Surviving A Blue Christmas


by Roxanne Tellier

Man, I cannot stand Elvis‘ song, “Blue Christmas.” And I’ll bet you have a couple of holiday tunes you could gladly live without for the rest of your life … enough’s enough on the “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” amirite?

And no … we’re not discussing the ‘controversy’ over “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” No, we are not.

But.

But seriously … it’s that time of year, when people can get a little – or a lot – down about what seems to be an incessant and annoying full frontal campaign insisting that we all be ‘merry and bright’ and ‘ho ho ho’ ourselves into stupors.

A surfeit of merriment. Bah humbug. What to do, what to do, when you just feel blue?

csarn salons
That was the question being asked at a recent seminar I attended, that was hosted by the good people of C-SARN (Canadian Senior Artists’ Resource Network – find more info at csarn.ca.)

Facilitated by Matt Eldridge, from the Artists’ Health Centre, the session included curated info on dealing with holiday stress, and included much lively input from the attendees.

We touched briefly on the very real problem of Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD.) SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the change of seasons. Symptoms of SAD include fatigue, lethargy, anxiety, weight gain and sleep disorders. About 2-3% of the general population of Ontario have SAD and another 15% have a less severe experience. It is believed that SAD is caused by changes in the level of exposure to sunlight. At this point, the main treatment for SAD is light therapy.

Seasonal-Affective-Disorder-SAD

There are special light therapy lamps, designed to mimic spring and summer light levels, that can really help relieve some of the depression of SAD, but the lamps are quite expensive.

However, help is on the way if you live in Toronto! Several branches of the Toronto Public Library now have light therapy lamps available in-library on a first-come, first served basis, as a way to treat the “winter blues.

All you need to do is sit, read or work about 2 feet away from a lamp for 20-30 minutes, without looking directly into the lamp, but allowing the light to shine on your face. It may be hard to believe, but that’s all it can take to really help.

You can give it a try at the Agincourt, Brentwood, Don Mills, Fairview, Humber Bay, Malvern, Maria A Shchuka, Parkdale or Parliament branches, or on the 5th floor and basement Toronto Star Newspaper Room of the Toronto Reference Library.

So that’s SAD dealt with – but what if you are just generally bummed out by the holiday season?

Me, I hate the ‘heaviness’ of winter … the weighty coats, the accumulation of hats, earmuffs, scarves and mitts, and the big, sturdy, non-slip boots that contrive to make me feel like a Clydesdale negotiating a steep slope. I can literally feel myself getting shorter as I assume the mantle of wintry clothing. Literally. I will probably have lost another inch in height by January.

Some determinedly, doggedly, cheery people love to tell you that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” My mission is to hunt those people down, and skin them for their magic coats.

But until I find them, I’m going to have to deal with not enjoying anything about surviving the coldest months of the year in Canada.

Perhaps it is time to embrace the Scandinavian concept of hygge (pronounced hooga.) This is a word that Danes use to express a mental strategy for coping with the winter months, describing an emotional coziness and togetherness. It is a time they spend indoors with friends and family, embracing the colder season as wholeheartedly as they do the summer months, and seeing both extremes as opportunities to cultivate the different sides of themselves.

danish hyggeHey … as long as it doesn’t include sports … I’ve never liked sports, either to play or to watch, so that leaves me out of a lot of the typical Canadian leisure time diversions and debates. About the most I can handle in terms of physical exertion in the winter is a lope to the nearest Tim Hortons for a toasty cup of hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and a cinnamon dusting. I simply lack a sports gene, and find it unlikely I’ll develop one during my ‘golden years.’

winter wildlifeWhat I can always find time to do, though, is to spend a few hours with friends, to share a meal and indulge in lively discussions. Or to walk in a park, where some of our wild critters, who don’t migrate or hibernate, can benefit from a gift of the appropriate seed, treat, or suet.

I’m not a religious person, but I sometimes like to enter a house of worship, to partake, for a moment, of the peace that comes from the gathering of those who enjoy a committed faith.

