Amidst glitzy ballrooms, swanky duds, a video message from President Barack Obama and performances by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Kid Rock and the Temptations, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was thinking about the little people as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary over the weekend in the city where it was born.
“Motown 50 for me…is about celebrating the many unsung heroes that were the foundation for making things work…rather than the known people or the people you’ve all heard about,” Gordy, who started Motown with a $500 family loan, told a crowd of 750 on Saturday night at Motown 50 Golden Gala black-tie event in the Detroit Marriott hotel. “They laughed, cried, lived and died to help make Motown what it is today. Our music is the greatest legacy in history and literally changed the world.”
That music was front and center, especially at the Saturday gala when Motown stars and staffers — from songwriters to secretaries, performers to peons — listened and danced to the sounds that stirred the world during the past half-century.
The current Temptations, led by sole surviving original member Otis Williams, kicked things off with a 50-minute set that started with Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” before running through favorites such as “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and, of course, “My Girl.”
Franklin then brought the house down with a powerful tribute to Gordy, customizing a version of the “Sunset Boulevard’s” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” into a tribute to an obviously moved Gordy, singing that “you taught the world a new way to sing.”
Wonder’s set was the musical high point of the night, however. He tailored “Happy Birthday” — originally part of the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday — to Gordy, who celebrates his 80th on Nov. 28. Wonder then led a crowd singalong to “My Cherie Amour,” dedicated “Isn’t She Lovely” to Motown vice-president and Motown Historical Museum founder Esther Edwards Gordy and romped through “I Wish” before bringing Kid Rock onstage for “Living For the City.” Wonder surprised Rock by asking him to remain for “Superstition.” Then he called all of the Motown alumni on stage for a finale of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” with Martha Reeves singing most heartily while Wonder called for Franklin, who had apparently left the ballroom (but did attend the subsequent afterglow).
The night also included memorial tributes to Michael Jackson, the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs and songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield, as well as the museum’s first Hitsville Honor awards to early Motown heroes Smokey Robinson (who was performing in Australia and did not attend), Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, Janie Bradford and Raynoma Singleton.
The crowd sang happy birthday to Gordy, who also received a cake, and Obama appeared via video, saluting Motown as “a truly American sound…(that) defined a style, lifted up a city and moved an entire generation.”
Both the gala and Friday night’s less-formal “Bop to the Ballroom” party at the Roostertail nightclub were fundraisers for the museum.
Rock told Billboard.com that performing with Wonder was “the pinnacle” and was “still shaking” up in his top-floor hotel suite shortly after the gala. “(Motown) is my go-to music,” he said, “the greatest American soundtrack ever in the history of music. I just don’t know if there’s any other soundtrack greater than Motown.”
Williams said he carries on “in the stead” of late bandmates Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin and said he wished “they were here to see the celebration of what they helped create.” Claudette Robinson of the Miracles said she was happy “to come and see so many of my friends who fortunately are still alive after 50 years,” while Wonder noted soberly that “I know that more than likely most of us will not be able to celebrate the 100th or 75th celebration of Motown” but was still happy “for the joy of being part of this celebration of music.”
The party will apparently go on for some of those involved. After a tenure on the Detroit City Council, Reeves said that “I know I’ve got to go on and continue to sing.” Williams said the Temptations have finished work on a new album, “Temptations Still Here,” that will come out in early 2010, and Gordy is overseeing production of a documentary film as well as a series of historical DVDs and a Broadway musical based on Motown songs.
“They’re moving very well,” he told Billboard.com, “and that will take us through probably the next 50 years. There’s quite a few things that are happening. It’s every exciting…and it’s just great to come back and just to feel the love that we felt here throughout the years.”