Correction appended: An earlier version of this story stated Al Abrams was a PR consultant for Motown Records. He was a contract employee.
“Growing Up Motown: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Making of Motown”
Thursday Feb. 18 and Friday Feb. 19
In the music world, unanimous acceptance, critical praise and unquestionable staying power are each difficult to achieve individually, let alone all at once. Every person has specific tastes, and every class, culture, gender and race has a style or sound unique to itself.
Flash back to the middle of the 20th century, when a Detroit-based record label broke these conventions of isolation and segregation and created a phenomenon that transcended normal explanation. Fifty years after its inception, Motown Records and the artists it produced have remained a topic of conversation in music, pop culture, academia and beyond.
The University’s Center for Afroamerican & African Studies, in conjunction with University Unions’ Arts and Programs Division and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, has taken advantage of this common point of interest and gathered a diverse group of scholars, students and industry professionals to weigh in on the lasting impact of Motown.
“Growing Up Motown: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Making of Motown” will take place today and tomorrow at Palmer Commons. Today’s events include a student panel highlighting various Motown-related projects at the University, a keynote address and a student performance by “The Motown.10,” a jazz combo with School of Music, Theatre & Dance students. Friday will begin with a panel discussion, followed by a conversation with former Motown employees and two more panel discussions.
“People from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance … are talking about it from a historical and a cultural perspective,” said MT&D Ph.D. Candidate Scott Edgar, member of the “Going to School on Motown” panel discussion.”There’s people from Detroit talking about it in terms of an urban perspective, there’s people from recording agencies talking about that perspective, and I think that’s important because all of those components are what built Motown.”
The two-day symposium is not just a bunch of super-fans celebrating some of the world’s most beloved artists. It’s also a critical assessment of the label’s influence on the advancement of equality in the entertainment industry and Motown’s role as the soundtrack for a time of great social change.
“It’s an absolutely central part of American history,” said University of Wisconsin professor and author Craig Werner, today’s keynote speaker. “Without Motown, you cannot tell a story of the changes in America from the late 1950s, really, to the present.”
“Motown changed the ways in which white people with no particular commitment to civil rights … understood African-American experience,” he said. “It was opening a door that’s been, in one way or another … opening ever since.”
“I think that there’s a very, very strong argument to be made that without Motown you can’t have Barack Obama,” Werner added. He will address this topic in his talk, “Heaven Help Us All: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Meaning(s) of Motown in the Age of Obama.”
Al Abrams, a former contract employee at Motown Records, agreed with this connection to our nation’s current commander in chief and backed up the bold claim with an example of the label’s role in shattering racial barriers, saying that Motown “Made this incredible breakthrough in terms of getting black music and black artists into mainstream America.
“It seems hard to believe today, but at the time in ’65, the Supremes had three number-one hit records in a row, they’re on the Ed Sullivan show, they’re on all the big network TV shows at the time, but I can’t get them on the cover of a weekly TV guide, because the editor of the TV guide is saying, ‘We can’t put black people on the cover of a TV magazine … people keep this in their living room all week long by their TV set, they can’t keep looking down at it and seeing these black faces looking up at them.’
“And of course, in my typical naivety, I say, ‘Well … they could always turn the cover over and look at the ad on the back.’ ”
With enough perseverance, Abrams helped to land stories in TIME, Newsweek and LIFE magazines. But exposure for his artists through mainstream media outlets was not his only accomplishment. Getting disc jockeys to play Motown records on white radio stations proved to be an exceedingly difficult challenge.
“When we started out, even (the artists on Billboard’s) Hot 100 chart … were segregated,” he said. “There was a separate chart for blacks. We broke that barrier. That’s one of the things I’m very proud of. That doesn’t exist anymore thanks to what we did.”
“I still believe … it’s a straight line of progression even 50 years later to the election of Barack Obama,” Abrams added.
The fusion of scholars like Werner and first-hand witnesses like Abrams is what makes the symposium particularly intriguing.
“People are still doing dissertations and books and articles on Motown, and we wanted to bring some of that scholarly activity together with people who had actual memories (and people) who had worked for the company,” explained Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies Angela Dillard, a co-organizer of the symposium.
Furthermore, students will provide an entirely distinct viewpoint from a generation that listened to Motown on the oldies station with their parents and grandparents.
Instead of emphasizing Motown as an integral part of American history, School of Art & Design senior Michelle Dimuzio said, “It’s just feel-good music.”
“It’s very simple in its message … it can appeal to any person and it’s really fun to dance to and … get stuck in your head,” she said.
Dimuzio is still conscious of the greater consequences of Motown. She is focusing her Integrative Project in the School of Art & Design on Motown and noted the music’s specific influence on modern R&B and hip hop.
An obvious roadblock arises when considering a young person’s point of view: Can 20-year-olds really relate to music made 50 years ago?
LSA junior Jalynn Lassic doesn’t see this as an issue.
“A song can be 50-years-old or 50-seconds-old. If it’s written well, if it has a good beat … (it’s) always going to be relevant,” she said.
For Music, Theater & Dance senior William Stanton, Motown is compelling to study from a music producer’s standpoint, rather than solely through a cultural or historical lens.
“Everything in the recording (process) … by today’s standards … was absolutely wrong,” he explained. “It was largely engineered by people (who) didn’t know anything about the equipment and didn’t know anything about engineering in general … The sound equipment that comes free on an average Mac is far beyond what some engineers had back in the day.
“And yet there’s still something about the way that they did it,” he said, “working though the limitations of their day (and) it just sounds phenomenal.”
He added, “There’s this kind of energy that they put into it that is very appealing (and is) much more meaningful than the equipment itself.”
Dimuzio, Lassic and Stanton are all on the “Going to School on Motown” panel and have personal ties to the Detroit area, some stronger than others.
Lassic, for instance, has a “great aunt (who) knew Diana Ross and some of the Motown singers … (she) tells stories about how they hung out with them early in their career.”
The music itself took a primary position in CAAS Program Associate Elizabeth James’s upbringing: “Being a little girl and hearing these songs, I’d go ask, ‘What does this mean?’ and my parents would talk to me about it and yet it was introduced in a way with such beautiful melodies that they haunt me still.
“The whole notion of possibilities in the midst of the Detroit rebellions, I know that definitely helped our family through a lot of hard times,” she added. “You could always put on Motown music and feel better.”
These personal stories will share the stage with lectures, discussions and a performance in what Dillard hopes will not only be “a multi-generational celebration but also (a) critical reflection on Motown and what it meant.”
For more information on events and times, visit www.umich.edu/~iinet/caas.