by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Between 1961 and 1971, Motown Records scored 110 hits on the Billboard Top 10. The label was largely the effort of Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. In his prime, Gordy was preternaturally gifted at spotting talent. He also had what his neighbors over in the suburb of Oak Park would have called “chutzpah.” Gordy originally established two different labels, Motown and Tamla in 1959, supposedly because he was afraid that having too many hits playing on the radio from one label would cast suspicions of bribing DJs. Two years later, he would consolidate the two labels into Motown, making his company’s name synonymous with an entire genre of music. On Feb.28, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute will celebrate the heyday of Motown with a tribute by The Ernest Pumphrey Revue.
The Ernest Pumphrey Revue is a collection of some of Seattle’s most talented musicians. Friday’s show will include the father-son team of director Ernest Pumphrey, Sr. and Ernest Pumphrey, Jr., performers Josephine Howell, Makini Magee, okanomodé and Tiffany Wilson, and musical director Mark Cardenas. A salute to the 1960s and Motown will be a full program featuring the music of the era, as well as that famously choreographed presentation style.
Motown music has become so closely associated with classic Americana that it’s easy to forget that it came out of a marginalized community in an era of oppression and segregation. Detroit in the 1960s was a deeply divided city suffering from an acute case of “part of town syndrome,” (the black part of town, the Italian part of town, the Jewish part of town, etc). Tensions between the all-white police force and the black community came to a head in 1967 with the 12th Street Riots, a five-day wave of violence and anger stemming from the excessive force of a police raid on a black nightclub.
In this context, the music of Motown is more than just an indelible influence on pop as we know it; it’s also a testament to the power of music to break otherwise intractable social tensions. Nothing got to the Billboard Top 10 in the 1960s without getting airplay on “white” radio stations and album sales from white consumers. Motown performer and longtime Vice President Smokey Robinson talked about the cultural impact of the label and its music in a 2009 interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, saying, “I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.”
Under the old Tamla Records label, Gordy released “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong, peaking at number two. By the time that Tamla and Motown became one label, artists under the Berry Gordy umbrella were selling millions and owning the Hot 100. They topped the R&B charts in 1960 with “Shop Around” by The Miracles, and crossed over the pop charts just one year later with “Please, Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes.
Another vital piece of the Motown aesthetic is the crisp, coordinated choreography mostly pioneered by Alabama-born, Harlem-forged Vaudevillian Cholly Atkins. Atkins came to Detroit in the 1950s and laid the presentation foundation for everyone from the Supremes to the Temptations, going from freelance to Motown’s in-house choreographer in 1964. It’s easy to trace a straight line from the work of Atkins at Motown to the disco-infused stage shows of the Bee Gees in the 1970s, the unusually coordinated rockers of the 1980s, the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls of the 1990s, and even today’s viral dance videos.
It’s impossible to think of pop music without Motown in the 1960s. Among the many artists who got their start and many of their most notable hits at Motown are Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. The Ernest Pumphrey Revue, being an ensemble, will focus on the hits of Motown’s more populous groups. They’ll be playing songs by The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many others.
A Salute to the 60s and Motown will take place at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, located at 104 17th Avenue South. The doors open at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 28. Advance tickets are $20 and door tickets are $25.