smokey Robinson for his group The Miracles, who recorded the song in 1960 for their first Motown album. The song was issued as the b-side to The Jackson 5’s first single, “I Want You Back” in 1969. And of course, Michael went on to extraordinary heights … we still feel his loss. But back then, that little kid with the big voice could be depended on to knock it out of the park pretty much every time he came to bat. The Jackson 5 were so huge in the sixties that they received the ultimate compliment of the time – their own animated TV series.
We dip, dip, dip through other artists and their contributions to the legend. Jesse Nager plays Smokey Robinson, a long time Gordy friend, while Jarran Muse plays a suitably conflicted Marvin Gaye, whose greatest songs were nearly never accepted by the label.
“The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.
… Gaye approached Gordy with the “What’s Going On” song while in California where Gordy had relocated. Gordy took a profound dislike to the song, calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”. Gaye, who had also begun recording some songs that would later be featured on his later album, Let’s Get It On responded by going on strike from recording anything else for the label unless Gordy relented. Motown executive Harry Balk later recalled that he had tried to get Gordy to release the song to which Gordy replied to Balk, “that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Most of Motown’s Quality Control Department team also turned the song down, with Balk later stating that “they were used to the ‘baby baby’ stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp.” Gordy also felt the song was too political to be a hit on radio and too unusual compared with what was considered a part of the popular music sound of that time to be commercially successful.
With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released to record stores, sending 100,000 copies of the song without Gordy’s knowledge, on January 17, 1971, with another 100,000 copies sent after that success.” (Wikipedia.com)
The musical is set in 1983, as the cream of the Motown crop returns for the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Gordy, fuming over the slights and spats of the past, is determined not to attend the ceremonies. But his memories, and the cajoling of family and friends, including Smokey, finally get him to relent. He and Diana have a smoochy smooch, ‘we cool,” moment, and everyone sings.
The quasi happy ending, however, completely bypasses what many believe to be the high point of the show … Michael Jackson’s return to perform a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, followed by a solo performance of “Billie Jean,” that showed us that the kid had blossomed into a formidable man … with a mean “Moon Walk.”
I loved Motown: The Musical. I’d highly recommend it not only to those of us who lived through those halcyon days, but to anyone aspiring to a career in this business of show, as some of the trickiest moves and manipulations on the parts of both artists and managers are still in play today.
But definitely … come for the music. That ‘sweet, sweet music’ will get you every time.