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"Motown 25" DVD release rekindles memories

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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In the spring of 1983, 25 years after Berry Gordy, Jr. opened its doors, Motown was on top again.

The NBC TV special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever," celebrating the Detroit-formed company's silver anniversary, vaulted the label back into the spotlight at the time its current roster was having trouble garnering hits. Filmed on March 25 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and aired May 16, the show won an Emmy Award and a George Foster Peabody Award and had a huge viewership buzzing about its all-star performances -- including Michael Jackson's debut of his moonwalk steps during "Billie Jean" after a Jackson 5 reunion, a vocal "battle" between the Temptations and the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye's passionate remembrance about Motown before singing "What's Going On" and the public debut of Smokey Robinson's Motown Company Song.

Tongues also wagged about a few controversial moments, most notably the clear rancor between Diana Ross and Mary Wilson during a Supremes reunion at the end of the show.

But as "Motown 25" comes out on DVD Tuesday, Sept. 30, in two separate editions, each containing plenty of bonus footage not seen during the original broadcast, warm memories about the event have endured.

"It was a great coming back together of what I would call the family," recalls the Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir. "It was like we all came back together for Thanksgiving dinner. WE appreciated and loved every moment that we were taping, and we really felt that this was going to be extremely special."

Suzanne DePasse, the veteran Motown executive who produced "Motown 25," adds that, "I don't think until 'Motown 25' the rest of the world really got to understand that regardless of anything else, the coming back together was the greater good and the bigger feeling of love and appreciation of what (the artists) had experienced together."

Writing in his 1994 memoir "To Be Loved," Gordy noted that "Motown 25" brought "the most complicated series of emotions you ever felt -- images of the past and present constantly colliding," including sitting next to former girlfriend Ross for the first time since she'd left Motown in 1980 and also visiting with artists and other label veterans who had accused him of financial imprudence. Ultimately, however, he wrote that it felt like "old home week" and that the night "was one thrill after another."

The thrills have remained ever since, with "Motown 25's" legacy only growing during the past 31 years. The rigors of obtaining rights and clearances for all the performances kept the DVD from coming out for its 30th anniversary, DePasse says, but with the moment finally at hand here's a look back at some of "Motown 25's" key behind-the-scenes and onstage moments...

* Everything did not necessarily go smoothly...

DePasse recalls "a constant state of stress and worry" during the 'Motown 25' taping -- from the get-go. "Stevie Wonder was meant to open the show, and he was, as per usual, late, so we had to strike the set. Every moment that we got something in the can, there was a small sigh of relief."

* Berry Gordy wasn't all that into it.

Negotiating Motown's financial problems at the time, Gordy was all to happy to turn the anniversary celebration over to DePasse. "He really wasn't interested at the beginning, or in coming; there were so many mixed emotions for him," she remembers. "But I think in the actual moment where he comes on stage and is greeted by all of the people that he created the opportunity for them to become what they became, that moment was not just redemptive. I think it was a validation and a celebration of the joint accomplishments of those people."

* Michael Jackson initially didn't want to be part of the show, with his brothers or on his own.

DePasse acknowledges that "Michael really didn't want to do the show, because I think he felt he had moved on and they had moved on in a way. But Berry was very instrumental in speaking with Michael." The Motown founder famously ambushed Jackson in a recording studio with a personal plea, though he had to acquiesce to Jackson's demand that he be able to perform "Billie Jean" from his then-new "Thriller" album after doing a Jackson 5 medley with his brothers.

* And Jackson's electrifying performance of "Billie Jean" almost wasn't included in the broadcast.

During rehearsals, the 'Motown 25' production team received a letter from Jackson's attorney forbidding the crew to film his performance of "Billie Jean." DePasse's compromise: "I went to Michael and basically said...that we had to tape it and that he was welcome to come to the editing room, and if at the end of the day he wasn't happy then we wouldn't use it. The result was that he was very happy with it. He was fun and the old Michael; you could just see that whatever obstacle there was to him in his mind that actually getting there and seeing all of his old friends and working with our team, it jsut all dissipated. If you see him in the finale, he's as happy as he can be. It was a bit of a struggle getting him there, but at the end of the day the proof is in the pudding."

