By Benjamin Lucas
Last Thursday, the Black Student Union put on “The Motown Story” in Reamer Campus Center, under the direction of Donald Hyman. Hyman is an experienced musician and performer who has been performing the show for years, and was kind enough to offer a few words on the impact of black music and the media in the Civil Rights era.
Ben Lucas: What were the challenges of preparing a show that features heavy audience participation?
Donald Hyman: The music of Motown was written specifically for audience participation. The dance crazes of the ’60s like the Twist, the Fly, the Jerk were all fast dances. Motown songwriters and musicians created songs with rhythms and beats that would go well with these dances.
BL: What message does “The Motown Story” have for its audience?
DH: Motown’s success was based on the abundant resource of talent and creativity of the talented youth from inner city Detroit. These artists, musicians, writers, singers, that are today household names like Stevie Wonder or The Supremes are “The Fruits of the Great Migration” of African Americans to urban industrial center of Detroit.
Many came from very humble beginnings as sharecroppers or farmers to car factories that would hire and recruit blacks and pay them higher wages. They also brought with them on those highways and byways the blues, gospel, jazz on instrument and voice. This African-American Southern musical culture was passed on to their children, many of whom were born in the south or Black Bottom in Detroit.
They sang in churches or they sang on street corners or in parks or talent shows. They had dreams that were made even more possible to be realized when one of their own, Detroiter Jackie Wilson, became the hottest R&B singer in the country. It is no coincidence that the key songwriter for Jackie Wilson was Berry Gordy Jr., who would parlay his knowledge with Wilson into building Motown. Add to this the discovery the street corner doo-wop Detroit teen William Robinson who had a notebook with hundreds of songs. In essence, Smokey and Berry begins the take off for what would become Motown records in 1959.
BL: What does the story of the largest black-owned independent record company personally mean to you and the team? How does it personally strike a chord with you?
DH: When I was a child and watched TV daily there were no blacks on TV shows. I never really thought about it in those terms. It was entertainment comedy, Westerns, sports, variety shows. … The whole family watched “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday evening.
The first time The Supremes appeared on the show in December 1964, everyone in black America was watching. Not just they were there, but here is someone who we danced to at parties. We listened to them on the black radio station. But now they were so big, they were on “Ed Sullivan.”
The next day in school in Brooklyn, that was all everyone talked about — The Supremes on Ed Sullivan. Over the next 10 years, the Motown groups would integrate all of the TV variety shows and even dominate them as wells as the Billboard Top 40.
The fact that an independent, black-owned, family-based record company could do this was a miracle. Motown’s goal was to take their music to the mainstream. In the 1920s, Harry Pace Jr. would start Black Swan Records, which would record and market black artist and their music to the public. Because of the great sales and success of this, major companies like Okeh and RCA began to record and market black blues artists. However, they created a division in their company called “race records” and marketed them with very stereotypical, racist ads.
In 1948, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic came up with the title “Rhythm and Blues” which was more politically correct. The music was still targeted to a black audience, black radio, and black theater circuit (chitlin circuit). The music itself was segregated, however, by 1920s jazz and, in the 1950s, rock and roll was all music for American youth and its source from black musicians and artists from across the track or the slums and ghettos.
Motown took the step to market this music but their main goal was to go mainstream and larger venues like Vegas, the Copa, TV and Broadway. The fact they succeeded means 50 years later the play about the company was a hit show on Broadway and the doors they opened for their artists still exists.
BL: What can the rise of the largest black-owned independent record company teach us about the Civil Rights Movement and our community today?
DH: When the Motown Revue was touring the South in 1961, ’62 and ’63, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Most of the artists got a taste of the hardcore racism that their talent would not override. They all had hit records that were played on all the radio stations around the country. Yet when they played in the South, there was a rope down the center of the auditorium — blacks on one side, whites on the other.
… Today black entrepreneurs can look at Motown as a role model for success, and also it is a role model for achieving the American dream
BL: What have you and the performers learned from your audience? What was the most profound thing you’ve heard from an audience member?
DH: The most profound thing I recall from my audience was a few years back I performed “Stop in the Name of Love” at nursing home. I do a routine where I have sequined hats and boa feathers for the ladies and I teach them how do the routines. I selected three ladies — white seniors — and dressed them up. They were all wheelchair-bound and one was on oxygen. I taught them how to do the “Stop” movement with their hand and sing the chorus. When we did the show, they were the hit. I had to beg them to let me have the costumes back.
I taught summer camp in Troy with elementary school kids. They knew the chorus to “My Girl” and I taught them a routine and they sang it beautifully. For three minutes, they were The Temptations and their peers loved it.
These are just two of the examples of how special and timeless the music from Motown is, and you just know that it will last forever.