By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
The history of Motown is an American success story, a musical trajectory of glammed-up girl groups, silky harmonies and smooth dance moves crafted in Detroit at a tiny music studio called Hitsville, USA.
The music captured the hearts of America’s youth at a time of unparalleled social upheaval.
“The Motown Story,” a play written, directed and acted by union members, plots the record label’s course in a return finale production Feb. 28 to close DC 37’s Black History Month celebration.
“These songs are the soundtrack of our lives,” said Associate Director Oliver Gray. “They tell our stories and are such a huge part of our lives.”
Motown’s chart-topping tunes of first loves and loves lost gave solace to a nation grappling with civil rights, equality, and the Vietnam War.
“The beauty of Motown,” Gray added, “is the music broke down barriers and it still plays today.”
DC 37 Secretary and Local 1113 President Deborah Pitts chairs the Black History Committee and oversaw the cultural events in February at the union hall.
At Local 420’s Feb. 23 event, members heard from AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who came to America at age 14 as a political refugee of Ethiopia. He is the first immigrant elected to serve on the AFL-CIO’s board.
“The Motown Story” is a trip down memory lane that chronicles the label’s decades-long ascent with its first crossover artist, Mary Wells, to international superstar and King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
Motown founder Barry Gordy, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., envisioned a better America inclusive of African-Americans.
The play’s co-writers and directors are Yolanda Brooks-Ruiz, a Local 768 Public Health Sanitarian, and retired New York City Firefighter Juan Ruiz, who studied with renowned acting coach Lee Strasberg. Local 768 President Fitz Reid co-sponsored Finale Night.
Brooks-Ruiz’s play highlights Gordy’s genius as a music pioneer, who, with writer Smokey Robinson and later the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team crafted tunes that crossed over to American pop from R&B to dominate radio and TV variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Soul Train’s Don Cornelius.
The Motown Show weaves hits by Wells, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, David Ruffin, and Gladys Knight that won a standing ovation and had the DC 37 audience singing and dancing in the aisles.
The musical featured actor/singer Stuart Bascombe, a founding member of Black Ivory, as Smokey Robinson; DC 37 Local 371 retiree James R. Garrett as Berry Gordy, and impersonator Ed DeHart as TV hosts Sullivan and Carson.