Motown Spotlight columnist Sharon Davis focuses on Berry Gordy Jr.’s Kennedy Centre Honors, The Temptations new album, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Claudette Robinson and more…
Christmas must be coming because Lionel Richie is flogging his furniture across the internet, or in my case, via an email as I’m on his fan club mailing list. I know, I love him. Anyway, before he starts a series of concerts at The Wynn in Las Vegas from 26 January 2022, the reminder hit my inbox that his home furniture and storage collection was still available. He wrote: “Being able to expand my home line means so much to me. We have all spent so much time at home this past year, I wanted to create home products that are not only beautiful, but also comfortable and practical.” Well, sorry Lionel, I’m afraid there’ll be no sharing in my house this year. The prices are wow! I don’t need a round-cushioned ottoman in moonlit blue at $299.00 a throw, nor an ottoman bench with decorative pillows in the same colours at $499.00 each. However, I’ll bet there’s thousands who will, particularly those with a more healthy bank balance than mine.
Then there was a teaser about his “Hello” fragrance, inspired, he writes, by “his passion for music and love of love, curated by his travels, a strong sense of design and zest for life”. Actually, I love the packaging – really a class act – and would, of course, welcome a tester, but, to be honest, I’m a Chanel No 5 gal, which, in hindsight, I don’t think even Lionel can tempt me away from. Or could he? Let’s TCB with a catch-up this month….
This project started out as a rumble a few months ago but now news has hit the media that, yes, indeed, there is a new Temptations’ album due to celebrate their 60th anniversary, following the release of a taster “Is It Gonna Be Yes Or No” penned by and featuring Smokey Robinson. It’s the first time the two have sung together on a Temptations’ release although you’ll probably remember they performed “The Christmas Song” on a Motown Christmas compilation in 1989. Lone surviving group member Dr Otis Williams told Detroit Free Press journalist Brian McCollum he phoned Smokey because he believed it was the right move. After all, he added, Smokey had kickstarted The Temptations’ career with “The Way You Do The Things You Do”. Otis: “It’s only right that (Smokey) should be on this. Not only singing with us….but to write and produce it.” In reply, Smokey said in a press statement, “I proceeded to write a new song for them, and I was very happy to because it’s been a long time.”
The Temptations’ 60th anniversary campaign started gaining momentum last spring, although I’m not aware of anything significant being publicised except a few ad-hoc teasers. The planned tours were postponed of course, but dates are now earmarked for next year. Following the Covid break, the musical “Ain’t Too Proud” returned to the Broadway stage this autumn while the touring company hit the road again. The musical is due to hit London next year but all I could find out was “coming soon….London cast to be announced.” Dammit.
Otis: “All we ever wanted to do was sing. Get a successful group, have fun, sing to the ladies, and all that. But we never had any inkling we’d still be doing it sixty years later, even with all the guys that have been in the group and helped us make those transitions. The world has still accepted and loved this group in spite of ourselves…They’re still turning out to see us….” Actually, I’m not so sure that last sentence applies to all Temptations’ fans because in several conversations I’ve had of late, many believe the group ended when Otis performed as the only original member with what they called ‘add-ons’ to make up a line-up of five. Mmm…I’ll leave it there. However, while on the subject, I’ll admit now that I bid farewell to my beloved Four Tops when Duke was the only original in the membership: nobody but nobody can replicate Levi Stubbs who was the voice of the group. Without him, their success story might have been slightly different. Or is that just me thinking out loud. I’ll qualify these statements by adding that the people I spoke to were stalwart Motown fans who have loyally followed the acts and company since those heady, early days when they were both in their formative years.
So, after that slight diversion, back to The Temptations, and a little insight into the content of the 12-track “Temptations 60” elpee. On offer is a sweet shop of sounds, including jazz, funk, rap, smooch, nostalgia and socially aware material. “When We Were Kings” which smacks of the sixties, is in tribute to the ‘original’ membership of Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin who, with Otis, delivered the group sound to the world. Otis: “We were trying to recapture the ‘classic five’, trying to come close to what we were doing sixty years ago. Once we got that in motion, all the pieces for the album started coming together.” Featuring New York rapper K Sparks, “Let It Reign” is, according to the group’s website, a bold update of their sound in much the same way as “Cloud Nine” back in the day; a timely re-visit to the sixties is clear with “Come On”, and a poke at modern issues in “Time For The People” indicate the changing musical styles on offer here. Several producers are credited including Narada Michael Walden, Ron Tyson, Thomas “TC” Campbell, Otis and Smokey.
