By Bill Dudley
Music lovers have a scant 2 weeks or less to catch “Motown: The Musical” at the glorious Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Based on Motown founder Berry Gordy’s very frank autobiography “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” penned in 1994, it is a comprehensive musical journey of American black history from boxing champ “Joe Louis” becoming a world champion in the 1930’s to the then very young “Berry Gordy” achieving similar success in his own very different quest nearly 3 decades later. Joe Louis was a true pioneer, as was Berry Gordy. Frustrated as a songwriter, after receiving some success in the late 1950’s writing for other artists like the great “Jackie Wilson”, Gordy and his new pal Smokey Robinson got a small record label to put out one of Smokey’s earliest works “Got A Job”. After making little money on that effort, Gordy thought starting his own label just may be the answer. Thus, way back in 1958, “Motown” was born. Smokey’s group “The Miracles” was the first major signing. In the early 1960’s, it wasn’t easy getting black music on “pop radio” in that era, but somehow Gordy did it. Racism wasn’t the only thing keeping great music down, thanks to the payola scandal of the 1950’s,many radio stations would only play one song on one label at a time. Gordy’s solution ? He would create many other labels in addition to Motown, including “Tamla”, “Soul”, “Gordy”, “V.I.P.” and many more. Soon, the parade of unlimited talent discovered by Gordy, Smokey and others exploded onto the airwaves. “Marvin Gaye”, “The Marvelettes”, “Mary Wells”, “Four Tops’, “Temptations”, “Little Stevie Wonder”, “Contours” and “Martha and the Vandellas” joined Smokey’s “Miracles” as early stars. My one minor complaint, I didn’t see or hear a “Gladys Knight” character. Gladys had many big hits for Motown from 1967 thru 1973
Three teenage girls also were on the Motown roster, sarcastically known as the “no hit Supremes”, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard would take several years to have a huge hit song, but the creative songwriters “Holland-Dozier-Holland” changed all that. “Where Did our love Go” hit #1 in the summer of 1964, and was the first of 5 consecutive # 1 hits, followed by many more until 1970. The “Supremes” 1964 appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” was a big part of the play, and was absolutely hilarious, with actor “Doug Storm” sounding more like “Ed Sullivan”, than Ed did. “The Jackson 5”, another of Motown’s biggest acts, hit in 1969, and the world’s fascination with a young 10 year old “Michael Jackson” began. “Chester Gregory” was excellent in his portrayal of “Berry Gordy”, as was “Allison Semmes” in her multi-faced performance as “Diana Ross”,”Jarran Muse” totally captured the tortured soul of “Marvin Gaye”, but I must say, 11 year old “CJ Wright” stole the show, as “Michael Jackson”. This kid is dynamic, and will be a star. Making the performance I saw even more special, the ageless Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were in attendance. They are still best friends after all these years, and seemed very proud of what seemed to be an honest portrayal of their long history together.
“Motown: The Musical” is indeed what the name implies. If you grew up in this era, you have to see this play. It is the rich musical history and soundtrack of our lives. All generations love the “Motown” sound, because it is positive, inclusive, family oriented, and gives us hope. Did you know, Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. was also an artist signed to Motown? Gordy thought his speeches needed to be heard by the widely diverse Motown audience. “Black History Month” is the perfect time to see “Motown: The Musical”, as Motown really is a huge part of black history. Remember, like “Black History Month”, it is a short run, so better get your tickets now.