Some people take great joy in volunteering, and of helping others by giving a little bit of their time or largesse to benefit those who have less than ourselves. Others look forward to participating in regular or seasonal religious ceremonies.

christmas eyebrowsI’m more of an indoor person, and can find tons of ways to amuse myself, whether it’s on the internet, or in communing with my pets. I love to search out old holiday songs, programs, and stories from other times and other countries, and to admire or laugh at how our sense of fashion has morphed over time.

Couple of things to avoid – if you are not feeling particularly cheery, go easy on the physical stressors: sugar, caffeine, alcohol and empty carbohydrates will just make you feel more jangled, and pack on the pounds. Be vigilant about eating properly, and taking the meds and supplements that keep you ticking along smoothly. Also, try not to spend a lot of time on social media; many friends and acquaintances like to take the season as an opportunity to put up their annual “highlight” reels … no, neither they nor their kids look that good all year round, and the dog is rented. Nuff said.

try something new SeussYou might be able to turn around some of your blues by making a small attitude adjustment; nobody’s perfect, but we all get a chance every new day to tweak what we’ve got. Why not try looking at your holiday challenges with an eye to a more realistic expectation of how your sister in law will behave after her third glass of wine? Is it possible that even Drunk Uncle will be a little easier to take if you practice a bit of radical acceptance of his all too human foibles? Some people just can’t help people-ing.

And the next time someone invites you to an event, or a meal, why not try saying an enthusiastic YES! to a new experience? The worse that can happen is that you spend a few hours discovering that you like or dislike this new person or food or thing.

Conversely, if you’ve spent most of your adult life hating one of your holiday traditions – this may be the year you finally say a resounding NO! to doing it any more. Walk away from petty squabbles, refuse to eat foods that you dislike, and don’t invite trolls to be part of your celebrations. While the holidays are a time of giving, they shouldn’t also be a time of unending and painful sacrifice in the pursuit of someone else’s happiness.

Everyone experiences the holidays and winter differently, but there are some tried and true ways to increase your own enjoyment of the season. Indulge your senses with the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations that fill you with pleasure.

10-tips-for-enjoying-a-long-winter-indoorsIf you are keen on Christmas carols, fill your home with the sound! Put on your favourite play list while you tidy up your environment and enjoy the scent of seasonal candles, fruits and foliage. Open up your curtains and throw a little light on the situation. indulge yourself with a special treat, because you deserve it.

Be gentle with yourself, and let your inner dialogue express the same tenderness to yourself that you’d show towards someone you love or care about, who’s dealing with a tough time. You are just as deserving.

Above all … pace yourself! This demanding round of lunches, dinners and soirees will soon fade and become last year’s memories, but we Canadians will still have a further three or four months of cold, snow, and ice to deal with. It’s gonna take a toll on you. So try to have enough fun with your loved ones during the holidays to make yourself, if not more tolerant, than at least a little more accepting of our country’s wintry gifts.

And however you spend this holiday season, I wish you the best and most joyous one ever!

happy holidays to all

 

Stuff Is Hard


scott shelson teddy boysI didn’t have the best week, to be honest. On Tuesday, I learned that a very dear friend had passed away after a series of health setbacks. Scott Shelson was a good man; look up ‘mensch’ in the dictionary – his photo should be there.

Scott was not only a fabulous musician, he was movie star handsome, smart, funny, athletic, a great husband, and an amazing dad. He ran a courier company for years, and many a musician found a temporary or long term job there when they needed it.

scott shelson sexy shirtAt the family’s ‘Celebration of Life,” the scores of those who had come to honour Scott praised his commitment to his family and friends, saying that he was a man who had never been heard to raise his voice in anger, or have a bad word to say about anyone – even those who might have sinned against him in the past.

A good man – a big loss for those of us who loved and respected him.

Two days later, the world mourned the loss of another irreplaceable human being, when Aretha Franklin succumbed to pancreatic cancer. I can’t remember a world in which she was not a force to be reckoned with, not only in music, but in civil rights, and in her position as senior female spokesperson. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. baby…

aretha franklin youngEvery musical entity on the planet .. and many non-musical entities … have written glowing tributes to the Queen of Soul. So, of course, the Orange Mango waved away the importance of her life and works when he dismissively referred to her as someone who once worked for him. Sigh. Money can’t buy class.