Recording the album was mentally and emotionally draining for Otis due to the concentrated effort that went into getting the project together. “..It left me drained. When I was finished…I almost dropped to my knees.” However, his statement on the website was considerably more upbeat. “Delivering our 60th anniversary album is a special moment for me. Being back in the studio this time filled me with so many memories of my journey and reminded me of how long and rewarding a journey it has been….We poured every ounce of our heart and soul into making this album extra special, and only when we were satisfied that it was in keeping with our unique style, did we put our stamp on it….It showcases brand new songs that reflect the best of what’s vintage and modern in our music. A capstone of my career, this album represents generations of unique melodies, lyrics and songs….some of the new songs echo our original ballads and love songs, while others capture current, topical vibes of the 21st century…”. Further tracks include “Elevator Eyes”, “How Do You Spell Love”, “Calling Out Your Name” and “Breaking My Back.” Wrapping up now, “Temptations 60” is due next month.
As we’ve already name-checked Smokey, have you spotted the film Miracle In Motorcity – a love letter to a city that produced landmark music for the world? Mr Robinson explained his involvement to Billboard magazine, although he was quick to point out, he had originally no interest in playing himself in this, or any movie. “But my agent sent (the script) to me and said ‘Hey man, this is a great script. It’s about a black family in Detroit at Christmas time and you’re in it, but you have to be you. Before you say “no”, I want you to read it.’ I read it and thought it was warm, wonderful and sweet, and I hope it brings some positive feelings for the people of Detroit.” The storyline is simple. Young Amber Dupont was rather ambitious when she took charge of her church’s annual Christmas pageant and inadvertently promises a special performance by Smokey. As you can guess, it all turns out right in the end. Featured in the story is the Motown Museum where exterior shots and interior scenes including Studio A are included.
As I scrolled through websites for more information I chanced to see an interview Smokey had given to The Independent which I’d somehow missed which isn’t like me at all. However, in case you missed it as well, Smokey was hospitalised last year for eleven days suffering from Covid: five of those days he doesn’t even remember. He had no idea how he’d caught it – “It was a horrible, horrible thing…All I know is I looked up and I had it…..Protect yourself and those that you love because it is a real killer and a horrible thing to have to go through. Some people go through it mildly but you are talking to someone who went through it severely…I was not sure I would even be able to sing again because it took my voice….(If it wasn’t) for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here.” Now, here we are in December 2021, facing the same dreadfulness of last year with a new variant. The name may have changed but sadly the prognosis could be the same. We all need to be cautious.
Moving on from Smokey I think it’s only fair to mention his ex-wife Claudette, who is once again highlighting her book Claudette’s Miraculous Motown Adventure. Briefly, the story revolves around little Claudette who lives in the magic kingdom of Motown Records where all the happy children sing and dance in the streets. (Cue for a song methinks). One day an angry witch casts a spell and the kingdom descends into dark silence. Can The Miracles bring light and laughter back to the kingdom? So, if you feel you want to know more, do check out www.themiraclesshop.com.
Talking of dancing in the street, it’s been a rather busy time for Martha Reeves just lately – and it’s all good. Actually, more than good, with several projects in the pipeline for next year, including, of course, her Hollywood star. Hurrah! However, there’s more, with plans for My Life, My Story, a biopic movie, “An Evening With Martha Reeves with a special tribute to Dusty Springfield”, podcasts, a live radio series and, I think I read somewhere, a children’s book series. She also plans to write the sequel to her autobiography Dancing In The Street published in 1994, under the working title I Believe. I’ve already been contacted by the executive producer of the biopic, among Martha’s other projects, so when I’m able to tell more, you’ll be the next to know. Meantime, many congratulations to Martha as she recently received the Distinguished Women Award when Northwood University honoured an elite group of remarkable women who made a difference in their business and community.
At the gala ceremony Martha received a unique bronze medallion, before leading the 150 guests in song with a version of The Lord’s Prayer. Then she mingled with punters in the foyer of Detroit’s Redford Theatre where it was the opening night of Boblo Boats:Detroit Ferry Tale. With Martha narrating, the documentary traced the colourful history of the steamship Ste Claire which transported generations of Detroiters to Boblo Island, an amusement park nestled in the water between America and Canada. This sentence was included in the film’s blurb – “It doesn’t shy away from politically contentious episodes specifically concerning race and income inequality”, but if you’d like to know more do visit the Freep Film Festival website.
Finally. there was the meeting of giants in Detroit, when Martha met up with The Rolling Stones backstage following their concert at Ford Field in November, their first show in Detroit since July 2015. “It was an incredible pleasure to meet Martha,” said Keith Richards. Before the concert, Ronnie Wood and members of their entourage visited Hitsville. They arrived mid-afternoon, staying an hour or so. The group’s keyboardist, Chuck Leavell, played “My Girl” at the Steinway grand piano, prompting them all to sing along. Mick Jagger and Keef didn’t join in the party as they had previously visited the Museum. During their performance Mick led the group through “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” as their Motown tribute, a track they recorded for a 1974 album. “We can’t come to Detroit and not do a Motown number,” Mick Jagger told their thirty thousand-strong audience. One wonders why “Dancing In The Street” wasn’t the chosen song, particularly as Jagger duetted with David Bowie on this iconic track in 1985, with all profits earmarked for the Live Aid famine relief.
