It was a nickname for Detroit, but more people knew it as Berry Gordy’s record label—one that specialized in soul, pop, and rhythm and blues. Just as Chess Records became synonymous with the blues, Motown was the name for black music that could only be described as “Motown.”
The story of Motown begins in a 1920s duplex affectionately named “Hitsville U.S.A.”—and that was no stretch of the truth. The same year Gordy founded Motown Record Corporation with an $800 loan, one of his performers, Barrett Strong, made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts with “Money (That’s What I Want).” From the very beginning it was a family affair, and that family extended to the acts. The vice president for the Motown label was none other than Smokey Robinson, lead singer of the Miracles.
It was a small operation that produced big results. Over the next decade, Gordy’s Motown, Tamla, Soul, and other labels collectively would have 110 Top 10 hits, thanks to artists-under-contract like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Junior Walker & the All Stars, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Later Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie, The Dazz Band, and DeBarge would help keep the corporation afloat. But groups broke up, stars drifted to other labels, and Motown relocated to L.A.
But in 1983, one day in March, all of the Motown performers got together for a reunion concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to celebrate Motown’s 25th Anniversary. It was a TV special made extra special because Diana Ross appeared with the Supremes again for the first time in years, Michael Jackson performed once more with his Jackson 5 brothers, and Smokey Robinson reunited with the Miracles to perform a medley of their hits “Shop Around,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “The Tears of a Clown,” and “Going to a Go-Go.”
The 130-minute TV special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” remains one of the biggest and best tribute concerts ever broadcast, and the highlight for many was Michael Jackson’s debut of his famous “moonwalk” during a performance of “Billie Jean” that had the live audience first gasping, then applauding. In 2007, that performance would be nominated for a TV Land Award for Television’s Greatest Music Moment.
Other highlights included a duet with Linda Ronstadt and Smokey Robinson of two songs she had covered, as well as a battle-of-the-bands sing-off between The Temptations and The Four Tops, and a speech that Marvin Gaye delivered at the piano about black music and black history. It would be one of his final TV appearances before he was shot and killed a year later.
“Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Program, though it was shut out in eight individual categories. And when an album of the concert was released as “The Motown Story: First 25 Years,” it earned a Grammy nomination.
The subtitle—“Yesterday, Today, Forever”—seems appropriate, because the music is indeed timeless. And if you need a reminder, Motown exec and executive producer Suzanne De Passe provided a few. To appease the network she added non-Motown big name talents like Ronstadt and Adam Ant . . . and punk-rocker Ant’s antics underscore the “fad” nature of music, compared to an original sound like Motown.
Emcee Richard Pryor had so much respect for Motown that he conducted himself with a level of decorum that viewers seldom saw from the raw-edged comedian. Only slightly funnier in their cameos were “WKRP in Cincinnati” deejays Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), because Motown and the monumental celebration put all of them in their respective places. This was all about the music and the performers affection for the label that brought them together in the first place, and again for this concert. So when, at the end, Diana Ross calls on Berry Gordy to leave the audience and join them onstage, the sense of reconciliation and the performers’ expression of love and gratitude is almost palpable.
If anything feels dated now—other than Ant’s hilariously erratic twitch-dancing—it’s the stage costumes that everyone wore, and the numbers performed by the Lester Wilson Dancers. Wilson, fans may recall, did the choreography for “Saturday Night Fever,” including John Travolta’s moves, and he choreographed “The Wiz” as well. But the choreography here seems as dated as the costumes.
No matter. “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” is an enjoyable walk down memory lane for Baby Boomers, and a terrific introduction to the Motown sound for a new generation of music lovers. Here’s a rundown on the performances:
“Dancing in the Street” (The Lester Wilson Dancers)
Medley (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles)
Dick Clark appearance
Medley (Stevie Wonder)
“Money (That’s What I Want)” (Motown songwriters)
The Temptations and The Four Tops sing-off
Marvin Gaye narration and performance
“Heat Wave” (Martha Reeves)
“My Guy” (Mary Wells)
“Shotgun” (Jr. Walker)
“Brick House” (Commodores)
“Lonely Teardrops” (Jose Feliciano)
“Where Did Our Love Go” (Adam Ant)
Medley (The Jackson 5)
“Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
“I Want You” (The Lester Wilson Dancers)
Billy Dee Williams: Motown and the Movies montage
Richard Pryor: What Is the Motown Sound? Montage
“All This Love” (DeBarge)
“He’s a Pretender” (High Inergy)
“Can’t Stop” (DeBarge and High Inergy)
“Ooo Baby Baby / The Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson, Linda Ronstadt)
Medley (Smokey Robinson)
Richard Pryor: The Motown Story: A Fairy Tale
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Diana Ross)
“Someday We’ll Be Together” (entire cast)
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” (entire cast)
Be aware, though, that StarVista and Time Life are releasing a Deluxe 6-DVD Set ($79.95), along with this 3-DVD Set ($39.95), and a Single Disc ($19.95). The runtime on the 3-Disc Set is 458 minutes. This 3-Disc Set features an extended version of “Motown 25” with 20+ minutes of additional footage not seen in the original broadcast. At present, the DVDs are only available through the Time Life.
Given that TV was still considered a throwaway medium in the early ‘80s, the picture quality is amazingly good. In fact, the level of detail isn’t all that far off of contemporary standard-def DVDs. Grain is really kept to a minimum, and the colors are all richly hued. Good thing, because those costumes are something else.
The featured audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1, and while I wouldn’t say it’s an immersive experience—the rear speakers really don’t get much other than audience reaction and some split-channeling—the 5.1 is clear and has some heft to it.
Except for a brief roundtable featuring the leaders of The Miracles, The Four Tops, and The Temptations, and a briefer featurette “Signed, Sealed & Delivered: The Making of Motown,” Disc 1 is devoted to the Program; Disc 2 is the Rehearsal; Disc 3 is the Reunion. The divisions are neat, but in truth, aside from some vintage footage of the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye rehearsing his big segment, we only get executive producer de Passe and director-producer Don Mischer talking about the behind-the-scenes rehearsal. And on Disc 3, we get Part 2 of the roundtable with Robinson, Duke Fakir, and Otis Williams. The three are entertaining and far quicker to laugh than the producers, and it’s fun watching them reminisce. Also on Disc 3 is a reunion of the producers and writer Buz Kohan that’s informative but drags on too long. Rounding out the extras are featurettes on “Reach Out I’ll Be There: The Temptations and Four Tops” and “Come and Get These Memories: Inside Hitsville,” and separate interviews with Fakir, Williams, Claudette Robinson of The Miracles, and Martha Reeves of Martha & the Vandellas. There’s more, too, of de Passe and Mischer, but we frankly get our fill of them on the producers’ roundtable. Things start to overlap and seem drawn out just to pad the bonus features.
No one has seen this show for 20 years, and StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have done the music world a big favor by releasing “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” It’s a real kick to watch . . . a moonwalk, even