I do know that she was asked to perform at Dead Clown Walking’s inauguration, and vehemently refused to do so. Maybe in the fantasy carnival ride of his mind, he thinks she accepted. Who knows? Or cares?

“Though she largely refrained from publicly criticizing Trump during or after the 2016 campaign, two individuals with direct knowledge of her political opinions said she was repelled by the Republican standard-bearer, his policy prescriptions, and his rhetoric. One source close to Franklin told The Daily Beast that after the election, she confided to associates that “no amount of money” could convince her to perform at the inauguration.”

Orange Condom represents the worst America has to offer, but Miss Franklin showed the world the heights an American could achieve with a real love of her art and her country.

Rest in well deserved peace, Queen … we are richer for having had you in our lives.

While I’m not all that into astrology, August 16 is a very interesting and auspicious day for comings and goings. We lost Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n Roll, on that day, as well as Aretha, seminal blues guitarist, Robert Johnson, and baseball giant, Babe Ruth, while Madonna, Steve Carell, James Cameron, Angela Bassett and Kathie Lee Gifford were born on that day. And … August 16 is also National Bratwurst Day, National Roller Coaster Day, National Rum Day, and National Tell A Joke Day.

Things that make you go .. hmmm … and then pour a large rum and coke to go with your bratwurst, while you tell a joke about roller coasters.

In other news – the world just keeps getting more chaotic, and honest to pete, guys … can we just stop with the getting all up in our own selves, cherry picking facts, and doing a lemming-like march to every available cliff?

Being ‘woke’ is great when we’re in progressive mode. But when a huge slice of the electorate is obsessed with real and made up reasons to be frightened and angry, it’s time to get back to the middle-right, not the Middle Ages. People care a great deal about jobs, the economy, health care, education … and why their kids can’t make enough money to move the hell out of their basement.

Trying to get them to be more interested in deep states, conspiracy theories, and fiery deaths from either an apocalypse or a nuclear war is just asking too much from us on an every day basis. Especially in the summer. Especially this summer.

titanic sinkingIn a time when populist leaders like Trump and Ford are being voted in with self-proclaimed mandates to do whatever evil their warped little cerebral cortices coax them to do, we’ve got to pull way back from the sinking side of the Titanic.

There are days when I wonder if the ascent of these fools was engineered to wipe out the last of the intelligent baby boomers by having them stroke out, thus diminishing the costs of elder health care costs. But then I remember .. thee and me are still here.

There are other days when I look at America’s underbelly supporting the 72 Year Old Toddler, with their cries of “lock her up!” replacing, “She’s a witch!” and wonder just how very different things are today from how they were in the Dark Ages.

After all – it was the time between the fall of one Empire and the beginning of a renaissance. It was also another time of rejecting science and truth, and of painting bothersome women as witches or animals, with no rights.

Fake News? Oh.. the medieval scribes had an excuse for that!

TitivillusTitivillus the Error Demon: Some in the Dark Ages believed that the blame for any scribe’s error—big or small—fell squarely on the shoulders of this Muppet-lookin’ monster. The Titivillus ran with a bad crowd (aka Satan), so it made sense he’d do such devilish work.

And how very different are the most rabid anti-abortionists beliefs from preformationism; the belief that “sperm carried homunculi, tiny versions of a fully-grown human. It had organs, eyes, a brain—everything a baby had when it was born. In the womb, this little thing just grew from microscopic to baby-sized.” (boredomtherapy.com)

You wanna know what brought about the end of the Dark Ages? It was the black plague, the development of the printing press and the decline of the Catholic church.

So … I guess we’re just waiting on that plague now?

History doesn’t repeat itself .. but sometimes it rhymes … or ..

gbs quote on history reepeating

 

Pet Sounds Revisited


“The Internet is a lot like ancient Egypt: people write on walls and worship cats.” 

kittyon-a-keyboardCats, kittens, dogs, puppies, birds, horses, hedgehogs … you name it. The supply of animal pictures seems to be limitless. And nothing can draw an “awww” out of even the most hardened grouch’s mouth quicker than the sight of a tiny, helpless, pink-mouthed baby anything. We are helpless before their innocent charms.

