They Can’t Take Away Our Music – Especially the Motown Sound

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Harry C. Alford and Kay DeBow

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

We had the pleasure of going to the musical entitled “Pride and Joy” at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. It was Mother’s Day weekend and the theatre was packed. “Pride and Joy” is the Marvin Gaye story as written in the diary of Anna Gordy Gaye – Marvin’s first wife and sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. The history of American Black music is a key component of our history and rich culture. The play was somewhat comprehensive, dealing with the early days of the company. Plays and movies can sometimes drift away from the actual truth but this one did not fall into such poetic license.

The play starts with the early activities of Berry Gordy. “Sitting at the piano at a Motown Christmas party, life cannot get any better for a young Marvin Gaye, until his attention is captured by one of the most beautiful and glamorous women, he has ever laid eyes on. This woman’s beauty rivals any Hollywood movie star’s and Marvin must have her, but there is just one problem, she is Berry Gordy’s sister. Marvin finds this intriguing and embarks upon a flirtatious conquest of Anna until she relents. However, Marvin who refers to himself as a ‘ram and a rebel,’ is met with the fierceness of Anna’s strength, independence, and power, which makes for an explosive love affair with neither willing to be controlled by the other,” according to the playbill.

The singer Jackie Wilson played a significant role as Berry wrote songs for Jackie and that provided good seed money for his ambition of starting his own company. Marvin was born and raised in the northeast section of Washington, DC. He joined the group Harvey and the Moonglows as a background singer and part time drummer. Harvey Fuqua, a friend of Berry Gordy and business partner, brought Marvin to Detroit. He became an in-house session player and later a solo singer. At the same time Anna was becoming a principal in the business. She first joined as a song writer. Before that she began her career distributing records for Checker Records.

She started co-writing songs with Marvin. Some of her early songs were on an album that Marvin and Mary Wells collaborated on. Marvin would also do a duet album with Kim Weston, but his biggest duet performance was with Tammi Terrell. By this time Anna and Marvin were married. The success of Marvin and Tammi’s duet songs caused some strain with Anna and Marvin’s marriage. They married in 1963 and the marriage was “rocky” but lasted until 1975. They adopted a son and named him Marvin III in the interim. Marvin would have two children from a subsequent marriage to Janis Hunter.

Marvin’s biggest contribution to the world were his songs describing the social issues of the day. Inner City Blues, What’s Going On, Mercy, Mercy (The Ecology) captured the attention of the entire nation and will be his legacy. He died violently in 1984 when his father shot him to death during a physical dispute. He was 44. Anna continued her work in the business and lived to be 92 years of age before dying in 2014.

Motown is one of the most successful Black owned corporations known to the world.  Marvin and Anna Gaye were major players in that activity. Motown specialized in “the Motown Sound.” The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day. Berry Gordy initially rejected two of Marvin Gaye’s tracks that would become critical and commercial successes, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On.”

Harry knew all 28 songs that were performed during the musical. I didn’t know half of the songs. I was just a sweet little girl when Marvin came on the musical scene. But nevertheless, it was most enjoyable. Quentin Perry, the producer (and family friend) used a technique where they would flash actual newspaper clippings onto the background screen. Everyone gasped when they read that Tammi Terrell was just 24 when she died in 1970 from a brain tumor. I assume that most knew Marvin was shot to death by his father, but when newspaper headlines appeared on screen, we were knocked back in our seats again.

The songs and choreography in the play were so exciting. There were times when Harry wanted to jump up and start dancing. The audience was indeed “pumped up.” “Pride and Joy” will soon be coming to a town near you and you should certainly put it on your “to do list.”

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber. Website:www.nationalbcc.org. Emails:halford@nationalbccorg kdebow@nationalbcc.org.

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