Many of Motown's artists participated in 2005's Motown Forever: Motown Historical Museum's 20th Anniversay Gala and Tribute to Esther Gordy Edwards. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
Motown -- the museum, the record company and the family -- is set to kick off a two-year celebration of its 50th anniversary Saturday at a One Motown One Family One Legacy black-tie gala at the Detroit Marriott.
Why two years? Partly because there was not one event, but actually several set in motion in 1958 and 1959 by Detroit natives Berry Gordy Jr., Smokey Robinson and others that launched Motown Records. Therefore a sort of a rolling, two-year party seems fitting.
Gordy's first release on his own label, a record company founded in Detroit that became one of the most influential black-owned enterprises in the world, came in 1959. That year, Detroit singer Marv Johnson's single "Come to Me" was released on Tamla Records.
"When you recognize the date that Motown was founded, the (50th anniversary) is '09, there's no question about that," says Robin Terry, director of the Motown Historical Museum at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit. Terry is museum founder Esther Gordy Edwards' granddaughter. "What we're doing is giving folks a sneak peek at the road that leads to the 50th. There are a number of celebrations that will take place globally that will also commemorate Motown's golden anniversary."
Gordy will attend the events this weekend, and Robinson will open the entertainment portion of the show. Teena Marie, who racked up hits with and without Rick James for Motown in the '70s into the '80s, also will perform at Saturday's gala, which will end with an all-star finale with Martha Reeves, the Miracles, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Velvelettes and other Motown stars onstage just like in '05, when all the singers and producers got up and sang under Gordy's direction.
Robinson also will debut a song he's written in honor of the company's 50th anniversary. And for the first time in many years, he'll sing a few numbers with his group of origin, the Miracles, to celebrate the group's 50th anniversary.
Robinson's ex-wife Claudette, who served as the only woman in the group until she retired in the '60s to raise their children, is set to reunite with the Miracles as well.
The week's events actually start with a private Friday afternoon gathering of Gordy with his Motown alumni in a tent erected on the lawn at Hitsville U.S.A. at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. Just as he did in '05, the boss will stage a mock company meeting, patterned on the ones held every week at Motown during the 1960s and '70s.
The original company meetings could be pretty tough, with producers like Holland-Dozier-Holland vying with Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield to have the song that passed the test. Criticism from Gordy could be biting, and he loved to promote excellence by spurring competition between producers and acts.
Cal Street, lead singer of the Velvelettes, recalls the '05 company meeting.
"They had the artists come up and sing a cappella, then the board -- (producer/A&R director) Mickey Stevenson, (writer/producer) Brian Holland, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy -- would vote on each song," says Street. "So the Velvelettes did 'Needle in a Haystack.' "
This time, there were no losers at the company meeting.
"Of course all of the songs received approval," Street says with a laugh.
The meeting ended as in the old days, with a rousing chorus of the company song, written by Smokey Robinson: "We have a very swinging company, working hard from day to day ..."
Cameras will be rolling
On Friday night, there will be a Motown jam session at Arturo's jazz club in Southfield, with the Velvelettes and Spyder Turner performing sets, then inviting various Motown stars and producers to come up on stage and join them.
Former Motown executive Suzanne DePasse also will be at this weekend's celebrations. DePasse, who executive-produced the Motown reunion shows on TV (Motown 25 in 1983, Motown 30 in 1990 and Motown 40 in 1998 -- and no, the numbers don't add up) and the "Temptations" biopic, is working on a "Motown 50" documentary, so cameras will be rolling all weekend.
Robinson and his group the Matadors met Gordy in Detroit in 1958 when they were auditioning for Jackie Wilson's manager. Gordy had already written several hits for Wilson, including "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops." The Matadors became the Miracles at Gordy's suggestion; "Matadors" was too masculine a name for a group with a girl singer, he thought.
Bobby Rogers of the Miracles remembers when "Got a Job" was released on End Records, and Gordy received a check for a paltry $3.19 for royalties.
"Smokey told Berry: 'If this is all the money we're going to get, we might as well start our own label,' " Rogers recalls. "At least you'd know how much money you made, or didn't make. I think Berry still has that check framed in his office."
And so Gordy got a loan from his family in 1959 to launch a record company. At the time, it seemed like yet another doomed scheme by a guy who tried boxing, worked in a factory briefly, then ran a failed jazz record store.
Girls and money
In May 2006 the Motown chairman cheerfully told The Detroit News what his motivation for writing songs was.
"Actually, girls first motivated me," Gordy said. "So I wrote the words, 'You broke my heart because I couldn't dance/now I'm back to let you know, I can really shake 'em down ...' That's the song 'Do You Love Me,' for the Contours."
After he got the girls, "I wanted money, so I wrote 'Money.' That got me money..." he said, with a laugh.
It's in retrospect that Gordy and most of the Motown alumni realize what the company accomplished, and what it means to them.
"Sometimes we have to contribute back to the company that gave us what we do have," Bobby Rogers said about ponying up for this weekend's gala fundraiser to benefit the Motown Historical Museum.
Friday and Saturday's gatherings will be, like most family reunions, full of joy, tears and competition, sometimes all at the same time.
Martha Reeves laughed when she recalled having a brief tug of war over the microphone with Street at the '05 gala finale, when everybody was taking a turn singing "Dancing in the Streets."
It was the chairman, Gordy, who flexed his boss muscles and told each person, including "the councilwoman" when to start, and when to stop singing.
For Gordy and the surviving Motown stars, family -- by blood or by music -- always trumps lawsuits and turmoil. When he started out in the business, he wanted girls and money, but over the years Gordy has come to have a more philosophical view of what Motown music does for people.
"We all want love, we all want happiness, we all want peace," Gordy told The News in 1994. "Our problem is communicating. You think I hate you, and I think you hate me. That's the problem, I think, with the world. What Motown music did was to bring out the sameness -- everybody wants love, everybody wants happiness."