People love their pets. Thirty-seven percent of Canadian households own one or more cats, 32% own dogs. As of March 2017, there were a total of 89.7 million dogs and 94.2 million cats estimated to live in U.S. households as pets. Pets outnumber children four to one in the United States.

Of course, there are still way too many abused and unwanted animals, but for the most part, people take good care of their pets. The loss of a pet can be a traumatic emotional ordeal that takes as long, or longer, to recover from than losing a fellow human being.

It’s particularly difficult for those who are older, and may have lost a lot of their friends and family along the years. Many seniors have only a pet to call their friend. But many seniors also have a limited income, so when their companion animal gets ill, choices may have to be made that involve one of the two going without food or health care.

That`s why my friend Barbette Kensington, long time social worker and advocate, created the KittyPants charity six years ago, in partnership with Dundas Euclid Animal Hospital to assist their senior clients on fixed incomes with the cost of medications and grooming.

This afternoon, Sunday November 5, I’ll be one of several musicians performing for this worthy charity. We`ll be at Lola`s, 30 Kensington Avenue, Toronto, between 3pm and 7pm. Hope to see you there!

kittypants poster 2017
Since I’ll be busy today, I’ve revived this March 2013 column, brushed off the dust, and now present its slightly altered and hopefully improved, reanimated corpse ..

I often wonder if our lifelong fascination with pets has to do with most little creatures being smaller than ourselves. Perhaps having a living being in our lives, with even less power than we feel we possess, is our own first experience of authority, of being able to boss another living creature around.

Smart parents will guide the interaction between child and animal, and hopefully teach the child that having power over another is much less satisfying than having a companionable relation where both parties needs are met.

We start our relationships with pets when we are very young, and we learn to sing along to “B-I-N-G-O…and Bingo was his name O!,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and a song that was a massive radio hit, reaching #1 for Patti Page on Billboard and Cash Box charts in 1953, “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?”

“On October 3, 1945, Elvis Presley at age ten sang “Old Shep” for his first public performance, a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Dressed as a cowboy, he stood on a chair to reach the microphone. He came in fifth place, winning $5 and a free ticket to the fair rides.” (Wikipedia)

Elvis recorded “Old Shep,” written by Red Foley and Arthur Willis about a dog Foley owned as a child, in 1956. The good ole boy loved dogs.

<
Musicians have always seemed to have a special bond with animals. Pets have inspired many songs over the years. Dogs are especially memorialized. Some songs describe the human-animal relationship; some pick up on the innate characteristics of the beasts. You can dance to the “Stray Cat Strut,” mourn Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” wandering the wet city streets, or exult in Bowie’s post-apocalyptic future visions of “Diamond Dogs.

Nillson The PointgifSilly, happy songs like “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” (Lobo), Cat Stevens’ “I Love My Dog,” and “Me and My Arrow” (from Harry Nilsson‘s wonderful musical, The Point) celebrate the childlike wonder and friendship that sharing life with a beloved partner – who just happens to have four feet and a tail – can be. I’m constantly finding myself singing Jane Siberry’s “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog,” because I can so relate. “And if you remind me of my dog, we’ll probably get along, little doggy, get along, get along, little doggy.”

i like big muttsNo genre is immune to the call of the wild. In 1968, Johnny Cash’s historic album “At Folsom Prison” contained the novelty song “Egg Sucking Dog.” Pseudo-Spanish cats have the stubble faced “El Gato Volador” to look up to. We all dance to our pet’s tunes.

Beatles cognoscenti argued over whether Paul McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” referred to his beloved sheepdog, or to his longtime ladyfriend pre-Linda, Jane Asher. “Jet” was McCartney’s ode to a horse. For years, scuttlebutt had it that Freddie Mercury wrote “My Best Friend” about his dog, but in reality, bassist John Deacon wrote the song, and he insists it’s about his wife. The lyrics work, either way!

