Tributes go global to mark Monday's Motown anniversary

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

12 January 2009

Photo: Jake Howlett 

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.

Tributes go global to mark Monday's Motown anniversary

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.”

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.

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.

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.”



Monday starts of a week of activities at the Motown Historical Museum on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, 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.

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. (www.classic.motown.com)

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.

Topics: motown
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