Motown Spotlight, January 2020

David Ruffin

Welcome to the first blog of the new decade! 

Before I start a brief overview of last year, I'd like to say a huge thank you for the messages received about our celebration of Cindy Birdsong's 80th birthday last month.  The fact that she's still so much in your heart, overwhelmed me – and her – and, personally speaking, it was a thrill to share a few words about her with you.  So, before heading into this month's subject matter, I'd like to share a few messages I've received, supporting a Supreme who brought a defining voice, an incredible presence and an unmistakable glamour into the trio when she replaced her friend Florence Ballard.

Charles Hewlett, Cindy's ex-husband was among the first received.  "Cindy is so very special to so many and that means a lot to us, her family.  She will be happy to read this, as will her son David and her grandkids.  A happy new year to you and all the Cindy fans out there."   Sal Pinto wrote. "I've loved Cindy since I was nine years old and she was always so kind, gracious, gorgeous and an integral part of The Supremes' history and my life."  Whereas, my colleague Ross Burt, who ran The Supremes' fan club during the seventies, told me, "Cindy was a great asset to the line-up of the group, pre-and-post Diana Ross."  Then, true fan Tom Muncey wrote "That was awesome – the story and the video."  (I can't take credit for the latter.  That was a work of love by our own David Nathan) 

"Cindy Birdsong will always be included within that 'elite' mention of music 'superstars', whether as a pioneer girl group member of the legendary Bluebelles or with The Supremes" said Benny Adler. "Cindy remains Supreme…Mary and Diana may have been touted as two of the most alluring females in the world, but know this, neither TCB nor the earlier Ed Sullivan Diana Ross and the Supremes with The Temptations' special would have been as visually pronounced without the alluring presence of Cindy on stage."  Michael Brady enjoyed the article; Tony Ross shared it on his Supremes page; long time pal Carl Feuerbacher wanted to make sure everyone got a chance to see it, so shared it across his Facebook pages, and Butch Correia added "Cindy Birdsong will always be a superstar in my book."   Mary Saleh typed "I would like to give my regards to Cindy and my best wishes for this new year."  Then Vincent Hutchinson got in touch, saying "Her book would've been just as sweet to read.  So much going on with this group and the blame wasn't always Diana.  Poor Flo and what she had to endure."

Other mentions came from Frances Woods, John Fay, Frank Irizarry, June Andrus, Pat Ross, Rick Gianatos, Jim Saphin, Bruce Marso, and so many others who wanted to wave the CB flag.  My apologies if you didn't get a name check, but you know who you are.  I can't express too much my heartfelt thanks that you all took time out to get in touch.  It was a humbling time for us all.

Cindy Birdsong we love you!  You are not forgotten!

So moving on, let's revisit some highlights now during Motown's 60th anniversary, some of which we covered at the time, of course, so will endeavour to concentrate on those we merely mentioned in passing. Alongside celebrating Berry Gordy's 90th birthday and the release of the long awaited docufilm Hitsville:The Making Of Motown, the year was also a significant one for Marvin Gaye.  Following the release of an expanded digital edition of "A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole" album, first issued in 1965, "You're The Man" hit the world.  Promoted as the 'canned' follow-up to "What's Going On", it was a collection of 1972 tracks, released on one album for the first time. While we welcomed it with open arms, many fans – including myself -  were disappointed because a handful of tracks had already appeared on compilations. Nonetheless, we still celebrated!  What we didn't expect was the next release - "What's Going On" where Marvin sang the album live, and which we talked about at the time, so will leave it there.

On 2 April, when Marvin would have been eighty years old, the US Postal Service in Los Angeles issued a Marvin Gaye stamp in one design.  As part of the Music Icons series, the stamp was inspired by historic visuals with the intention of resembling a vintage single record sleeve.  A first day ceremony was held at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre, attended by Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson, and members of Marvin's family, including Marvin Gaye III and Nona (son and daughter), brother Antwaun, and sister, Zeola.   "It brings me great pride and pleasure to see my father finally get a stamp" said Marvin III at the event. "Such a monumental achievement for his legacy…My father would be so pleased as much, or more than, I am."

