In 1983, music was consumed very differently than it is today. For one, personal computers and smartphones didn't exist in the mass market, and iTunes wouldn't be available for another 18 years. For another, the CD was in its infancy, and only the wealthy owned expensive players and the handful of discs that had been released. Portable recorded music was found largely on cassette tapes, which in many cases were home-made mixtapes of LP and 45 collections. Cable-TV was a few years old, but since most lower income neighborhoods couldn't afford cable service, MTV featured mostly white rock acts aimed at suburbia, not soul.
As a result, in these final years of the analog era, Motown was still considered somewhat exotic. Most people—black and white—were familiar with the label's big hits, but its vast catalog was largely unknown except among those who had been collecting Motown albums and singles on vinyl for years. And those who did listen to Motown did so less for nostalgia and more for the music's sexual energy and go-go beat. [Above, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye]
The turning point for Motown that ushered in its second phase of popularity came courtesy of the movies. In the post-disco, pre-Brit pop years of the very early 1980s, more films began adding Motown singles to their soundtracks as a counterbalance to icy rap, new wave and electronic club music. Losin' It, Airplane II, Baby It's You and other films cued up Motown tracks as a retro-romantic flavoring, using them to tell audiences that something meaningful was happening on-screen—characters were getting real, falling in love or thinking back to a more sincere, soulful time.
Soon after the start of this cinematic Motown crush came a critical reunion that re-positioned the label as an indomitable cultural force and historic movement. On May 16, 1983, NBC aired Motown 25—a 25th anniversary celebration of the Detroit label's founding by Berry Gordy. Most people old enough to remember the show have a hazy recollection of the televised extravaganza. Now, Time Life Entertainment has just released Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a three-DVD set that includes the orignal broadcast, rehearsal footage of Marvin Gaye singing What's Going On and roundtable interviews focused on the event.
Viewed 31 years later, the show is still a jaw-dropper. Positioned as a glitzy visit with the Motown family of stars, the revue featured all of the label's top names—even those who left the fold. Though many of the artists were middle-aged at the time, they still looked young and performed with fire and brio. The talent breaks out into three phases—the '60s singles of the Supremes and Temptations, the '70s albums of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and the early '80s visuals of Michael Jackson. Every performance is mind-blowing and reminds us that while rock made our chins jut in and out and hands play air guitar, Motown made hearts beat faster as we marveled at the choreographed dance steps, pleading vocals and artful song arrangements and instrumentals.
Among the highlights include Stevie Wonder's medley of '60s hits, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, DeBarge's All This Love and Michael Jackson on everything. As you may recall, Jackson ran away with the show, first by singing hits with the Jackson 5 and then with Billie Jean, which unveiled the now-famous moondance and drove the TV audience wild. The talent on stage that night made Motown unforgettable.
Soon after Motown 25 aired, the label's revival would be further solidified by The Big Chill's extensive use of the label's hits on its soundtrack, introducing classic soul to a new generation of dating couples. The '80s Motown revival may not have been strong enough to generate momentum in terms of new hot acts (Jackson was on Epic) but it helped burnish the label, enabling Berry Gordy to sell the music catalog to MCA in 1988 for a reported $61 million and the TV and film operations to Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who continues to run it today.
The DVD set is a timeless document that shows off Motown's talent, the label's place in music history, the role it played in the civil rights movement and how Berry Gordy's secret recipe for hit-making moved all races and generations—and still does.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Motown 25: Yesterday, Today Forever here.