Motown: Gathering of the clan re-energizes the brand

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Motown luminaries turned out in big numbers Wednesday night to support "The Chairman," company founder Berry Gordy Jr., as "Motown: The Musical" made its Detroit debut at the Fisher Theatre, blocks from where it all started in 1959.

Stevie Wonder on the red carpet for “Motown: The Musical” at Fisher Theatre.

"It'll be the best performance they do because it's Detroit," said Gordy as he walked the red carpet. "My roots are here. My whole life has been a fairy tale, only it came true."

Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Mary Wilson were among the Motown stars who came to the Fisher in support of their former boss.

"It's a celebration of the culture of music that Berry Gordy did here," said Wonder.

The premiere is a seminal moment for the iconic Detroit label. In the same way that the 1983 special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" represented a rebirth of popularity for the Motown Sound, this week's gathering for the musical's Detroit opening represents a similar convergence as Gordy and his stars put aside past differences to reflect upon an astonishing legacy.

Smokey Robinson joins other Motown stars in Detroit on Wednesday night.

Wonder, who flew in for the premiere Wednesday morning, told The Detroit News last week that he was looking forward to bonding with his fellow Motown clan but, most importantly, he wanted to pay homage to the founder.

"Obviously, Detroit is where it all began," Wonder said. "And I think the two people who have been the most undervalued for what they did for music and opportunity have been B.B. King and Berry Gordy Jr.

"It's simple, when you think of the Motor City, you think of Motown," Wonder said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had a similar message when he told a story Tuesday night from the stage of the Roostertail's "Motown Homecoming," about a trip he took to a remote village in Brazil. The mayor found himself trying to communicate with a hotel desk clerk who spoke no English. "I was trying to tell him where I was from, I said 'Michigan,' but it meant nothing," Duggan said. "But when I said 'Detroit,' he got a look in his eye. He said 'oh, Detroit, Motown!' and he started singing 'Ooo, baby baby.'

"Here's a 20-year-old clerk in Brazil who knew no English, but he knew a Smokey Robinson song," Duggan marveled.

Robin Terry, who chairs the Motown Historical Museum's Board of Trustees, has seen a resurgence of interest in Motown as the musical's road show travels the country.

"It's that powerful a collection of songs, that strong a bond of family, that great a cultural force where we are well over 50 years later and it's still inspiring people and drawing audiences," Terry said.

Emotional moments

Back in 1983, Gordy wasn't so happy about reuniting with the singers he'd discovered, many plucked from the streets of Detroit. Financially, Motown was in dire straits, and many of his stars had left the company that discovered and nurtured them for greener (as in more money) pastures — The Jackson 5 (except for Jermaine Jackson), Marvin Gaye and, most hurtful to Gordy, Diana Ross, with whom he had a past relationship.

This is the very drama that is at the crux of "Motown: The Musical." Its opening scene shows a disconsolate Gordy holed up in his Los Angeles estate, angry at what he saw as disloyalty from his former stars, and reflecting back on the early days in Detroit as he resolves not to go to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for "Motown 25."

"It was clear that he had terrible mixed emotions about the whole thing," former Motown executive Suzanne de Passe said in a recent interview with The News. "In concept, I guess it didn't sound like a lot of fun for him. I did not know the troubles were as extensive and dramatic as they were, that he was having with the company. I was off doing what I was supposed to do, invigorate the brand and exploit the accomplishments of the artists and the company as much as possible. It was a real eye opener for me when it finally was disclosed that the company was in that much trouble. By then, we were well on our way to the civic center (for the special)."

"Motown 25," which was released last month as a deluxe DVD package, can be seen for the first time unexpurgated, with its Supremes reunion (and no, Ross didn't shove Wilson) and the first time the world saw Michael Jackson moonwalking to "Billie Jean."

It's emotional for any fan to watch, much less the artists who took part in it, because so many of the classic artists featured in it are now dead. "It's wonderful, but it's also sad," said Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, after watching, on the DVD set, so many of his fallen comrades: Marvin Gaye, Levi Stubbs of the Tops, Mary Wells and, of course, Michael Jackson.

'Where it all happened'

The stars who gathered at the Roostertail on Tuesday and at the Fisher Theatre on Wednesday for the premiere have seen their numbers diminish considerably. But those who are left are all the more determined to remind people what happened in Detroit in 1959.

"I had to be here to represent the Miracles," said founding member Claudette Robinson. Her cousin, the Miracles' Bobby Rogers, died last year; Ronnie White in 1995. The other remaining Miracle, except her ex-husband Smokey Robinson, is Pete Moore, who was too ill to fly in.

"The Miracles were the first group at Motown, and I was the first female," Claudette Robinson said. "I want people to remember what we did here. Detroit is where it all happened."

While writing the "book" for "Motown: The Musical," Gordy had to relive how devastated he felt in 1983, on the eve of "Motown 25."

"I had lost some of my big artists and I was trying to build new artists, with Rick James and the Commodores and Teena Marie and DeBarge," Gordy, 84, said in a telephone interview. "All of 'em were selling records, but when the results came in, the revenues I was losing from when the Jackson 5 and Marvin and Diana left, it wasn't enough to cover the expenses. So I didn't know what was going to be happening. But I knew one thing: I loved the artists, and I couldn't stay away. I had to go — for them."

And so they came to Detroit for him — the ones who left him and the ones he fired; the ones who felt they didn't get the proper attention, and even several who sued him (and whom he counter-sued).

After enduring various rewrites of Motown history that were hurtful, now that Gordy's been able to tell his own origin story in "Motown: The Musical," there's a certain peace about the long-driven Motown founder.

"This is a good time for him, just a good time," Terry said. "He's at the stage in his life where he's really stepped into the role of teacher. He's doing that in every way, with this cast, with his family, Motown alumni. He's in a space where he is imparting the wisdom that he has."

"We're closer today than we ever were," Gordy said of his long-contentious Motown family. After 50 years, and a lot of Detroit River water under the bridge, "It's just love."