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Tavis Smiley, 'a lifelong fan,' ready for Detroit shows

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Tavis Smiley grew up admiring Detroit from afar.

Growing up "just down the road" in rural Indiana, he visited the city frequently. Now Smiley — author, host of "The Tavis Smiley Show" — will tape all five shows next week from the Motor City to air nightly.

"I'm a lifelong fan of the city and the art and the culture," Smiley said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I'm anxious to get there, to document the slow but steady turnaround. We're going to cover a variety of things and squeeze in some fun, as well."

Some of the topics will include Detroit post-bankruptcy, with Smiley talking to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Monday. He'll also talk to Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over the bankruptcy, in his first national broadcast interview.

Other shows will touch on the Arab-American community, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the arts community (with DIA director Graham Beal among the guests) and education.

"Detroit Public Schools has clearly had to deal with a crisis of major proportions, and yet I think there are some practices and policies that may help turn the school system around, that the rest of the country should consider.

"Later in the week, we'll talk to 'the' judge, Damon Keith, about his legacy and his relationship to the city."

Smiley says he senses a lot of interest in Detroit nationally.

"There are a lot of people around the country who have an affinity for the city, for what it has represented in the culture of our country. I speak of music and sports and, of course, the automobile industry. Everybody has some kind of cosmic connection to the city, and a lot of people want to see the city come back."

While he's good friends with Berry Gordy and a longtime fan of the city's music, many of the superstar acts are out of town next week.

"Aretha's birthday is on the 25th, so she's in NYC (to celebrate), and I talked to KEM, he's on tour, in L.A.; I talked to Bob Seger just this morning, he's on tour," Smiley lamented.

But the Winans could make it — Three Winans Brothers, or 3WB.

"You can't come to Detroit and not celebrate the gospel music that came out of the city," Smiley said. "BeBe, Marvin and Carvin have an album out together ("Foreign Land"), so the three of them will perform."

All five shows will be taped in three days, Monday through Wednesday, at Wayne State University's Community Arts Auditorium. Detroit Public Television will tape the shows and broadcast them Monday through Friday, so it's not quite live, but almost. "We'll be shooting and feeding the same day," Smiley noted.

He'll also be talking to students at the Detroit School of Arts, who will then be invited to a taping of his show.

Ironically, quintessential Detroiter Bettye LaVette will be on his show tonight, before he comes to Detroit. It was taped in Los Angeles. She's currently on tour in Europe.

"Bettye flew to L.A. to do it," Smiley said. "On camera you'll hear her say, 'I'm so mad I couldn't be on one of your shows from Detroit.' "

As soon as Smiley returns to L.A., he'll pack his bags and head out on another book tour, this time for "My Journey with Maya," a personal memoir of his friendship over the years with poet Maya Angelou, including a trip he went on to Africa with a group that included her.

"My Journey with Maya" (Little, Brown), written with David Ritz, will come out April 5.

The third book in his collaboration with Ritz will be about Michael Jackson's last 16 weeks and will be published in 2016.

"Michael seemed so excited, he sewed down all those (comeback) concerts, everybody was ready and waiting, then 16 weeks later he's dead — I want to know what happened. We're doing detailed research to get a better picture of what he was going through, what his life was like those last few months."

swhitall@detroitnews.com

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PBS' "The Tavis Smiley Show" will emanate from Detroit all next week, airing at midnight Monday-Thursday. On Friday Smiley's Detroit town hall meeting program will air at a special time, 7:30 p.m.