Above: Part of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating 50 years of Motown Records. The exhibit is open all year. (Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
By Joel Francis
It may seem hard to believe, but “the sound of young America” is 50 years old.
To celebrate a half-century of Motown records, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is hosting a new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50,” all year in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall.
“It’s an obvious anniversary, one we should do something about,” said Howard Kramer, director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “Lots of labels have anniversaries, but Motown still rings wide and true.”
One of the largest items on display is the upright bass Funk Brother James Jamerson played on all his Motown sessions until 1963. It’s the instrument heard on “My Guy” and “Heat Wave.”
“A lot of people maintain the key to Motown was the rhythm section: The snap of the drums, the gorgeously intricate bass line and then the percussion laid over the top,” Kramer said. “Jamerson was the primary bass player. He carried the weight of those recordings.”
Of particular interest to Kramer are four posters promoting Motown concerts. Two of the posters advertise Motown Revue shows, which featured several of the labels artists on the same bill.
“For the 1963 revue, Stevie Wonder was the headliner.Usually the person with the biggest hit at the time was the headliner, and in this case he was riding ‘Fingertips, Part 2,’” Kramer said. “It’s interesting to see both who’s on top and the volume of artists (on the bill). It’s also interesting to note that for the 1968 Motown Revue shows at the Fox Theater in Detroit, they played 9 or 10 days in a theater that seats 5,000.”
Together, the posters span five years and a range of venues from a high school gym to a civic sports arena.
“These posters give you an idea of the breadth of places Motown performers were playing,” Kramer said. “They’d play arenas, high schools, theaters and also posh nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York,” Kramer said. “They played every possible circuit.”
Other items in the exhibit include the dress Supreme Mary Wilson wore for the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show after the departure of Diana Ross, the outfit and glasses Stevie Wonder wore for his halftime performance at the 1999 Super Bowl and a stage costume worn by Miracle Bobby Rogers in the 1970s.
“Rogers’ suit is an example of the over-the-top clothing vocal groups wore at the time,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason for this to have been made except for a performer. This is not street wear.”
Thanks to a loan from the Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, many of the artifacts have never been displayed before.
“A lot of Motown stuff didn’t make it past the original era,” Kramer said. “The only item we’ve shown before is Rick James’ bass.”
For many of the Motown session musicians, playing for Hitsville was just another gig. But 50 years later, the notes they laid down still resonate.
After 50 years and several generations Motown is still a staple of radio, music, movies, television, commercials,” Kramer said. “That’s part of (label founder Berry) Gordy’s vision to make the music palatable to all ages.”
To learn more about museum hours and ticket information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.
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