New Detroit Riverfront panels salute Motown's Motortown Revues
The first time Motown royalty Duke Fakir, the sole remaining original member of the Four Tops, saw a Motortown Revue in the early 1960s at New York's Apollo Theatre, he and the rest of the group thought the same thing: we should be up there on stage.
Eventually, they were. Throughout the 1960s, Motown puts its biggest acts, everyone from Diana Ross and the Supremes and Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder and, yes, the Four Tops, on the road, sending them by bus from city to city as part of its Motortown Revues.
"There was nothing — nothing — like the Motortown Revue — the fun we had, the camaraderie we had, the family feeling we had, the things we shared together," said Fakir, who noted that the Four Tops didn't join the Motortown Revue until 1964.
Fakir was part of special media tour Tuesday as the Motown Museum unveiled a series of special outdoor panels along the Detroit Riverfront dubbed the "Motown Mile Experience" to mark the 60th anniversary of the Motortown Revues. The eight panels, designed to engage with Motown fans in a different way, are spread out over a half mile and include vintage photos, postcard images, QR codes that link to songs and other details. They're funded by Sony Music.
"It's really our way of sharing a little bit of Detroit history, a little bit of Motown history, throughout the community," said Robin Terry, the Motown Museum's chairwoman and CEO, speaking after a bus tour took media from the Fox Theatre, where revues would typically end, to the riverfront. "...This is how they began to spread the magic of what became the Motown sound across the country and then even begin to break down barriers as they did what they did best."
The very first Motortown Revue in 1962 was called the Motortown Special. Performing more than 50 one-night shows at venues that ranged from high school gymnasiums to posh supper clubs, early revues featured the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Contours and Stevie Wonder. Most of the acts were in their early 20s at the time.
"The plan behind the Motown Revue was to send all of the label’s biggest recording stars and young hopefuls out on the road to promote our latest recordings, turn those recordings into hits, and return as ‘stars,'" said Martha Reeves on the Motown Museum's website.
Terry said it was her grandmother, Esther Gordy Edwards, a senior vice president at Motown, and Thomas "Beans" Bowles, a Funk Brother and part of a division called International Talent Management Inc., who came up with the idea of the revues as a way to create a platform and audiences for the talent coming out of Detroit.
By the time the Four Tops had a contract with Motown and joined a Motortown Revue in 1964, Fakir said they didn't care where they played next, or performing night after night, "as long as there was a next."
Acts would play cards on the bus or sleep as they traveled from city to city. And even on busses without air conditioning, "we thought they were pretty comfortable," said Fakir.
But the revues weren't without challenges, especially given the country's racial climate at the time. The Motortown Revue traveled what was called the "Chitlin' Circuit," a series of venues located mostly in the South that were considered safe for African-American musicians and entertainers to perform.
Fakir said in segregated venues, White audiences would be in the front while Black patrons would have to stay in the balcony. Terry said acts were sometimes not even allowed to enter the front door at some venues, instead having to enter through the kitchen.
"It bothered all of us" performing for segregated audiences, said Fakir. "Why did they have to sit up there? They both enjoying the music. It really bothered us."
Eventually, Edwards, Terry's grandmother, told the revue's promoter that things would either have to change or they wouldn't perform.
She said "it's not the way it should be. They're all enjoying the music. They should be together. If you all want us to come back, you'll put it together where everyone can enjoy the show, enjoy the music at the same level, side by side, seat by seat. Until then, (she said) 'it's been nice,'" Fakir said. "She took us home."
Eventually, promoters relented. They put together another tour.
"We saw people, Black and White, dancing up out of their seat, dancing together, holding hands, it was just a sight to behold honestly, especially for kids who were used to seeing it the other way down there," said Fakir, who said the Four Tops' influence on civil rights is what he's most proud of in terms of his career. "It just felt like a whole new day."
Motown Museum officials hope to unveil a new "Motown Mile" experience every year as part of a way to engage with fans throughout the city. Another Motown Mile that paid tribute to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album and single on its 50th anniversary was unveiled last year near the museum.
The 'Motown Mile Experience'
An outdoor installation along the Detroit Riverfront that includes eight panels on Motown's Motortown Revues in the 1960s.