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Motown Preparing For 50th Anniversary Celebration
In 1963, Motown Records — via Martha & the Vandellas — asked us to “Come and Get These Memories.” In the not too distant future, the company will be asking us to get some more memories. Fifty years’ worth, in fact.
The legendary Detroit label, now part of the Universal Music Group conglomerate, and those associated with it — including founder Berry Gordy, Jr., and the Motown Historical Museum — are planning 18 months or more of festivities commencing in 2009 to commemorate the company’s golden anniversary. In some quarters, however, the party has already started.
Last October, just before the museum’s annual fundraising gala in downtown Detroit, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of West Grand Boulevard running in front of Motown’s original Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters was re-named Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard. And on Tuesday, Time Life’s music division releases “The Motown Collection,” a 10-CD box set of the label’s biggest hits from 110 Top 10 hits before it moved to Los Angeles in 1972. An infommercial about the package, filmed at the Motown museum earlier this year and starring actor Billy Dee Williams, is airing on various TV stations.
But those are just hors d’oeuvres in what promises to be a feast of special events for anyone who wants to be “Dancin’ in the Streets” or “ to a Go-Go.”
“There’s a lot of anticipation, a lot of excitement about Motown’s 50th anniversary,” notes Robin Terry, the Motown museum’s chairwoman and CEO and one of Gordy’s nieces. “There are many different types of activities being planned.”
Exactly what those are, however, is shrouded in a degree of secrecy, partly because many are still in the planning stages.
What’s clear is that the Motown 50th celebration will start in early 2009— commemorating the $800 loan Gordy took from his family on Jan. 12, 1959, to start Motown (first as the Tamla label) — and continuing into 2010, marking a half-century after the incorporation of the Motown name. The Motown Historical Museum — which hosted a Vanity Fair photo shoot last week that included Stevie Wonder, who was in town to perform at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, and other Motown veterans — turns 25 in 2010.
At last year’s museum fundraising gala, Gordy and Suzanne DePasse, his former assistant and the producer of many Motown-related TV specials, said that they were working on a stage musical about the company, as well as a feature film and a multi-part documentary. They’re keeping mum on details at the moment, though.
So is Universal Motown, which is planning a series of special compilations related to the 50th anniversary. A company spokeswoman says plans will be revealed “in the next few weeks.”
And while Terry says the anniversary will “shed a special light on the museum and the importance in continuing the work that we do and the legacy that we preserve,” she’s not yet ready to divulge specific plans, either.
“At this point there’s no calendar of events to roll out,” Terry says, “but there are plenty of things that are in the works. I think what Motown fans will find is there’s really something for everybody around the world ... that will be done in some very special ways and will last a long time and really help cement the legacy of (Motown).”
Terry did say that the museum is planning to skip the annual fundraiser this year and instead develop a major event for the fall of 2009. A special exhibit for the museum is also in the planning stages, along with “some special workshops and lectures throughout the year. This will put a wonderful light on one of our city’s great jewels.”
This year, however, the Detroit-based Motown Alumni Association (MAA) will use the 50th anniversary to launch its first convention, which will be held Oct. 10-11 at Bert’s Warehouse in Detroit’s Eastern Market.
The MAA’s Billy Wilson says the event will include seminars and panel discussions featuring Motown artists and executives talking about everything from the company’s internal affairs to rumored dealings with organized crime, as well as live performances and an after-hours “Weekender” party on the second night.
“I’ve been wanting to put this group of people together for a long time,” Wilson says. “People need to know what it was really like to have dealt with Motown, and this is an internal group of key people who can tell that story.”
The MAA is also involved in a Motown cruise planned by Detroit’s Hitsville Venture LLC and Carnival Cruise Lines, which will sail the Caribbean June 7-12, 2009, and stop at the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas for a concert.
Britain’s Legends Talent International, meanwhile, is planning a world tour of Motown alumni to begin either in December of this year or January 2009. And a separate Hitsville tour of the U.K. in April 2009 already has commitments from the Miracles, the Vandellas and the Contours featuring Joe Billingslea.
“This (anniversary) will allow us to tell the history the way we want the history to be told,” the MAA’s Wilson says. “Our job is to help people to understand the importance of the history based on not just the big stars but the little stars, too, the lesser-known artists.
“Those people are more important to us than some of the big artists because they helped to develop the essence of what Motown became.”
The big artists are certainly in line to be part of the celebration, however. Wonder says Gordy has clued him into “various things” for the celebration, including the documentary, and says that the plans sound “very cool.”
Temptations leader Otis Williams, meanwhile, notes that “we never would’ve imagined when we started out ... that we would be celebrating 50 years of such an iconic label. It was just another small label in Detroit when it started out — although it obviously went on to become something legendary.
“So for us, it’s just such a great thing to be part of something that’s so legendary and so well-loved 50 years later.”
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