From stamps to the Marvin Gaye Park in Washington DC.  Spanning two miles across Northeast Washington, it's the city's longest municipal park.  A quick back story here thanks to a quick wiz across the internet.  Formerly known as Watts' Branch Park, the Washington Parks And People worked alongside community leaders to restore, and more importantly, reclaim this artery of green land.  According to one report, the Park had been ignored and forgotten for decades, and was actually known as 'Needle Park', the favoured location for drug users.  In the first five years (from the start in 2001) and on the downside, volunteers collected over 3.5 million pounds of rubbish, 78 abandoned cars and 9,000 hypodermic needles. On the upside, though, over 1,000 trees were replanted, and the Park has gradually taken shape, serving as a vital trail and greenway for public enjoyment, spearheading one of the city's much valued park revitalisation projects.  I noticed on one website, what looked like a circular stain glass picture of his "What's Going On" pose mounted within a square frame,  standing atop a concrete base. Quite stunning.  And now, from parks to roads…

I should imagine, one of the most prestigious honours is to have a street bearing your name. Ex-Temptation and soloist David Ruffin joined that elite group last year with the 'David Ruffin Avenue'.  Situated between Seven Mile and McNichols, the ceremony was attended by David's family – David Jr and his sisters Nedra, Kimberly and Cheryl -  and friends, including Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson.  It was during July 1970 when David returned home to Detroit's University District, to live at 17385 Parkside, and as his son said "I lived in this house more than my daddy because he was travelling all the time.  I have so many memories on this block…I thought about the times my dad and sisters had Christmas here….I hope one day I can regain that property on what is now David Ruffin Avenue."  LaMont Robinson, founder of the National R&B Hall of Fame, who instigated the project, commented "I've always been a Temptations' fan, so I thought it was the right thing to do and name a street after (him).  He moved on the block fifty years ago and loved it so much.  It was fitting to honour one of the greatest singers of R&B music."

(Just a little add-on here – the house at 17385 Parkside was repossessed while David was serving time in an Indiana prison for tax evasion in 1982 and his belongings slung on to the street.) 

David Ruffin's designation does, as you know, follow Detroit street names for others like Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy and Aretha Franklin, with blue plaques inserted on the primary street signage.  Other Motown artists have also been honoured, including Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations and the Four Tops across The Woodbridge Estates, located in a reviving neighbourhood minutes from Downtown and Wayne State University.  So, how do you fancy living at an address that reads, say, 4106 Supremes Drive?  Well, according to the Estates' website, it'll cost between $722 - $1,088 a month (I assume) depending on the apartment size.  Actually, if you take a minute and visit The Woodbridge Estates' website you'll hear some familiar music!

One event that can't be ignored was the opening of the Berry Gordy Square in Los Angeles.  The ceremony was crammed with dignitaries, friends and artists, with Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Thelma Houston, Brenda Holloway, Claudette Robinson, Betty Kelly, Mickey Stevenson, Iris and Robert Gordy, among them.  "As a kid growing up on the eastside of Detroit, Hollywood was an unattainable mystical fantasy, where magic happened and dreams came true," the honoured Berry Gordy told his smiling guests.  "I never imagined I would end up here…Today by honouring me, you are also honouring the entire Motown family who followed me down roads that didn't even exist, and laughed, cried, lived and died to make Motown what it is today."  He also acknowledged the new generation of Motown fans, adding "I especially thank your parents and grandparents who supported me and Motown when we needed it the most, and believed in my dream that music had the power to bring the whole world closer together as it has done throughout the years."

Of Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy publicly told him "You stayed with Motown at the height of your decision making.  Even though you didn't like some of the things you were made to do, your love and loyalty was so great to me and I will always appreciate it."  In reply, Stevie included the words "…With the exception of eleven years of my life, Berry, I've given them to you…In this army of love that we have here, God has blessed us with a love that will defeat any hate, any prejudice, and He's given us the instrument of song to do it.  So, Mr Gordy, I celebrate you today, for not only today, but all of my life."

Smokey Wines

Mentioning Smokey Robinson earlier switches us from one celebration to the other, when last year he got to grips with marketing his own range of wines; five in particular bearing the names of his hit singles. I won't go into detail here as planning to celebrate his 80th birthday in words next month.  However, suffice to say, these tipples ain't cheap!  After visiting smokeyrobinsonwines.com, the prices range from $19.99 for a bottle of "My Girl" red wine, to $39.99 for "Second That Emotion", a cheeky cabernet.  This, of course, follows his brief adventure with the food industry some years earlier. 