Oh, there’s a little something else, Grover Prop Percussion has named Martha as their signature artist for using their tambourines. By all accounts, she has been friends with the Grover since they hit the market during 1980 – “It makes me feel more comfortable on stage. My personal sound on my Grover is my musical identity, just like my voice.”
From my friend to her mentor, Berry Gordy, who not only recently celebrated his ninety-second birthday, but was among five recipients (Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell among them) of one of the world’s most prestigious of awards – the Kennedy Centre Honour. Berry: “Growing up in Detroit, I wasn’t the only black but the ‘black sheep’ of my family. I was a failure at everything at everything I did until I was twenty-nine years old (and) throughout the years I’ve been blessed with many wonderful memories, but this – the Kennedy Centre Honours – is one that will be forever in my heart.”
Following an afternoon at the White House where President Biden told Berry, “Detroit, Motown – my God. I tell you what, I don’t know how I’d have grown up without Motown…talk about the soul of America.” The next day, 5 December, a glitzy four-hour gala evening of celebration was staged, due to be broadcast via CBS on 22 December.
Berry was the focus of the evening’s closing section, where Smokey Robinson hosted and sang a new song “Did You Know” in celebration of their long friendship. Smokey said he had for some time lobbied for Berry’s inclusion since he (Smokey) had received his Kennedy Centre Honour. “It’s about time and I’m very happy for him.” Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross were, by the way, previous Motown honorees.
So, back to the evening’s celebrations. A nod was made at “Ain’t Too Proud” when cast members delivered The Temptations/Diana Ross and the Supremes’ take on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”. Stevie then closed the evening after a couple of false starts, involving an issue with his onstage monitor which had the production team chasing their tails to fix. Once done, Stevie settled himself at his keyboards to perform “My Cherie Amour”, “Superstition” and “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, before closing on “Higher Ground” when he was joined on stage by Ellie Goulding, Billy Porter, Brittany Howard and Andra Day: the latter went on to sing “God Bless The Child” reprising her starring role in biographical drama The United States Vs Billie Holiday. Interestingly, or ironically, Diana’s son, Evan Ross, plays Sam Williams in the film.
This year was one of immense sadness on so many levels; some personal and others professional, but it matters not because the pain remains the same. This will be the first Christmas without Mary Wilson and Marilyn McLeod, but they’re not isolated cases by any means. And it’s here that I need to mention the passing of a very dear, wonderful man, Bob Fisher, who ticked all the boxes time and again. For those who are unaware, Bob was Motown’s press officer in November 1975 and it was during this time I first met him, and I’m sure constantly hassled him to the point of his frustration, as I was writing for Blues & Soul at the time. I recall my first phone interview was with Jerry Butler, a last minute arrangement as a journalist had dropped out. I went in blind but the result was really pleasing for us all.
From Motown, Bob took on the position of product manager for three labels, Stax, Salsoul and Fantasy, and he asked me to join him as publicist. So, I ditched my secretarial position at EMI Records, working for the company lawyer, to join the wonderful world of music from the front line. Time passed, Bob and EMI parted company whereupon he was snapped up by other labels and in demand as a music consultant. To cut a long story short, he was a leading figure in the business until his passing last month.
On a more personal level, for the past two years, we both worked on a proposed Sylvester film, (the singer being our success story at Fantasy) where Bob was instrumental in sourcing and overseeing the music score and soundtrack. More importantly for me, it meant we were working closely together again; a absolute joy. Now, it feels like I’m walking through treacle, as coming to terms with him not being at my side, is a heavy cross to bear. He’s not there; his emails and voicemails are. But nothing is the same. However, I will, as I promised him during one conversation, finish the re-write of my Mighty Real book. Farewell my dear friend.
Finally, with the promise of a BBC2 documentary in the spring about Motown coming to the UK, the first British Revue and all that that trip entailed, means we have something to look forward to. Whether there’ll be a music tie-in remains to be seen as it’s early days yet, but I’m hopeful of a book being published around the screening date. I’m not able to tell you anymore about this just now, except to say the journey from Detroit to London is held together by a passionate, blonde, panda-eyed fan.
Oh no! As I’m about to round off this month’s blog, news has just come through via Claudette Robinson that our precious Marvelette Wanda Young has died. Losing someone we know is always sad but at Christmas time that sadness magnifies. It goes without saying that David Nathan and I send our love and condolences to Wanda’s family, friends and fans. We will remember her next month.
Despite my heavy heart, I do wish you a safe and enjoyable Christmas time and, echoing our sentiments this time last year, 2022 will be better, it just has to be. Let’s hug positive thoughts as we walk through the next three weeks into the new year. It’s the only way.