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'Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration' on CBS Salutes the Magnificent Label
April 21, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments

A slick, glossy, and selective special on the 60th anniversary of Motown Records doesn’t diminish the fact Motown deserves pretty much every superlative.

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. Call it a nice Easter egg.

No one could deny the importance of Motown Records, which in the 1960s gave us The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Martha and the Vandellas, the Jackson Five, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, and, well, you get the idea.

Neither will anyone deny credit to Berry Gordy Jr., the mastermind of the label. He’s on hand to accept the roses here, and he gives a brief speech that makes the single most important point about Motown: It produced music for everyone.

Motown was a black-run company whose artists for the first ten years were almost all black. Motown’s music was seeded in the black R&B tradition of the 1950s and earlier. Smokey Robinson (left) and the Temptations grew up on black vocal group harmonies. Gordy himself worked with Jackie Wilson. Early Supremes records sound like the black “girl groups” of the ‘50s.

But as the Motown sound evolved into something fresh for the 1960s, Gordy and his incredible team of writers – Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Eddie and Lamont Holland and Brian Dozier, for starters – managed to thread a needle between mainstream popular music and traditionally black R&B music.

Anyone who heard two bars of a Four Tops records knew Motown artists were black. Yet Motown music smashed through all the barriers of radio and the record industry and got itself played right alongside the Beatles, Beach Boys and Four Seasons.

“Music for Young America,” Gordy called it, and the fact he was able to deliver on the promise of that slogan was one of the most satisfying and uplifting cultural stories of the 1960s.

Motown kept making money and hit records after it decamped from Detroit to Los Angeles at the end of the ‘60s. But the original essence of Motown, the reason Berry Gordy’s label was unique, didn’t survive the move. Motown in the 1960s was great. Motown after that was successful.

Accordingly, the two best reasons to watch Motown 60 are two of the few artists still performing from that era: Robinson and Wonder (below).

Neither has the range he had 55 years ago, but both still know their way around a good song. Wonder has a great time with “Sir Duke” and peaks with “Never Thought You’d Leave In Summer,” which he sings live while the screen rolls through a photo montage of all the Motown artists who are gone.

As that segment suggests, Motown 60 has several stamps of a Grammy production, including a few words from Recording Academy President Neil Portnow.

Motown 60 doesn’t try to cover the history of Motown, which is just as well. It also doesn’t have the electric spark of the justly renowned 1983 Motown 25 special. This one feels more like a contemporary tribute show, with guest star turns like John Legend singing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On.”

A quasi-medley of female artist hits, performed by Meghan Trainor, Tori Kelly, Chloe x Halle, Fantasia, and Thelma Houston, comes off more as a flashy bit of television than as the tight, disciplined, no-nonsense gems we loved on the radio a half-century ago.

The most frustrating segment belongs to Diana Ross (below), who clearly is meant to be regarded as first among equals.

Ross delivers a long tribute to Gordy, walking into the audience where he’s sitting and ending up in a long embrace after she dedicates “My Man” to him.

It isn’t mentioned that Ross and Gordy had a long affair early in her Motown career. No judgment. It just enriches the backstory.

The real problem with Ross’s segment is that after an introduction that gives perhaps 10 seconds to the Supremes, she only sings songs from her later solo career.

Nothing wrong with “Do You Know Where You’re Going.” But on a Motown special, sorry, Diana Ross doesn’t get to write off the Supremes as if they were just some practice session for her real singing career.

It’s disappointing and a bit dishonest.

Still, no special that reminds us of great Motown songs is without merit – even if it mostly makes us want to go back and listen to the original records again.

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I will probably record this to watch it later, but with reservations. I grew up listening to and loving Motown wholeheartedly. I still love it, and I mourn the passing of the greats. But these days I have such mixed feelings about Motown because of the gross and criminal exploitation of the artists who weren't represented and definitely were conned. They were victims of the Jim Crow era, but I expect this show to elevate Gordy, not look critically at what happened in The Bad Old Days.
Apr 26, 2019   |  Reply
Your points are well taken about Diane(a) Ross. The Supremes were Motown's most successful act during the heyday of the 1960's. They were also one of the three most popular acts of that decade that made the individual members, Diane, Mary, and Flo household names. To this day, The Supremes, with 12 number one records, remain as the most successful American vocal group in musical history.Yes, Diane's lead voice was the sound of The Supremes; however,, they were so much more than that. The glamour of the trio, their collective sound,the choreography, the songs of HDH, and the individual personalities of each individual member made The Supremes magical. It is understandable that viewers that were not born until after the 1960's, and who did not experience the phenomenon of The Supremes, will conclude that Diane Ross WAS The Supremes; however, the failure of The "Return To Love" Tour in 2000 proved once and forever that it was not the case. Diane and the producers should be ashamedl
Apr 26, 2019   |  Reply
Damon Trent
This is the silliest an most condescending review of the Motown 60 special I haved read. Nearly everyone agrees the Diana Ross tribute to Berry Gordy was the most sentimental part of the show. Yet, this review talks of how Ms. Ross 'doesnt get to write off the Supremes',. Ridiculous! First, who are you speaking to? Ms. Ross (and Berry Gordy) can do what they dam well please...they earned the right. Second, Mr. Gordy asked Ms. Ross to specifically sing the songs she performed. Third, and this is to the reviewer, Ms. Ross made the Supremes' the recording success that they were, she can run away from something that she already is. So stop projecting 'your' frustrations and chauvinism on Ms. Ross, a black icon who has been a solo star for 50 freaking years!!. It's disrespectful and misplaced.
Apr 23, 2019   |  Reply
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