Lionel Perfume

Joining Smokey on the merchandising bandwagon is Lionel Richie who, you might remember, launched a whole range of bed linen and accessories some months ago.  Last year, however, he followed where others had gone before, to introduce his own range of eau de parfum, aptly named "Hello".  I don't have any as I'm a Chanel No 5 gal, but according to the blurb, "Hello" is actually two fragrances.  So once again I consulted the internet for more information.  For us girls, we have "fruity top notes like grapefruit and pear, rich floral heart notes like tuberose and jasmine, and a sweet yet musky base of honey and tonka" which Lionel assures us is seductively intoxicating, among other things.  The guys' one "is topped off with citrus and mint, with a heart of lavender and violet leaves, and base notes like patchouli and vetiver."  No mention of seductively intoxicating here though!   The only quote from Lionel I could find was a little insight into why he'd taken this step – and, believe it or not,  it's to do with sweating on stage.  "So why would I want to put on something that's going to smell worse because of the body chemistry?  So then I started going into natural oils and thinking 'OK, coconut works well with me, and maybe a little bit of tangerine with the coconut.' ….More natural and simpler. … When something is too fragrancy, it's overwhelming."  Packaged in a strickingly attractive gold-caged bottle – and not a Lionel Richie clay bust in sight – it'll cost you between £20-£30 a pop on eBay.

Motown Playbill

Talking of sweating on stage (eh?) Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations hit Broadway last year at the Imperial Theatre.  This warts-and-all musical pulls quite a few punches that include alcohol and drug abuse, David Ruffin's aggression towards his girlfriends like Tammi Terrell, and the sole surviving group member Otis Williams' mourning the death of his son Lamont.  "It's a mixture of both pain and therapy" he told The Guardian newspaper's Rob Le Donne. "I always tell people, the world loved The Temptations but The Temptations didn't love themselves.  Drugs came into play and once that happened, dreams and aspirations became fragmented.  I am thankful to God for being able to withstand it all."  However, it's the electrifying music and the group's signature choreography that shines through to celebrate the immense impact these guys had on the world, as it elevated not only themselves into global artists but also the company that signed them. It's more than a story of five young men, it is the history of a group that surpassed dreams and ambitions, against a background of racial tension and political revolution. "This music is so lasting that even when we are no longer here, it'll still be loved.  It's undeniable and also something I would have never imagined."

The musical opened in August 2017 for a limited period at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, California.  When that time span was extended it became the highest grossing musical in the history of the theatre. Further regional productions followed until it found its home on Broadway.  As one reviewer glowed - "When the curtain came up…five men dressed in fly suits and hair slicked like bullets are centre stage.  They move as smooth as melted butter on a biscuit."  I'm hoping to catch the show later on in the year.

Jr Walker

Anyway, before we run out of space here, quick mentions of other 2019 highlights where, for me, the personal highlight was, of course,  Skegness and meeting up with the LA ladies.  We've done that to death now, so let's move on. SoulMusic Records released the mouth watering 3-CD package "Walk In The Night – The Motown 70s Studio Albums" housing a massive six Jr Walker & the All Stars' albums. These included "A Gasssss", "Moody Jr" and "Peace & Understanding Is Hard To Find", all on fans' CD wish list. Thank you, David Nathan! …… The 'Free Blinky' campaign finally reaped rewards when the long-awaited "Heart Full Of Soul" was issued, welcomed by open arms across the world. A delighted artist spoke to me shortly before the CD's release, indicating she couldn't believe so many people had rooted for her.  Then, there was Universal Music Japan who reissued fifty albums including those from Yvonne Fair, Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway and The Spinners. …."Motown:The Complete No 1s" – ten CDs packaged within a scaled down cardboard Hitsville, resplendent in its blue and white exterior.  First released to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary, an extra disc was lobbed in to update it.  As the original proudly sits on my office cupboard, I wasn't tempted to purchase the 2019 version. …Diana Ross celebrated her 75th birthday with concerts across America, notably in Las Vegas, and for us home fans we saw on the cinema screen her Central Park concert when it was rained-off - and on again…...Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie played Hyde Park, while Martha Reeves and the Vandellas  continued their passionate love affair with British audiences by several dates throughout the year. …… CBS screened Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration …. Claudette Robinson published her children's book Claudette's Miraculous Motown Adventure; Mary Wilson promoted her Supreme Glamour and Eddie and Brian Holland's Come And Get These Memories bid for readers against Lamont's Dozier's How Sweet It Is  …..

I'm bound to have omitted something and someone here, and for this I apologise profusely.  Suffice to say, 2019 was quite a year one way or the other, and this year looks to surpass that. Or is that just me wishful thinking?  Anyway, do hope you'll join me as we take tentative steps into this new decade.  Next month we'll talk Smokey……

Sharon Davis

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