Motown alumni return for advanced screening of new Showtime documentary

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The Berry Gordy-endorsed “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” documentary airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on Showtime, but on Friday, a select audience of Motown alumni — several of whom are in the film — got a sneak peek at the flick at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak.

“I’m like Woody Allen, I don’t like to see myself on film,” joked Paul Riser, who as a teenager out of Cass Tech arranged the strings on “My Girl” . But Riser did watch, and saw not only himself, but in an adjacent clip, saw Smokey Robinson praise him as “this 18-year-old kid” who came in and put magic onto a Temptations record.

Beverly Banton, left, and Motown arranger Paul Riser at Friday’s private screening at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak of “Hitsville:the Making of Motown.”

Claudette Robinson of the Miracles, who was married as a teenager to her bandmate Smokey, flew in to watch the movie. She attended the Los Angeles premiere, so Robinson got to watch herself as a youngster dancing at the Apollo in high heels in the early ‘60s, and hear Gordy tease her ex-husband for being a “Casanova” twice.

Also on the red carpet, and in the audience, were Cal Street and Bertha Barbee-McNeal of the Velvelettes, who drove in from Kalamazoo; original Vandellas Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard; Motown Museum Chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry; chairman of the board of trustees Allen Rawls; former sales executive Miller London; current Motown general manager Marc Byers, in from Los Angeles; Joe Billingslea of the Contours; guitarist Dennis Coffey; studio engineer Ralph Terrana; songwriter Melvin Moy; and Pat Cosby, widow of Stevie Wonder’s producer Hank Cosby.

“The film is so rooted in the city of Detroit, the producers did a great job capturing what it was like,” Terry said. As for the vintage audio of the 1960s meetings, “That the footage even existed, much less that my uncle (Gordy) still had it,” Terry shook her head in wonderment.

 “I want to see what they left out,” quipped Pat Cosby, of the directors, British filmmakers (and brothers) Gabe and Benjamin Turner.

With just under two hours, the filmmakers couldn’t go into depth on many of the acts. “You would have to do segments on each artist or group” Claudette Robinson pointed out.

London was interviewed in the film, but hadn’t seen it before Friday. “I’m going to be as surprised as anybody at what I see,” London said. Once he heard that Robinson and Gordy were interviewed extensively for the film, he agreed to take part. Gordy hired London as the first black sales manager at Motown — a tough gig, back then, because he had to travel all over, including the South, and call on white record distributors at a time when it wasn’t safe for blacks.

In the film, London tells the story of going to a distributor in the South who told him to get out, that he didn’t want to carry any of “that” music (using a derogatory term for blacks). London explained how he asked if the man was selling Supremes or Temptations records. He was, and doing quite well with it, he said. London advised the distributor that he was already selling “that” music.

Bertha Barbee-McNeal of the Velvelettes, left, Pat Cosby, widow of Hank Cosby, and Cal Street of the Velvelettes at Friday’s private screening at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak of “Hitsville:the Making of Motown.”

The Velvelettes’ McNeal was excited that the group — the only Motown group today that is made up of all original members — will be among those singing at the Motown 60 Hitsville Honors concert, a tribute to Berry Gordy, Sept. 22 at the Orchestra Hall. (Also performing that night will be Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Big Sean, KEM and Ne-Yo.).

The Contours’ Billingslea, speaking before he saw the film, was hopeful that some of the unheralded people at Motown would be seen, especially the house musicians, the Funk Brothers. “The Motown Sound is the musicians,” he said.

And it turns out, the Funks are depicted as a vital part of the Motown flow-chart — it’s literally seen on screen as a graphic — with Gordy speaking admiringly of James Jamerson, and even Little Richard, in an older clip, going on about the legendary bassist. An archival Detroit News photo of a teenaged Stevie Wonder in Studio A with the Funk Brothers surrounding him is seen, as the superstar mentions each Funk Brother by name.

Many of the stories and even the clips will be familiar to Motown stalwarts, but what was pulled out of Gordy’s own archive — audio of a Motown Quality Control meeting circa 1968 — could be priceless. And to the surprise of nobody who knows them, former Motown executives Mickey Stevenson and Barney Ales are quick with the quips, giving great backstories to all the familiar hits.

It’s heartening the film focuses on the diversity of Motown’s staff, in terms of race, and gender — Gordy hired many women, not just his sisters. “Sometimes a white person was better for the job, sometimes a black person was,” Gordy said. “Often a woman did a better job. I just wanted to win!”

Also interviewed in the film are Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, songwriter-producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Valerie Simpson and executive Suzanne De Passe.

Filmmakers showed, step by step, how a song came to be in the studio, or after that, how the songwriters and producers had to fight to get a song released.

At one point, Gordy and Robinson get into an argument in Studio A about who recorded “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” first, Gladys Knight and the Pips, or Marvin Gaye. Robinson insists that Gladys’ song was recorded first, but Gordy says Gaye’s was.

Original Vandellas Rosalind Holmes, left, and Annette Beard at Friday’s private screening at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak of “Hitsville:the Making of Motown.”

Gaye's version was put on the shelf, though, and a later version by Gladys and the Pips was released first. It becomes so heated between the two friends, that a $100 wager is agreed upon.

Then we see the late Norman Whitfield, who wrote the song and produced both versions of it, appearing in a gauzy, vintage film clip, saying “Marvin recorded the song first, before Gladys.” It’s as if a ghostly Motown presence came back to Studio A and set Smokey straight.

That Gaye version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” that Gordy wouldn’t let Whitfield release — it finally came out, of course, and became the top-selling Motown record of all time.

Hitsville: The Making of Motown airs on Showtime at 9 p.m. Saturday.