Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & Cast. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BERRY GORDY’S MOTOWN MUSIC THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. obtained a loan of $800 from his family and founded an enterprise he called Motown. He set up his Detroit headquarters in a modest house emblazoned with an immodest sign, “Hitsville U.S.A.” The slogan was premature, but prophetic. Gordy discovered, developed and launched the careers of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye — to name just a few — and Motown became the most successful business owned and operated by an African American in the United States. Now his legacy is celebrated in Motown The Musical. Although Motown was home mostly to black artists, Gordy envisioned the music as “the sound of young America” — and by that he meant Americans of all colors and ethnicities. He started Motown just before the Civil Rights Movement was in full flower, when music by black artists was mostly relegated to black radio stations. Gordy “endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people,” as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acknowledged. And so he did. It began, of course, with the sound, a thrilling amalgamation of gospel, blues, jazz, doo wop, and country. “I may not have always known what I was looking for exactly, but when I found it I knew it,” Gordy has said. “Long before there were electronic synthesizers, I was looking for new ways to create different sound effects. We would try anything to get a unique percussion sound: two blocks of wood slapped together, striking little mallets on glass ashtrays, shaking jars of dried peas — anything.
In the early ’60s, when Motown was evolving and beginning to hit its stride, radio play was crucial to a song’s success. Robin Seymour, Detroit’s most popular radio personality of that era, was perhaps the only white disc jockey in the city to feature black music on his shows in the ’50s, prior to the founding of Motown. “When Berry Gordy came along, I started playing his records,” says Seymour. “Some of the sponsors hated the music, but they had kids and their kids thought it was the greatest music ever. The sponsors were getting results, so they were happy. The music really took off.” In those days, according to Seymour, “The record had to be pretty high on the charts before a song was played in New York, regardless of whether the singer was black or white. Later in the ’60s, when Motown had made it big, that changed. Stations would play a new record by a new artist.” Motown gradually became part of the fabric of America. “Music really makes the world vibrate,” says Morris. “And when multi-cultures vibrate together, it’s a great thing. That’s what Berry Gordy made happen. His music changed the world.”
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
FEB 15-19 • BUELL THEATRE ASL, Audio-described & Open Captioned Performance: Feb 18, 2pm
In-theater magazine produced for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts