Motown Family Portrait
With the final standing ovation in the museum’s Contemporary Artist Gallery, the “Music from the Apollo” listening series came to a close. Momentarily, the collected paintings took a backseat as the shapers of the Motown sound enthralled the audience, certainly the largest attendance of all the sessions in the series. The guests of honor were Motown consultant Maxine Powell, The Miracles member Bobby Rogers, and the one-and-only Martha Reeves of The Vandellas. All was hosted, as always, by Al McKenzie, former music director for the Temptations.
The overriding theme of the event had to be the feeling of family that the Motown musicians shared. Powell served as Motown’s image-maker and finishing school matron, making sure that each performer carried themselves in the classy tradition of the label. Reeves would later comment, in response to a question about competition between the girl groups of Motown, that “Mrs. Powell would not allow them to fight amongst each other,” instead focusing on competing as a collective unit against other record labels.
Bobby Rogers recounted stories about The Matadors becoming The Miracles and how he met Martha Reeves while the two were in high school. As it turns out, Rogers’ wife, a friend, and his sister-in-law and niece were in attendance in the audience. Eventually, the whole room joined in on a verse of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
It was Martha Reeves, however, that brought the whole thing together. Her stories illustrated how much the family of Motown meant: spontaneously having to take over as secretary at Hitsville, U.S.A., encountering the boy who would become Stevie Wonder, the two-take recording of “Dancing in the Street,” to the inclement weather which kept them in England for another week. Every story involved interactions with staff and fellow musicians at Motown, down to the woman who provided wigs for quick hair changes at shows. Coincidentally, that woman was also in the audience.
The familial feeling continues to extend. Many in the audience thanked the speakers for contributing universally adored music and their contributions to the city of Detroit. The speakers returned the sentiment, crediting Detroit for supporting Motown to national fame.
On the whole, the experience felt less like a lecture and more like a reunion. It goes to show the power of the accomplishments these people have earned, that they’ve gone past the level of artists we are comfortable listening to and into something we are used to having in our lives.