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Motown Feels The Love At 50th Anniversary Gala

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Monday, November 23, 2009

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DETROIT -- As assured and unflappable a performer as he is, Kid Rock was "still shaking" in his top-floor suite at the Detroit Marriott hotel, not long after his turn on stage with Stevie Wonder at Saturday's (Nov. 21) Motown 50 Golden Gala.

"My nerves are shot," Rock noted as he poured himself a shot of whiskey. "I've never felt like this before. Forty...thousand people at (Comerica Park) this summer...nah. But tonight, it was...intense!"

It WAS that kind of night -- and not only for Rock. The black-tie, $350-a-head gala celebrating the Motown Records' 50th anniversary was filled with emotion and celebration, nostalgia and warm good humor. It was a well-deserved communal back-patting for an estimated 750 in the hotel's Renaissance Ballroom, all drinking in the glory of a company that created some of the most enduring, globally impactful music in history -- and also paying tribute to its founder, Berry Gordy, Jr., who created Motown from a $500 family loan and, as guest Aretha Franklin noted, "revolutionized the music industry singlehandedly."

"The Motown family that was together in the '60s will be together forever," noted a beaming Gordy, who was also serenaded by the audience -- and presented with a cake -- a week in advance of his 80th birthday on Nov. 28. "As I look at it, and the more I think about it, Motown could have never happened anywhere else but Detroit. There is talent everywhere...but Detroit is special. There is something about Detroit."

The music that Gordy and that Motown family produced in Detroit was certainly front-and-center on Saturday, which was part of a two-night Live It Again! celebration that began Friday (Nov. 20) with the less formal "Bop to the Ballroom" party at the Roostertail. The current incarnation of the Temptations, led by lone surviving original member Otis Williams, performed a 50-minute set of its hits, starting with Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and ending with "(I Know) I'm Losing You" and shoehorning favorites such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and, of course, "My Girl" in between.

Before the gala, Williams noted that he and his fellow Temptations "had no inclination that 50 years later we would still be here. When it started it was just wanting to make a name for ourselves and have a hit record...At Motown we were bred on making show business our vocation rather than our avocation. We were taught to be in it 'cause we wanted it to be our livelihood."

Franklin -- who said that her father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, spoke with Gordy about signing her to Motown in the early '60s before she went to Columbia Records -- then used the "Sunset Boulevard" song "As If We Never Said Goodbye" as the basis for her own powerful tribute to an obviously moved Gordy, singing that "you taught the world a new way to sing." That, the birthday cake and a video tribute from President Barack Obama, who called Motown "a truly American sound...(that) defined a style, lifted up a city and moved an entire generation," left Gordy fumbling a bit before he delivered his prepared remarks.

The musical high point of the night, however, was Wonder's set, during which he tailored "Happy Birthday," originally part of the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday, for Gordy, then led a crowd singalong to "My Cherie Amour," dedicated "Isn't She Lovely" to Motown vice-president and Motown Historical Museum founder Esther Edwards Gordy and romped through "I Wish" before bringing Kid Rock onstage for "Living For the City." Wonder surprised Rock by asking him to remain for "Superstition," then he called all of the Motown alumni on stage for a finale of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," with Martha Reeves singing most heartily while Wonder called for Franklin, who had apparently left the ballroom (but did attend the afterglow at the Seldom Blues in the GM Renaissance Center).

Gordy noted during the night that the Motown alumni "cannot NOT love each other," even if "sometimes the competition got in the way of the love." And that was borne out as dozens of singers, musicians, songwriters, producers and office staffers mingled with other local celebrities -- gala emcee Sinbad, TV judge Greg Mathis, former Detroit Lion Lomas Brown, Alto Reed from Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band -- and politicians including Detroit Mayor David Bing, former mayor Dennis Archer, U.S. Rep. John Conyers and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.

An assortment of proclamations and honors were presented during the gala and at a VIP cocktail reception before, but all competed with the underlying murmur of old friends and comrades sharing the love Gordy spoke about.

Kid Rock said he was "humbled" by the occasion and "very excited for my town." He said that performing with Wonder is "the pinnacle" but was just as interested in listening as singing. "(Motown) is the greatest American soundtrack ever in the history of music," he gushed. "I just don't know if there's any other soundtrack greater than Motown."

Claudette Robinson of the Miracles, noted that "to come and see so many of my friends who fortunately are still alive after 50 years is just wonderful. The Temptations' Williams, meanwhile, said he carried thoughts of late bandmates Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin with him at the gala. "I carry on in their stead and wish they were here to see the celebration of what they helped create," he said.

Wonder also had mortality on his mind, noting during his performance that "I know that more than likely most of us will not be able to celebrate the 100th or 75th celebration of Motown...I hope that not only Detroit but the world learns a very, very vital lesson that when you really believe in something and hold on to that dream and really know it's been given to you from God above, there truly is no mountain high enough."

Gordy indicated that he's not done celebrating Motown's 50th, however. He's still working on a documentary film as well as historical DVDs that tell the company's story and a Broadway musical based on Motown songs. "They're moving very well," he said prior to the gala, "and that will take us through probably the next 50 years. It's very exciting. There's quite a few things that are happening.

"It's wonderful," he added, "and it's just great to come back and just to feel the love that we felt here throughout the years."

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