By Vernon A. Williams
The problem with Motown Records is that they apparently don’t fully grasp who they are – or what they are to those in the scope of their influence. They could not possibly know. That is the only explanation that can account for the recent 60th anniversary TV special.
First, I am a “baby-boomer” who grew up in the heart of the Midwest, Gary, Indiana just a few hours south of the Motor City just off Interstate 94. The steel industry was to my hometown what the auto industry was to Detroit.
There is both a geographical and cultural bond between these two gritty, blue-collar places to which tens of thousands of Blacks migrated from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other parts of the south for the proverbial “promised land.”
They may not have found streets paved with gold, and with milk and honey flowing, but major industry provided a substantial living for many Black heads of households with little or no formal education or marketable skills.
Those who made the transition also discovered that the ravages of racism were not restricted to below the Mason Dixie lines as both cities battled poverty and fell victim to institutional racism like neighborhood red-lining and segregated public schools.
American society was still so deeply in the throes of Jim Crow from coast to coast that music produced by and for predominantly Black audiences was dubbed “race music” and restricted to play on Black owned or operated radio. However rare, the prospect of making “crossover” hits was tantalizing because of the numbers.
There have always been far more white folks than Blacks – a direct impact on potential record sales. Berry Gordy Jr. understood that dynamic from the start. Gordy made it clear that – though his stable of music makers was virtually all Black – his music targeted an age demographic – not any particular race.
That led him to creating the mantra, “The music of young America.” Though through the sixties Motown emerged as the pre-eminent label for Black artists, the marketing of the product was broadly inclusive. Not only did Gordy’s hits reach every stretch of the nation, but they achieved international acclaim and were a comfort to soldiers on battlefields around the world.
Fast forward to 2019 and the CBS-televised special celebrating the 60 years of a musical institution without peer or rival – Motown. Those who took it to the stage included Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Thelma Houston, Ne-Yo, Fantasia and the incomparable Motown songwriters.
But Mary Wilson (Supremes) was in the audience and so was Otis Williams, the final living original member of the Temptations, arguably the most talented singing group in the history of entertainment. The only brief reference came during a moving tribute to deceased Motown stars.
The camera picked them up briefly scattered about the auditorium locations not even remotely close to VIP accommodations; briefly flashing their names beneath faces without any acknowledgement on stage of their identities or the role they played at Motown.
It was a sad reflection on Motown’s appreciation for artists who helped make the label great.
It’s never a good look when you attempt to minimize giants.
Even more disconcerting was the list of no shows that included the Jacksons, Gladys Knight, Lionel Ritchie, Boys II Men, Eryka Badu, and the lone surviving member of the original Four Tops, Abdul “Duke” Fakir – all individuals who are alive and well.
Dumping salt into the wound, ghosts of awards shows past returned to haunt Motown 60 as viewers were forced to watch an encore presentation of the wildly inappropriate recent Grammys tribute to Motown from Jennifer Lopez. It was no less brutal the second time around. J-Lo was a fish out of water – start to finish.
There were a few “moments” but for the most part, Motown 60 was a lost opportunity.
Those of us with Motown almost from the start know what quintessential Black excellence was embodied in the parade of extraordinary talent that graced that label. To reduce the event to an opportunity to appear inclusive at any cost is a betrayal of the struggle of those music makers, and so many like them on all the other labels.
Blacks don’t get much of an opportunity to celebrate themselves these days. Most often, we find ourselves in defensive mode. No matter who bought the music, the roots of Motown are as ethnically steeped as jazz, blues, hip-hop and virtually every dance form this country knows.
It’s a shame for a Black child to think Jennifer Lopez is more Motown than David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks or Gladys Knight. Motown 60 was a sad representation of the truth. They went way too far to assimilate, to appear non-threatening, to force entry into the mainstream. In this day and age, it just wasn’t necessary.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society.Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].