It’s not often that the anniversary of an anniversary merits acknowledgement, but Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever is the rare case of a celebration that ended up reverberating far beyond one big television event. Broadcast on NBC 40 years ago this month, Motown 25 wasn’t just a showcase for one of the most influential labels in American music; it would also send one of their homegrown stars into an even loftier stratosphere.
Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Motown Records under its original name, Tamla Records, on June 7, 1958. The Detroit-born Gordy was one of eight children; he dropped out of high school in the late 1940s to box professionally. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Gordy emerged with a GED. He started writing songs and met singer Jackie Wilson.
Gordy wrote or co-wrote several hits for Wilson, notably “Lonely Teardrops,” which went to number seven in the States. Gordy reinvested his songwriting earnings into producing. By 1957, he discovered the group that would really change his life: The Matadors, who would later change their name to The Miracles. One of the Miracles, Smokey Robinson, was a vocal supporter of Gordy founding his own label. With money borrowed from his family, Gordy did exactly that. Before long, Gordy had developed a strong stable of artists. Mary Wells (“My Guy”) and The Miracles (“Shop Around”) began cranking out hits, with “Shop” becoming the label’s first million-seller. Gordy originally developed Motown as another imprint of Tamla, but merged the two in 1960 into the Motown Record Corporation. After that, there was no looking back: between 1961 and 1971, Motown artists delivered 110 Top Ten hits.
The overall impact of Motown on popular music in America is incalculable. Inspired in part by the auto industry, Motown used a “factory system” that worked with the artists on their look, their image, their choreography, and even social etiquette. In addition to Gordy and Robinson, songwriting teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland crafted hits, and the musical collective known as the Funk Brothers provided much of the instrumentation heard on the records. Motown could find artists, develop them, package them, work up hit songs with them, and put them on the road in various combinations. Aside from introducing an avalanche of popular artists (including, but not limited to, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and many more), Motown had an indelible impact on putting Black artists in front of young white audiences. In fact, many social and music scholars believe that Motown had a major, positive impact on the civil rights movement. One of their slogans was “The Sound of Young America,” and they weren’t wrong. Motown artists existed comfortably on the charts alongside the British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and white rock bands like The Beach Boys.
By 1972, much of the Motown operation had moved to Los Angeles as the broader company got more involved in films. A number of artists left for other labels. And while Motown was still successful, it wasn’t the “Hit Factory” that it had been before. Nevertheless, Motown continued to make a cultural impact with its artists. As the label neared its 25th anniversary, it was clear that a celebration was in order. However, one Motown vet had recently broken out in such a big way that his presence would alter the fabric and trajectory of the entire special.
Filmed in March of 1983 for later broadcast, the special came together through the efforts of team that included Gordy, producer Suzanne de Passe, and director Don Mischer. De Passe began her Motown career as Gordy’s Creative Assistant, but had become President of Motown Productions by the time of the special. Mischer was already well into his award-winning career as a producer and director who would become a specialist for major events like concerts, The Tonys, The Oscars, and even The Olympics. Motown 25 aimed to represent Motown as a whole, including both classic and younger artists along with some special guests. As such, it was criticized for the omissions of certain acts (notably Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Marvelettes, The Vandellas, and The Isley Brothers, to name a few) and for not doing more to acknowledge the major impact that The Funk Brothers had on the development of the sound. That said, the list of people who did perform was impressive.
As the special was recorded, the number one album in the country was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There was little doubt that having Jackson on the show would be not only a “get,” but a big draw. Jackson agreed to reunite with his brothers and perform if he could also have a solo spot. Another major reunion was slated for The Supremes, with originals Diana Ross and Mary Wilson joined by later addition Cindy Birdsong. Smokey and The Miracles got back together. The original Four Tops would all play, but due the fractious nature of the group, The Temptations only featured two original members, Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin. Other featured legends would be Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and the Commodores (but separately, as Richie was pre-taped), Junior Walker, Martha Reeves, and Mary Wells. Newer acts included DeBarge and High Inergy, while guests included Adam Ant (who performed with Diana Ross) and Linda Ronstadt (who performed with Smokey).
If anything, Motown 25 showed that the legends were legends for a reason. The Miracles, as a nod to their “first group” status, opened with four tunes. Gaye, in one of his last live performances before his tragic murder in 1984, delivered an outstanding take on his signature song, “What’s Going On.” Stevie Wonder stormed through a set of half-a-dozen hits. The Four Tops and The Temptations put together a delightful “battle,” in which the two groups performed side-by-side, swapping turns at a laundry list of their classics before singing together in their finale. The Supremes set was cut from multiple songs to one (“Someday We’ll Be Together”); in her book, Dreamgirls, Mary Wilson described some of the tension and wrangling in the process. But the moment that really helped pull in more than 33 million viewers was the Jackson 5 reunion.
Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, and Tito began a medley of their hits (“I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “I’ll Be There”) and were soon joined by brother Randy (who had joined the group when Jermaine left in 1975). All six Jackson brothers performed together until the others yielded the spotlight to Michael. He donned his signature fedora and went to work on “Billie Jean,” then the number one song in the country. It wasn’t a star-making turn, as Jackson was already a star; it was a superstar-making turn. A little over halfway through the song, Jackson unveiled the Moonwalk for the first time on TV, and the crowd lost their minds. It was a legitimate Pop Culture Moment. Jackson was already perched at the top of the album chart, but the performance and Jackson’s pervasive presence on MTV were widely credited with keeping Thriller at #1 well into June.
After the special aired on May 16, there was a definite surge of interest in the Motown artists. Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder continued to be solid hitmakers, and Smokey Robinson saw a bump in the popularity of his ’80s output. The Four Tops and The Temptations would hit the road together numerous times in the wake of the special.
But most improbably, given the huge and ongoing success of Thriller, The Jacksons reunited for an album and 1984’s Victory tour. It would be the only time that all six brothers toured together. The shows combined music pulled from the group’s catalog and Jermaine and Michael’s solo output. While it was a financial success for the brothers themselves, there were a number of PR problems that ran the gamut from negative reactions to high ticket prices to Jackie missing several dates with a leg injury to Michael refusing to sing songs from the Victory album. Tensions between the brothers escalated to the point that on the final American date, Michael gave the surprise announcement that it was the last time he’d perform with The Jacksons, scuttling the notion of more dates outside of North America. Michael, embittered by the ticket price fiasco, donated the $5 million he earned from the tour to charity However, none of that impacted Michael’s career, as Thriller continued to top the charts for a historic run. His dominance continued through the mid-’90s, after which his career cooled due to changing tastes, increased competition from other artists and genres, scandals, criminal allegations, and general strangeness.
Motown 25 remains a particular kind of landmark. Even as it was celebrating history, it had a seismic effect on the contemporary music scene. It reminded people that those classic acts still had a lot to offer. And it had the kind of viewing audience that is extremely hard to touch in the streaming era. But more than anything, it was about the music, a critical component of the sonic quilt of an era that resonates across generations.
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