Near the conclusion of the 1983 television spectacular “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” superdiva Diana Ross made a statement during a dramatic speech that may have been well crafted, but was not entirely truthful.
“It’s not about the people who leave Motown that’s important,” she said to the audience and especially to a somewhat bewildered Berry Gordy. “It’s about the people who come back, and tonight everybody came back.”
Well, that may have sounded good and it evoked a lot of applause and cheers, but the premise was faulty on two key levels.
For one, it was about the people who left Motown. That was the secondary reason why Berry Gordy essentially had no choice but to sell Motown in 1988. By then he had lost Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye and many others.
Of course, the foremost reason for the sale was that Motown, as an independent company, could no longer compete with the conglomerates, namely Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI, that were snatching up smaller companies with increasing regularity. They had almost become a monopoly.
IT WAS IRONIC that artists leaving Motown would become an issue in light of the public statement Smokey Robinson made in 1964 when the company’s biggest female star at the time, Mary Wells, made a shocking exit.
Robinson had, by the way, written and produced nearly all of Mary Wells’ hits, including “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Two Lovers,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” “Laughing Boy,” “What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One” and the classic “My Guy.”
Filled (perhaps understandably) with indignation, Robinson said, “It is inconceivable that Mary or anyone else could even think of leaving Motown.”
Secondly, Ross was exaggerating when she said, “tonight everybody came back.”
FOR EXAMPLE, Gladys Knight & the Pips turned down the offer to perform on “Motown 25” because they felt it would have been hypocritical since they were not in a happy state of mind when they left Motown.
Gladys, Merald, Edward and William were appreciative of the success they had at Motown — “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “If I Were Your Woman,” etc. — but they also felt that they could have gone to the next level, but the Motown power structure would not allow it.
“The Supremes and the Temptations have gone beyond the top,” said Gladys with typical candor during an interview. “There’s room for someone else to move up.”
Example two: Eddie Kendricks was told he could come to the “Motown 25” event, but he would have to buy a $500 ticket. Kendricks considered that an insult since he was an original member of the Temptations (lead on “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and others) in addition to having had a string of hits as a solo artist.
THE MARVELETTES were not invited, which is odd considering the fact that these ladies had Motown’s first No. 1 Pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” and many other major hits, including “Playboy,” “Don’t Mess With Bill” and “Beechwood 4-5789.”
The whole segment honoring songwriters and producers (Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Mickey Stevenson, Harvey Fuqua and Ron Miller were featured) was not included when the special aired.
And there was no mention of Motown’s outstanding background singers, the Andantes (Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks and Louvain Demps) who added so much to so many Motown records.
(Editor’s note: The intention of this story is not to slam “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” It was a historic event that I loved. I watch it on home video fairly often, including last weekend, hence the motivation for the story, the purpose of which is to “keep truth alive.”)
THE MOTOWN exodus kicked into high gear in the early and mid 1970s. It would be logical to say that much of the change in attitude and loyalty among the defecting artists had a lot to do with the changes in the company itself when it moved to Los Angeles. The “family” feeling was gone.
Moreover, the artists had “grown up.” They wanted to make their own business decisions, decide what they wanted to record, choose their own legal representation, determine performing engagements they would accept or pursue, etc.
Gladys Knight & the Pips signed with Buddah Records and subsequently were elevated to supergroup status, winning Grammy Awards and enjoying one hit after another, including their signature song, “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Motown owned the name “Jackson 5” so when they left, they became “the Jacksons,” which would have been a good change to make anyway since “Jackson 5” suggested a kid image. The brothers continued their winning ways and Michael, of course, became a megastar and an icon.
No one ever thought Diana Ross would leave Motown, but off to RCA she went. She had a lot of hits there, but when sales slowed it didn’t matter because she had long since become an established, legendary superstar, certainly not dependent on records.
THE FOUR TOPS bolted in 1972, signing with Dunhill/ABC and hitting pay dirt with “Keeper of the Castle,” “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” and later, after switching to Casablanca, “When She Was My Girl.”
Few Motown artists had as much success as Marvin Gaye (“Let’s Get It On,” “Pride and Joy,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Got To Give It Up,” et al.). But even so, he eventually went to Columbia, where he recorded one of the biggest hits, “Sexual Healing.”
The Temptations felt that Motown was no longer giving them what they needed, so they signed with Atlantic Records where they made two moderately successful albums, “Hear to Temp You” and “Bareback.”
Nick Ashford and Simpson had written and produced major hits for numerous Motown artists, but they desired to do more as a recording act themselves, and Warner Bros. Records was receptive to that.
The Spinners signed with Atlantic Records after a decade of “non-priority” treatment from Motown. At Atlantic they soared to the top of the charts repeatedly and became a major act at long last.
Among others who moved on were the Originals, Martha Reeves, El DeBarge, Jimmy Ruffin, the Isley Brothers, Kim Weston and Eddie Kendricks. Some, like the Temptations, the Four Tops, Jr. Walker & the All Stars and Diana Ross returned to Motown, but it was never really the same again.
Only Stevie Wonder has remained with Motown for the entirety of his recording career, and he’s still there, even though Motown is essentially just a label now, not really a record company, and ties to Detroit are few.
In another way, for Stevie Wonder Motown apparently is indeed “forever.”
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