Henry Gross’ song “Shannon” mourned a beloved dog, apparently Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s Irish Setter. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Get Down” isn’t about dancing, it’s a dog command, and when it was a radio staple, pooches would cower at the words “you’re a bad dog, baby.” Patty Griffin‘s “Heavenly Day” is a love song to her pup, but is frequently played at weddings. Norah JonesMan of the Hour”? Yep … her dog.

Got a taste for the surreal? Check out The Shaggs bizarre video for “My Pal Foot Foot,” which seems to be about a dog that just won’t stay at home. Kind of like the rascal Big Mama Thornton’s talking about in “(You Ain’t Nothin’ But A) Hound Dog.”

Walkin’ the Dog” written by Rufus Thomas, and recorded by acts as innocent as The Mousketeers, is actually a paean to heroin … go figure. The StoogesI Wanna Be Your Dog” is Iggy’s plea to be so caught up in the sexual moment that traditional male-female sexual roles blur. The song reeks of the desire to be dominated by a strong, controlling partner. Or so they tell me.

Led Zeppelin’s song catalogue includes “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” about Robert Plant’s dog, Strider, while “Black Dog” was named after a 14 year old black Labrador retriever who wandered around the grounds where the band was recording on a mobile studio.

Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” was originally called “Percy the Rat Catcher,” and yes, it’s about Syd Barrett’s cat, although many speculated that it referred to his then-girlfriend, Jenny Spires. David Gilmour’s 1987 blues “Dogs of War” sings about how money sinks its fangs into our collective necks through war profiteering.

Al Stewart could have referenced any animal when he wrote the lispy “Year of The Cat,” but the poetic lines weave a tale like a cat weaves around it’s master’s legs.

“On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the Year of the Cat.”

I have absolutely no idea what to think about They Might Be GiantsYouth Culture Killed My Dog.” Ah, the 80’s, which also spawned the New Wave songs, “Cool for Cats” (Squeeze) and “The Love Cats” (The Cure.)

One of the most sampled songs ever is George Clinton’s raucous “Atomic Dog,” with its funkadelic groove, released in 1982.

Michael Jackson sang about his love for pet rat “Ben.” Nelly Furtado was “Like a Bird,” while in “Little Bird,” Annie Lennox envies the bird’s freedom, and wishes she “had the wings to fly away from here.” “BlackBird” sings in the dead of The Beatles’ night. Everyone, including Joe Cocker, had a crack at “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

There’s even a whole collection of tunes about horses. Michael Martin Murphey eulogized the ghost of a woman and her horse in “Wildfire.” Wild horses, running free, unencumbered by society’s rules, are wistfully and frequently referenced in every genre. The Rolling StonesWild Horses,” has lyrics that have been credited variously to Keith Richard’s attempt to deal with the loss of a child, or to the words Marianne Faithful said to him after coming out of a drug induced coma.

And just for fun, country’s Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” asks …well, that’s fairly self-explanatory!

The clock in my house is governed by our pets. I rise far too early to tend to their needs, and we cannot be away from home for more than 7 or 8 hours at a time, lest their tiny dishes grow empty. We walk on floors that glimmer with pet hair, and try to ignore the dust bunnies. Tons of money has been spent on pet food and toys. The melting of the snow in Spring reveals a yard collection that has most certainly not been left by the Easter Bunny. The burning question is “Who Let the Dog Out?” Like alien overlords, our pets are our rulers.

And if you remind me of my dog, we’ll probably get along, little doggy.

Tom Waits, David Bowie, Harry Nilsson, Lobo, Henry Gross, Cat Stevens, Jane Siberry, The Rolling Stones, Annie Lennox, Joe Cocker, Nelly Furtado, Iggy Pop, The Stooges, Freddie Mercury, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Norah Jones, Patty Griffin, The Shaggs, Big Mama Thornton, Rufus Thomas,

 

Motown: The Musical


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.

hitsville USABut 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 MotownHitsville U.S.A.

Trailer 

Motown: The Musical is a heady ride, a pastiche of the songs that mirrored and urged on a youth culture chitlin circuitexploding 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.

hot100 1960When 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’sYou’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and The MarvelettesPlease 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.Maxine Powell finishing school for Motown

“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, diana-ross-stylethrough 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.

jackson 5The 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.

Marvin_Gaye_What's Going ON… 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.