A Supreme Celebration For Motown

At a time when Detroit is best known for bailout-hungry automakers, there's a reason for some dancing in the streets: Motown Records is about to mark its 50th anniversary.

That the occasion comes in the same month as Barack Obama's inauguration hasn't been lost on some observers who believe the musical juggernaut started in a clapboard house dubbed Hitsville USA is part of the story of the first African-American president's journey to the White House.

"It's one of the steps that took us up that ladder," Duke Fakir, the last surviving member of the Four Tops told USA Today.  

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. opened for business on Jan. 12, 1959, and would go on to record the likes of the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and the Jackson 5, among many other stars. The year-long anniversary celebration will include the release of a CD collection of Motown No. 1 hits worldwide -- an incredible 192 songs.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is running a Motown tribute exhibit, there's the requisite website offering podcasts and merchandise, and a documentary produced by Gordy is set to hit theaters this fall.

Last month, Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves -- yes, that Martha Reeves -- proposed erecting statutes of Motown greats like Wonder, Gaye and the Supremes around town.

"It's time to celebrate our rich history and focus on what's great about Detroit," Reeves, the leader of Martha and the Vandellas, told The Detroit Free Press.

Like any American success story, there are chapters that are glossed over amid the anniversary hoopla and the happy haze of nostalgia. Motown had more than its share of "Dreamgirls"-style backstage dramas. Gordy, of course, embittered many Detroiters by taking Motown out of the Motor City and moving to California in the 1970s, before eventually selling off most of his interest in the company he started with $800.

The genius songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, hasn't gotten the same due as say, Lennon-McCartney. Maybe somebody should think about putting up sculptures of the Funk Brothers, the faceless studio musicians who played a huge role in the Motown sound without sharing in enough of the glory or the millions.

But in the end, it's not about history or money -- Motown is about about the music. And when it come to the music, as Gaye and Terrell sang, there ain't nothing like the real thing.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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