My Papa was a rolling stone. Sometimes I’d ask him, “What’s going on?” and he’s just say, “It’s a heat wave, Son. You gotta stop that superstition.” “Oh Dad, you keep me hangin’ on. Don’t you see the tracks of my tears?!!” “Ain’t no mountain high enough, boy!” “I second that emotion, Dad.”
The list of Motown hits is a mile long and the performers are the stuff of legends: Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Temptations, etc. The record producer Barry Gordy brought them all together under one label, Motown, in 1959 and unleashed upon the world some of the most joyous music of all time. Thankfully, the studio is still around, in Detroit, Michigan, and it’s a pleasure to visit.
As a cross-country tour guide (in 1991), it’s my job to find fun stuff for my tour group to do. Every day, when we arrive in a new city, I drop off my crew at the pre-selected campground, let them start getting set up, then hop back in the van and start exploring. What “Americana” does this town have to offer? What cool, local stuff can I introduce to my tourists? Motown – subtitled “Hitsville, USA” — definitely fits the bill! But will my group (mostly young Europeans) recognize the music? The answer is a resounding yes. The music of Smokey and Stevie and Diana is universal. As we go about enjoying the various exhibits – the memorabilia, the old piano, the recording studio — an older woman steps up to us and asks, “Where are you all from?” As we answer, she nods, smiles, then introduces herself. “I’m Esther Gordy, Barry Gordy’s sister. Would you like to sing some Motown songs?” Shocked, we walk outside and stand on the front steps while an actual Barry Gordy family member leads us in the singing of such classics as “I heard it on the grapevine,” “My girl” and “I want you back.” It’s one of those crazy, serendipitous moments when you marvel that fate brought this moment together somehow. As Martha and the Vandellas might say, we left the Motown Museum “Dancing in the Streets.”
(Serendipitous moments are marvelous, but they’re not just happenstance. They come about because you made the effort to be someplace. They most certainly don’t happen if you just stay at home, binging Succession on HBO. If you want more of those occasions when you’re pinching yourself that “this is really happening,” get out and explore. Put yourself out there and eventually something magical will happen. And that’s not just superstition.)