Motown’s Best Look Comes When Its Roots Are Showing

A slick, glossy and selective special on the 60th anniversary of Motown Records doesn’t diminish the fact Motown deserves pretty much every superlative.

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. Call it a nice Easter egg.

No one could deny the importance of Motown Records, which in the 1960s gave us the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Martha and the Vandellas, the Jackson Five, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles and you get the idea.

Berry Gordy Jr.

Neither will anyone deny credit to Berry Gordy Jr., the mastermind of the label. He’s on hand to accept the roses here, and he gives a brief speech that makes the single most important point about Motown: It produced music for everyone.

Motown was a black-run company whose artists for the first 10 years were almost all black. Motown’s music was seeded in the black R&B tradition of the 1950s and earlier. Smokey Robinson and the Temptations grew up on black vocal group harmonies. Gordy himself worked with Jackie Wilson. Early Supremes records sound like the black “girl groups” of the ‘50s.

But as the Motown sound evolved into something fresh for the 1960s, Gordy and his incredible team of writers — Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Eddie and Brian Holland and LaMont Dozier, for starters — managed to thread a needle between mainstream popular music and traditionally black R&B music.

Anyone who heard two bars of a Four Tops records knew Motown artists were black. Yet Motown music smashed through all the barriers of radio and the record industry and got itself played right alongside the Beatles, Beach Boys and Four Seasons.

“Music for Young America,” Gordy called it, and the fact he was able to deliver on the promise of that slogan was one of the most satisfying and uplifting cultural stories of the 1960s.

Motown kept making money and hit records after it decamped from Detroit to Los Angeles at the end of the ’60s. But the original essence of Motown, the reason Berry Gordy’s label was unique, didn’t survive the move. Motown in the 1960s was great. Motown after that was successful.

Smokey Robinson with Cedric the Entertainer (not a Motown artist).

Accordingly, the two best reasons to watch Motown 60 are two of the few artists still performing from that era: Robinson and Wonder.

Neither has the range he had 55 years ago, but both still know their way around a good song. Wonder has a great time with “Sir Duke” and peaks with “Never Thought You’d Leave In Summer,” which he sings live while the screen rolls through a photo montage of all the Motown artists who are gone.

As that segment suggests, Motown 60 has several stamps of a Grammy production, including a few words from Recording Academy President Neil Portnow.

John Legend paying tribute to Marvin Gaye.

Motown 60 doesn’t try to cover the history of Motown, which is just as well. It also doesn’t have the electric spark of the justly renowned 1983 Motown 25 special. This one feels more like a contemporary tribute show, with guest star turns like John Legend singing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On.”

A quasi-medley of female artist hits, performed by Meghan Trainor, Tori Kelly, Chloe x Halle, Fantasia and Thelma Houston, comes off more as a flashy bit of television than as the tight, disciplined, no-nonsense gems we loved on the radio a half-century ago.

The most frustrating segment belongs to Diana Ross, who clearly is meant to be regarded as first among equals.

Ross delivers a long tribute to Gordy, walking into the audience where he’s sitting and ending up in a long embrace after she dedicates “My Man” to him.

It isn’t mentioned that Ross and Gordy had a long affair early in her Motown career. No judgment. It just enriches the backstory.

The real problem with Ross’s segment is that after an introduction that gives perhaps 10 seconds to the Supremes, she only sings songs from her later solo career.

Nothing wrong with “Do You Know Where You’re Going.” But on a Motown special, sorry, Diana Ross doesn’t get to write off the Supremes as if they were just some practice session for her real singing career.

It’s disappointing and a bit dishonest.

Still, no special that reminds us of great Motown songs is without merit — even if it mostly makes us want to go back and listen to the original records again.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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