50 Years of Motown


1960s Motown photo/Alan Abrams and Peter Benjamson  Motown's sweethearts: The Supremes had a dozen No. 1 hits.

1960s Motown photo/Alan Abrams and Peter Benjamson Motown's sweethearts: The Supremes had a dozen No. 1 hits.

In  January, Motown celebrated its 50th year in the business of bringing music hits to the world. I posted an article from January by The Free Press about Motown’s legacy.

Tributes go global for Motown’s 50th

BY BRIAN McCOLLUM • FREE PRESS POP MUSIC WRITER • January 9, 2009

For diehard Motown Records buffs, the label’s upcoming 50th anniversary could be a time to fling around some fun numbers.

Figures like the 10 million all-time radio plays for “Baby I Need Your Loving.” The Supremes’ dozen No. 1 hits. The $250 million that changed hands when Berry Gordy Jr. sold the song catalog.

For everyone else, Motown’s anniversary could be a time for some plain old fun.

Motown Records turns 50 years old on Monday — half a century to the day since Gordy secured the $800 family loan that would transform Detroit and popular music.

Get ready for a winter blast of warm nostalgia. A slew of anniversary activity is afoot, including events at the Motown Historical Museum, on the airwaves and on record store shelves.

For Detroit — the city that gave the label talent, a work ethic and its very name — the good vibes come at a good time. While the city has maintained a dicey relationship with Motown since the label’s departure for California in 1972, the bonds remain deep.

The 50th commemoration will remind the world that Detroit isn’t all mayoral scandals and auto industry crises.

“This time, we get to celebrate,” said Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves, the veteran Motown star. “Maybe we get to heal some of the tension, ease some of the bad feelings. It’s good timing.”

Just like Motown’s music in the 1960s, the celebration is going global.

Across the Atlantic, Motown 50 fever already has kicked in. Broadcasters in Britain, France and Germany are to air Motown specials during the next week. In Berlin, the Miracles, the Contours and Reeves are among those starring in a new stage musical, “Memories of Motown,” which premieres Sunday night.

At the Motown museum, which is launching a year of anniversary celebration, journalists from France, Britain, Australia and elsewhere will be on hand Monday.

“We’re getting inundated with all kinds of requests,” said museum chief operating officer Audley Smith. “The Motown brand is still platinum.”

Gordy sold his Motown empire in pieces starting in the 1980s.

Today, beyond some songwriting credits, he is no longer financially invested in what was once the world’s biggest black-owned corporation. But he’s still the figure everyone looked to as the anniversary campaign came together.

“Whether I own it or not, whether I make money from it or not, the legacy is still mine,” Gordy said. “And it’s still the legacy of all the artists — people that are here and not here. And that’s what’s important to me.”

A celebration of Motown is as much a celebration of its founder. Most of Motown’s alumni still speak of him in reverential tones. Well-done men in their 60s, people close to him for decades, still habitually say “Mr. Gordy” when discussing the man who led them to success.

Protecting the legacy

But for all the romance, Motown is still part of the record business and all that goes with it. Some ex-Motowners have dared to speak out over the years, claiming unpaid royalties and other financial shenanigans.

That grittier side of the Motown fairy tale was captured in “Motown: Money, Music, Sex and Power,” a 2005 best seller by investigative reporter Gerald Posner. The topic retains its own public allure. At the Detroit airport’s Motown tourist shop — not operated by the label itself — Posner’s tome is the only Motown book for sale.

Gordy doesn’t directly address such allegations. But in conversation he frequently alludes to them, noting that he’s OK with personal criticism as long as the bigger legacy is protected.

“We’ve been fighting for the legacy for 50 years, because it’s so rich and wonderful,” he said. “For 50 years, I and a few other artists — Smokey and some other people — have been fighting to keep the legacy proper, with the truth. It was not always easy. It was very tough.”

Until the latter half of this decade, Gordy shunned publicity, declining news media requests and letting his 1994 autobiography do his talking.

But with the 50th anniversary looming, Gordy began to drop his guard. A series of honorary doctorates, including one from Michigan State University in 2005, also pulled him back into public settings.

“It’s about time,” said former Motown president Skip Miller, laughing. “We’ve been trying to drag him out for years.”

Miller is one of many who say the 50th celebration is timely, letting the world pay tribute to Motown’s luminaries while they’re still here.

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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