* So what WAS that acrimonious Supremes situation all about in the finale?

Former Supremes mates Diana Ross and Mary Wilson seemed to be having a moment at end of the night -- and not quite a friendly one. Ross reportedly took a microphone away from Wilson during the performance, which was rumored to have been edited from the final broadcast. DePasse says Wilson was guilty of "jumping the gun" and going off script during a rehearsed introduction of Gordy, "and Diana just took her hand and pushed the hand that Mary had with her microphone so that (Ross) could carry on with what had been rehearsed. People just seemed to blow it out of proportion; I don't even know where it really started...The cameras were sort of pointing towards Berry Gordy's entrance, and while it was on Diana, I don't think we really have her actually the moment of the great microphone abandonment. It comes out of, I think, a tendency that people want to paint Diana as this grand diva and she was acting on her own when she was really just following our request and instructions." Ross got a last laugh, of sorts, but staging a Supremes reunion tour in 2000 without Wilson, tough the tour itself was a dud that was canceled halfway through.

* Diana's dance with Adam Ant wasn't in the script.

When Adam Ant performed "Where Did Our Love Go" to illustrate Motown's impact on other countries -- in his case Britain -- Ross came on stage and from a bit of bump 'n' grind that DePasse says was completely spontaneous. "I was standing next to Diana Ross on stage left...and the next thing I knew I was looking at the back of her head walking on stage. That was absolutely not planned, and it kind of blew the surprise of her being (at the show), and poor Adam didn't realize she was on stage. So when he heard that ovation he said to himself, 'Oh my God, I've got them,' meaning the audience, and then he turned around...She made the spot something completely different, and of course Don (Mischer the show's director) thought, 'Oh my God, this is terrible until he really saw the footage, and he said, 'This is great!' "

* The Tempts 'n' Tops "battle" was the bomb.

The segment featuring the two groups was coordinated by Diana Ross' musical director Gil Askey and, contrary to the way it was portrayed, was not based on any real "battles" back in the day. "Berry Gordy always believed in the battle of the stars, not necessarily on stage at the same time but kind of pitting one act against another," DePassse explains. "What we really wanted to do was celebrate a lot of the legacy stuff that had happened. I don't think any of us had an inkling that it was going to be what it became, because what the buys brought to it was the personality and the fun and the one-upsmanship and competition for not just the audience but for themselves. It just took on a life of its own and it really reflected the spirit of what was going on during our rehearsals."

* And the Tempts 'n' Tops have been "battling" ever since.

After seeing the footage of their segment, Fakir recalls that, "We said, 'This is something we need to take on the road.'...Originally we talked about maybe Smokey (Robinson) would do it. At first he said me might, but Smokey had some other obligations and said he really couldn't do it. So we said, 'Well, we'll do it alone like we did on TV,' and we just started selling it. It's been going just like that ever since, and it's just absolutely amazing. It has extended both of our careers well into overtime, which I appreciate."

* Marvin Gaye had a little trouble getting it on.

"I had actually forgotten how really funny he was," DePasse says, "He was supposed to rise up on this piano, on this elevated stage thing, but when you see it, it bumps and grinds and he's sitting there on the piano and this thing just wouldn't work. I had clearly forgotten how sweet he was and how ridiculous the mechanics were."

* Backstage was a lot of fun, apparently.

Fakir says that the magic of 'Motown 25' for the performers was "a great coming back together of what I would call the family, and it was like we all came back together for Thanksgiving dinner." There was "a family feeling all during the reharsals, all during that week," he says, and the performers "played all kind of games on each other, and it was just fun." Games? "Can't tell," Fakir says with a laugh. "If it ain't on tape, you ain't got it.' No, it's jsut fun and games, nothing special. We just played jokes on each other, just so glad to see each other. We had some fun, great fun."

* It hasn't happened, and won't happen, again.

Motown's 30th and 40th anniversaries were celebrated with a lower-key TV specials, while the label's 50th was even lower key. DePasse says Gordy's sale of the company in 1988 and the inevitable passing of Motown's principals over the years altered the potential for another kind of gala event. "I think that once (Gordy) sold the company in 1988, it changed everything," she says. "As far as gathering everybody together, that didn't really happen, obviously."

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