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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A Motown Family Reunion at the Anacostia Arts Center

In the early 1960s, as segregation and Jim Crow tore at the fibers of American society and the Vietnam War drove restless American youth out of the suburbs and into the streets in protest, a distinctive sound began to trickle out of transistor radios from Ohio to Oregon and from New York to New Mexico. This was Motown, and in recognition of its cultural significance and DC roots, the African American Music Association has partnered with the Anacostia Arts Center (powered by Wacif) to present an exhibition paying tribute to the people who made Motown the global success that it eventually became.

Titled Motown DC: A Photographic & Memorabilia Exhibition, this heartfelt homage to Motown music and the people that made it has been funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and curated by Beverly Lindsay-Johnson and Nikki Graves Henderson. “Motown had such a significant impact on the music culture not only of America, but the world.” explains Lindsay-Johnson. “It still resonates today. This exhibition displays the impact that Motown – the labels, the corporation, the artists, and the music – had on America and the world.”

Motown Memorabilia Gallery: A collection of memorabilia provided
by Motown artists including a special feature that pays tribute
to Motown acts from Washington, DC. Photo by Ed Henderson.

The materials on show include promotional posters, album covers, instruments, outfits and evocative archival photographs of the artists that performed under the various Motown labels. Mabel John, the first singer to sign to the Tamla/Motown label in 1959, is featured, along with many other artists. The Funk Brothers, the band members responsible for the distinctive Motown sound – hints of 1940s Doo-Wop, a shake of rhythms and blues, and a liberal sprinkling of inspiration from Gospel and Pop – are also included.

Every diehard Motown fan knows an anecdote about Berry Gordy, the man who along with his family founded the Motown/Tamla/Gordy labels and their subsidiaries. Gordy’s taste for music started when he opened a record store in 1953 and he’s perhaps most well-known for his almost industrial approach to cranking out Motown chart toppers, many of which smashed through billboard hit lists and stayed there for weeks at a time. Beautiful photographs of Gordy’s “Hitsville USA” recording studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit (the place that many consider the spiritual home of Motown) are an especially poignant feature of the exhibition.

Panel participants George Spann, Frank Hooker and Joe Herndon with moderator Dr. Nick of ATX Soul Radio.

The photographic archive of the Motortown Revue included in the exhibition is also particularly touching. “This was a tour of young Motown artists.” says Lindsay-Johnson, smiling wistfully. “When they were young and spry and had dreams.” The Revue would frequent performance venues in the Eastern and Southern states that were amenable to hosting African American artists. The route along which these venues were placed became known as the Chitlin’ Circuit which, Lindsay-Johnson tells me, stretched as far as DC.  “Did you know that the very first stop on the Motortown tour was the Howard Theater in 1964?”


A Retrospective at Anacostia Art Center

On May 18, the exhibition featured a special program at the Anacostia Art Center’s BlackBox Theater. Motown DC: In Discussion, Song and Dance was an opportunity to meet Motown royalty in person: Frank Hooker of DC’s own The Young Senators, Joe Herndon of The Temptations (time has done little to dull Herndon’s deep baritone), George Spann of The Dynamic Superiors (who recollected being signed up to the Motown label by Ewart Abner after an exhausting concert tour in 1971), Carolyn Crawford and Louvain Demps of The Andantes. The discussion was moderated by ATX Soul Radio’s Dr. Nick.

Crawford recollected marathon recording sessions in the Detroit ‘Hitsville USA’ studio, nicknamed the “Snake Pit” because Gordy was notorious for his fastidious approach to production, including insisting meticulous control of everything from outfits to dialect. Pageantry was an undeniable part of Motown’s success and the Motown label eventually branched out into feature film production in the early 1970s. Crawford won a talent competition at the age of 13, she told us, and recorded her first single in the early morning hours of her 14th birthday. “Mr. Gordy sent a limo for me at 11:30. My session was at midnight, and I was home by 3 a.m. He gave me three things that were very important to me. He let me write my first song. He didn’t change a word or note. I didn’t want him to change my name, and I wanted to be on the Motown label.”

Louvain Demps and Carolyn Crawford.

It’s ironic that Louvain Demps is so soft-spoken for someone whose vocals have featured on over 25,000 Motown records. “I went down to the studio to audition a song for my friend.” Demps recalls. “It turned out that Berry Gordy was at the piano. I had a very wide range. We had to pay $100 to make a record and I was the first paying customer for Motown, which nobody knew because it wasn’t established.” A special treat was archival footage organized by Lindsay-Johnson and Graves Henderson of The Dynamic Superiors playing to crowds in the 1970s. Being in the same room as these musical legends was a spine-tingling experience.

The Detroit riots of 1967 and Motown’s move to Los Angeles heralded what some view as the end of Motown’s ‘Golden Age’. Gordy sold his interests completely in the late 1980s and Motown went on to sign stars such as Lionel Ritchie, Boyz II Men and Erykah Badu, eventually becoming part of the Universal Music Group. Motown’s cultural impact can’t be understated: It was a true crossover, becoming not only accepted but embraced by listeners both within the US and beyond, its influence extending out from the African American communities that incubated it and beyond the continent that it helped transform. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this exhibition before it closes next month.

Motown DC: A Photographic & Memorabilia Exhibition is open to the public free to view at the Anacostia Arts Center, powered by Wacif, through July 7. 1231 Marion Barry Ave SE. Tues-Sun: 12:00 to 5:00. Closed on Mondays. www.anacostiaartscenter.com

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