Lives that changed ours: Gordy and Robinson
ABOVE PHOTO: Motown founder Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
(Photograph by Barry Gordon)
By Renée S. Gordon
“Motown is the soundtrack of our lives.”
From the red carpet in front of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City Martha Reeves declared, “It ain’t no party without Motown music!” As always, Martha and the Vandellas and with that single quote summed up the sentiments of generations and I am happy to report that the party continues on Broadway with the hottest ticket in town, “Motown the Musical.”
The musical chronicles the rise and metamorphosis of both soul music and Hitsville U.S.A. through the stories of the artists set against the backdrop of the times. All the music is represented, the Temptations, Four Tops, Mary Wells, Michael and the Jacksons, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight & The Pips and Diana Ross & The Supremes. Berry Gordy penned the book and produced the musical, featuring the Motown catalog, and all the style and sophistication that Motown was noted for. From the opening bars to the final scene at “Motown 25,” you are immersed in the music that bridged the racial divide and truly was the “soundtrack of our lives.”
Motown Record Corporation was founded in Detroit, in 1959 with $800 borrowed from Gordy’s family. It would go on to become the “Sound of Young America” and make Berry Gordy for a time the wealthiest African American in the country and Motown the largest black-owned business in the world. During the 10-year period beginning in 1961 Motown produced 163 singles that reached Billboard’s Top Twenty.
The company’s first national hit, co-written by Gordy, was “Money” and with the money made from this record he purchased the iconic house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and installed a studio in the garage. The house remains a music mecca although the company relocated to California.
The impact of Motown on the record industry and the social climate cannot be overstated and neither can the thrill of attending a performance of “Motown.” Everything about the musical is perfection, the choreography is unequalled and the costumes evoke the glamour and individuality of the artists. All of the performances are standouts and Valisia LeKae, as Diana Ross, and Raymond Luke, Jr., as Michael Jackson, are definitely in the running for the next Tony Awards.
Berry Gordy writes, “we called ourselves a family and we were- a big family.” This is your opportunity to once again join the family. This is a must-see.
“Motown” has an open-ended run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. www.motownthemusical.com
You can prolong the thrill by visiting the Motown Museum established in 1985 by Esther Gordy Edwards. In 1980 a Michigan Historic Marker was placed outside. The museum is located at the West Grand Boulevard site in Detroit, Michigan and displays artifacts, memorabilia and the famous Studio A. www.motownmuseum.org
Philadelphia’s own African American Museum is currently hosting “Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection,” a presentation of more than 30 stage gowns augmented with photographs, video and memorabilia. The exhibit will be on view until June 30, 2013. www.aampmuseum.org
“ Hey Joe/ Black Like Me,” in the second scene of Act I in “Motown” is an homage to Joe Louis who served as a spiritual mentor and inspiration to millions of black kids including Berry Gordy who would go on to stimulate musical creativity around the world. Right beside Louis’ name in the honor roll of sports figures who battered at the doors of exclusionary laws, unequal justice, civil rights and color lines are the Negro League players, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens, Charles W. Follis, the first professional football player and Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
42, a movie that recounts Robinson’s breaking professional baseball’s color barrier in 1946 by signing with the Montreal Royals and then donning jersey number 42 for the Dodgers in 1947. Robinson played a single season in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs prior to being selected by Branch Rickey to challenge discrimination in baseball. Ironically, Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, played on Ohio’s Shelby Blues football team with Follis, and many attribute this as a contributing factor in his decision to sign Robinson.
The exclusion of black players took approximately 22 years, beginning in 1867 at the PA State Convention with the banning of a “colored” baseball club and reached fruition in 1887 when the International League declared that no new black players could be signed. Those already contracted continued to play until 1889.
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey lead the cast and set a standard that makes it clear that these men were legendary in their stance, their strength of character and their will. The actors who lend their support are equally excellent and Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of Phillies manager Ben Chapman manages to embody the venomous hatred of unremitting racism.
The racism of the Phillies and its treatment of Robinson was so horrific that it made national news and their 1950 pennant win was the last such win by a team without a person of color. The team was not integrated until seven years later and was one of the last to do so.
Robinson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and Rickey in1967. www.baseballhall.org
President and Mrs. Obama screened the film with the cast, crew and Mrs. Rachel Robinson in the White House and observers commented that the couple was “visibly moved.” This epic biography opens in Philadelphia on April 12th. www.42movie.warnerbros.com
You can learn more by visiting the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, www.nlbm.com, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, www.baseballhall.org
I wish you smooth travels!
Did you know there is only one degree of separation between Philadelphia and Jack the Ripper? The Liberty Bell was cast at the 443-year old Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. in 1751. In 1858 they made Big Ben. In 1976 the Procrastinator’s Society of America protested the foundry’s failure to honor the warranty when the bell cracked in the early 1800s. The connection, the area immediately surrounding the company in Whitechapel became notorious as the hunting ground of the world’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, for 12 weeks in 1888. Foundry tours are offered. This and other delightful London travel sites and quirky facts can be found in “Secret London An Unusual Guide.” www.jonglezpublishing.com
The 500-acre New Jersey Motorsports Park just outside Millville, New Jersey gives new meaning to start your engines. The park offers a series of activities and experiences, both on and off track, that are affordable, unique and appropriate for all age levels. NJMP is one of the few racing facilities in the nation with two simultaneous racecourses and also offers AMA Pro Road Racing and the ARCA Racing Series events.
One of the most exciting aspects of NJMP is its commitment to experiential racing activities. F1 Karting New Jersey, a 1.1-mile karting complex, allows participants to achieve speeds up to 55 MPH. The Exotic Car Experience provides a chance to drive your dream car, a Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc., around the track after one-hour of classroom instruction. This “Exotic” experience is offered from April to September on scheduled days. www.exoticdriving.com
A day at the races is tremendous fun. Complete information, admission, events, schedules, is available online. www.njmp.com
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