Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown


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.

Keep Reading:

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George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)


7 thoughts on “Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

  1. …If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame REALLY wants to pay tribute to THE MIRACLES…. they’ll INDUCT THEM !!!! NOW !!!

  2. It’s a SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS when, on Motown’s 50TH ANNIVERSARY, THE LABEL’S FIRST GROUP AND first recording act CAN’T GET INDUCTED into the RRHOF,DUE TO POLITICS and STUPIDITY, while dozens of less-deserving acts with FAR FEWER HITS, and far less influential,are getting inducted every year. There’s NO WAY that you can convince me that ONE-HIT WONDER PERCY SLEDGE, THE RONETTES (8 HITS) , AND GRANDMASTER FLASH (??!!) DESERVE INDUCTION over the MIRACLES .The MIRACLES were THE ONE ACT WHOSE SUCCESS OPENED THE DOORS for EVERY MOTOWN ACT THAT FOLLOWED THEM….With over 50 chart hits, 4 songs in the GRAMMY HALL OF FAME , 3 SONGS in ROLLING STONE’S LIST OF THE 500 GREATEST SONGS OF ALL TIME,AND EVEN 3 songs in the Rock and Roll Hall’s OWN list of the 500 Songs that helped shape Rock and Roll,inductees into the DOO WOP HALL OF FAME, THE VOCAL GROUP HALL OF FAME,…and even the HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME, where they just got their star this past March 20th, THE MIRACLES ARE AMONG THE BEST OF THE BEST . They are by NO MEANS “sidemen” or “Backups”!! Even WITHOUT SMOKEY, they had a Platinum album (“City of Angels”, a Gold single, “Do It Baby”, and and a multi-million- selling #1 Platinum single ( Love Machine) Smokey hasn’t had a Platinum album OR a #1 Pop Hit was a solo artist… but The MIRACLES HAVE HAD BOTH !!! They are also THE MOST COVERED MOTOWN ACT OF ALL TIME… with more than 50 of their songs covered by literally HUNDREDs of other every different musical genre: POP, SOUL, COUNTRY, REGGAE, MOR, JAZZ, …EVEN RAP & HIP-HOP !!! They were JOHN LENNON’S favorite group: several Beatles songs, such as “Ask Me Why” and “Sexy Sadie”, were DIRECTLY INFLUENTED by Miracles songs…and that’s a fact you can CHECK !! Not only that , but The MIRACLES were the ONLY Motown group during the sixties that wrote their OWN MATERIAL…. ALL OF THEM…NOT JUST SMOKEY !! The Temptations didn’t, The Supremes didn’t , nor did the Four Tops… But THE MIRACLES DID . But, those other acts get inducted… while The Miracles DON’T ?? The RRHOF’S Ill- advised attempt to honor Smokey apart from his group, while other artists, such as CURTIS MAYFIELD, MICHAEL JACKSON, and ERIC CLAPTON ,WERE HONORED SEPARATELY, and WITH THEIR GROUPS , smacks of unfairness .Even Motown founder BERRY GORDY said… at the groups’ HWOF induction on 3/20/09 …”Without THE MIRACLES. Motown would NOT be the Motown it is today”
    He ought to KNOW.

    1. Thanks for reading, Buju. While I appreciate your opinion, I believe taking a neutral approach in this instance would have been little more regurgitating a press release. I felt readers may be interested in my experience and viewpoint with the set. That said, thanks for taking time to share your perspective.

  3. There is a significant announcement to be made by the Rock Hall concerning the numerous “snubbed groups” that were left out of the Hall of Fame at it’s beginning. Word is , these groups will be inducted this year (2012). They will be “fast-tracked” right into the hall without nomination and voting, since they should have been inducted in the first place. The names mentioned were : The Comets, The Crickets, The Midnighters, and The Miracles. Theere may be more. No confirmations yet. We’ll just have to wait and see when the actual announcement is made.

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