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Motown Anniversary Celebration Begins With "Family" Reunion

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Friday, November 20, 2009

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DETROIT -- Roostertail owner Tom Schoenith surveyed the ballroom of his Detroit riverfront club on Friday (Nov. 20) with a smile. "It looks just like it did," he said.

Schoenith was referring to '60s, when Motown artists would perform and party, both publicly and privately, at the Roostertail. They were doing it again on Friday as several dozen alumni of the legendary record company -- from songwriters to secretaries, performers to peons -- kicked off its Live It Again! 50th anniversary celebration with a party dubbed "Bop to the Ballroom."

Unlike the black-tie formality of Saturday's (Nov. 21) Motown 50 Golden Gala at the GM Renaissance Center, Friday's affair was loose and friendly, with the warm atmosphere of a family reunion. Attendees dined on turkey and stuffing, assorted pastas and crudites. They hugged and kissed and took photos with each other, and several sat at tables signing autographs for a smattering of fans who paid $50 to rub elbows.

Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., joked with company etiquette coach Maxine Powell as he entered the Roostertail, then wrapped Martha Reeves in a warm embrace. "He promised me a dance," Reeves said afterwards. "We danced a lot in the early days. I'm glad he came home for this. It's a rare occasion that we get to see him."

But Gordy, who's resided in Los Angeles since the early '70s, said he wouldn't have missed it for the world.

"Everything excites me that has to do with the (Motown) legacy and the memories," he explained. "Coming to Detroit is very special because it holds so many great memories. So whenever I come back, I'm happy."

He was also surprised when Detroit city councilwoman JoAnn Watson presented him with a Spirit of Detroit Award as part of the evening's short formal program. Accepting the citation, Gordy took the opportunity to praise those who worked for him.

"The 50th anniversary is to celebrate you, all the people that made us what we became," he told the alumni, each of whom received their own Spirit of Detroit Award certificate. "It took a lot of people...and everybody had such a great part in making Motown. And now...it's all about you great unsung heroes, so I thank you all for everything."

As the local band 777 and a DJ played Motown hits and the Roostertail displayed a trove of never-seen photos from its vaults on video screens, most of the Motown alumni expressed a genuine wonder that the company's music has endured all these years.

"I never thought it would," noted Reeves, who plans to return full-time to performing after finishing her term on the Detroit City Council. "But I didn't envision anything. I've been so overwhelmed by what we do and the music, how it caught on, how we can go to any country and our music is welcomed -- and we are, too."

Bobby Rogers of the Miracles said he was happy "for all of us to get together...here in our home place," adding that "there's a lot of people who have died, y'know, but I'm grateful I'm here."

Motown singer Frances Nero said that "it feels absolutely wonderful seeing so many people" and was pleased that Gordy recognized her. "One of his (security guards) said, 'You can't tell him names, baby; he only knows songs," Nero recalled. "But he looked at me and said, 'Oh, I know who she is' and gave me a big kiss."

Norma Barbee of the Velvelettes said being at the Roostertail Friday was "like coming to a class reunion and seeing my sorority sisters." And Dennis Coffey, a guitarist in the Funk Brothers studio band, remembered that "we had a lot of fun making the records. It's great seeing everybody again...like a family."

The familial fun will continue at Saturday night's gala, a $350-a-head affair that will feature a full set by the Temptations and special performances by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Kid Rock. The evening will also honor early Motown heroes Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, Janie Bradford and Raynoma Singleton, and will include memorial tributes to Michael Jackson, the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs and producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield, all of whom passed away since the last gala in 2007.

Proceeds from both of the weekend's Live It Again! events will benefit the Motown Historical Museum.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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