'Motown 25' Revisited: 10 Things to Know About the 1983 TV Special
The special will re-air Saturday on PBS stations as part of a national pledge drive.
The special that introduced TV viewers to Michael Jackson's moonwalk and the Temptations and Four Tops' vocal battle will air on 300 PBS stations on Saturday as part of a national pledge drive. The landmark TV special included reunions of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and performances by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other Motown luminaries.
The airing is tied to the release of new DVD versions of Motown 25, a single disc in remastered surround sound with an hour of bonus material and a three-CD set that includes six hours of extras. Motown: Big Hits & More, a seven-CD set created by TJ Lubinsky, executive producer and co-host of public television's My Music, is being offered as well.
Here's a look at the ins and outs of Motown and its artists around the time Motown 25 first aired on NBC on May 16, 1983, with a few oddities thrown in as well:
The original broadcast of the two-hour show was watched by 47 million people, according to Nielsen, with 35 percent of the country with a TV set turned on watching Motown 25. The show did especially well in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Marvin Gaye's TV Comeback.
Gaye was never fond of performing on television -- check out his performance on Soul Train where he apologizes for his poor lip-synching technique -- and 1983 was packed with as many TV appearances as he made in his peak years of 1965 and 1969. He appeared on the Grammy Awards, the American Music Awards and talk shows and sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game. He was murdered a year later on April 1.
Motown and country music?
T.G. Sheppard appeared on Motown 25 despite having had no relationship with the label since 1977. He was, however, the biggest star on Motown's short-lived country label, initially Melodyland and then Hitsville, which ran from 1974 to 1977. While recording for the Motown subsidiaries, Sheppard had eight songs on the Top Country Songs chart, including two No. 1s and another pair of top 10 singles. After the label closed, Sheppard moved to Warner Music where he charted almost 40 times.
The return of the Four Tops.
Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Peyton had just re-signed with Motown after stints at ABC and Casablanca, where they had recorded late-period hits such as "When She Was My Girl" and "Are You Man Enough." Stubbs and the Temptations' Otis Williams decided to stage a battle of the band for the show, a format they have taken on the road for more than 30 years now. The group's reunion with Motown, however, was short-lived -- just two albums before they moved to Arista.
The Supremes' really short reunion.
Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who replaced Florence Ballard in 1967, reunited for one song on the special, "Someday We'll Be Together." Destiny has not filled the promise of the song. An attempt at a reunion tour had been scrapped a year earlier after Wilson balked. In 2000, a Diana Ross & the Supremes: Return to Love reunion tour of the three was scuttled after Wilson objected to Ross receiving a payday nearly four times better than hers: $15 million to $4 million. Ross started the tour, doing the shows with former Supremes she never recorded with, and after attendance fell off, half the dates were canceled.
Underappreciating James Jamerson.
Motown 25 concerned itself with stars and not the regular musicians, a.k.a. the Funk Brothers, who helped define the unified sound of the label's records. Jamerson, the studio bassist who reportedly performs on 95 percent of Motown's records made between 1962 and 1968, was in the audience at the show held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, but he had to buy a ticket from a scalper. Jamerson died three months after the show aired. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2002 his story was a key part of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
An Emmy win and a sequel.
The special received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program, besting the Tony Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, Second City Television and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Two years later, Motown and executive producer Suzanne de Passe were back in the Emmy winner's circle for Motown Returns to the Apollo, which beat out an AFI tribute to Gene Kelly, a PBS Lena Horne special, Late Night With David Letterman and Carson.
The Commodores without Lionel Richie.
On a night populated with reunions, one that did not occur was Richie joining the Commodores. They smartly played "Brick House," a song Richie did not appear on. Drummer Walter "Clyde" Orange sang it as he had done on the record; Willie King, who wrote the song with his wife, was there along with the rest of the original members - Ron LaPread, Milan Williams and Thomas McCleary.
"Billie Jean" drops on the Hot 100 …
The modern music business relies on television appearances to help give singles a boost on the charts. The reverse occurred for the landmark performance on the show, Jackson's moonwalked "Billie Jean." Granted, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" was No. 1 when Motown 25 aired, "Billie Jean" continued a freefall on the Hot 100 during May 1983, dropping from No. 14 to 24 to 29 to 42.
…while Thriller stays at No. 1
Michael Jackson's Thriller -- on Epic Records -- had been No. 1 for 10 consecutive weeks prior to the special airing and it stayed atop the Billboard 200 for another five weeks. Flashdance replaced it at No. 1 for two weeks, but Thriller would return to No. 1 for another 10 non-consecutive weeks in 1983 and 1984.