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No label did it better than Motown, and Detroit is to thank

Mitch Albom

By Mitch Albom

Published Oct. 28, 2014

No label did it better than Motown, and Detroit is to thank

They say families, as you age, only get together at weddings and funerals. Not true Wednesday night at the Fisher Theatre. Nobody died. Nobody said, "I do." But a whole lot of family was there.

Smokey Robinson. Stevie Wonder. Mary Wilson from the Supremes. Martha Reeves. Duke Fakir. The producers. The songwriters. And, for the first time on a musical stage in a long time in this city, the papa bear of the Motown family, Berry Gordy Jr.

It was one of those nights that, 10 years from now, a million people will claim to have attended, even though the theater only held a few thousand. The occasion was the Detroit opening of "Motown: The Musical," the Broadway celebration of Gordy's empire, built with local African-American artists who shared his dream.

That dream was stardom and influence fueled by a competitive drive. Throughout the show, acts like the Temptations, Four Tops and Miracles trade accomplishments like kids bragging about their toy cars. My record was No. 1. Mine will sell more. The early years of Motown, much like childhood, were full of silly competition, frenetic creativity, boundless hope -- and a soundtrack of catchy songs.

And one more thing: a sense of place.

This place. Detroit.

New York can point to Broadway theater and Los Angeles can point to Hollywood film, but no American city can lay claim to popular music the way Detroit can from 1960 to 1972, before Motown Records left for the West Coast.

Wednesday night was like a retirement party slide show. As the cast performed one huge song after another, you kept shaking your head that all that actually happened. Could "Dancing in the Street," "Baby Love," "Where Did Our Love Go," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," "My Guy," "Baby I Need Your Loving" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do" all have been released in the same year? Could the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Vandellas, the Miracles, Junior Walker, the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder all have been recording in the same place at the same time?

Yes. And that place -- dubbed "Hitsville U.S.A." -- was less than a mile down the road from the Fisher Theatre. From inside that converted house on West Grand Boulevard, "The Sound of Young America" was born. No popular music was ever happier, hipper, more danceable or more indestructible. There is a reason Motown songs are still embraced at a 75th birthday party, the smokiest corner of a nightclub or a beach in Rio de Janeiro. They are timeless and pure.

And reason for Detroit to take pride.

When the real Smokey Robinson took the mic Wednesday night, he said he was often asked how so many talented artists could exist in one place at one time. He replied that other cities had just as many talented artists, but they didn't have Berry Gordy.

There is more to it than that. All of those Motown legends, before meeting Gordy, drove on Detroit streets, heard Detroit sounds, ate Detroit food, had Detroit mothers, endured Detroit winters, attended Detroit schools, watched Detroit sports and felt the pulse of the Detroit vibration. Detroit infused their talent. They brought that to Gordy before he brought anything to them.

And what they created always should be a source of pride.

Look. We're not dumb. Even Wednesday, when Berry (who wrote the book of the show) spoke of being "home," the audience knew otherwise. It knew Berry was largely interested in his empire, pocketed money that should have gone to others, moved the company to L.A. and never looked back. It also knew the real Diana Ross -- a starring role in "Motown" -- has little use for her hometown. Heck, we know the musical didn't even open here after Broadway; it had productions in Chicago and San Francisco first.

But Detroiters are used to the "greener pastures" syndrome. It doesn't mean you stop being family. Those artists on stage were united by musical accomplishment -- which had more to do with breaking down barriers than it is ever given credit for.

To that point, white artists made popular the music that black artists created. But Motown was inimitable. The sound was too unique. From the Funk Brothers' instrumentation to the incredible voices, you wanted Motown, you had to buy Motown.

The show's best moment may have come during a depiction of the 1967 riots, with Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" as background. The actor playing Gordy tells a white associate he should get out of town for his safety. The white man insists he's not leaving. "It's my city, too," he says.

As the two men hugged, the crowd erupted into unsolicited applause. It's our city, too. And our music, too. It's the greatest decade for a single label in a single place in the history of pop music. And it's one more thing Detroit produced that the rest of the world could say thank you for.

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