The other day I had the honor to have lunch with original Marvelette Katherine "Kat" Anderson Shaffner and original Vandellas Annette Helton and Rosalind Ashford Holmes. We were meeting to discuss Mosaic's upcoming remounting of our production Now That I Can Dance -- Motown 1962, a play about the Marvelettes and the early days of Motown. (Coming to the DIA this May). Kat, Annette and Rosalind are special advisors on the production. As we sat there in the Bob Evans restaurant near the airport, it struck me how anonymous these legendary ladies were. I don't think there was one person in the restaurant who had any idea of who they were or their significance to Detroit's music history.
As we sat in the restaurant, the three of them generously shared their first-person advice on this production to be performed by young Detroit singers and actors who are the same age now as Kat, Annette and Rosalind were when the play takes place. The play is mostly based on Kat's memories as the only Marvelette that was with the group from beginning to end. When I thank them for volunteering their support, Rosalind says "You know we had to be involved. We love what these young people are doing. They really are the same as we were back then." Original Vandella Annette adds, "Actually, you are doing us a favor. You are keeping our story alive." Kat agrees. "Nobody usually tells our story, about what happened before the Supremes became Motown's stars."
She's right. If you look at most of what has been written about the history of Motown, it always seems to start with the Supremes and the Temptations. Rarely do people discuss the gritty and exciting early days. But these people put Motown on the map around the world. (Actually, the Marvelettes literally put Inkster on the map -- the city was not incorporated until 1963, a year after "Please Mister Postman" brought international attention to Inkster).
People forget that "Please Mister Postman" was Motown's first number one hit on the pop charts. People also overlook that Motown's first popular guy group was the Contours and that "Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)" was Motown's first guy group hit. Even the Vandellas, originally background singers for Marvin Gaye, had a hit before the Supremes. Until the Supremes recorded "Where Did Our Love Go?" -- a song Diana Ross didn't want to sing because it was turned down by the Marvelettes -- they were known around Motown as "The no-hit Supremes." Those early days were a rich period that has now been swept under the rug -- you will rarely see the Marvelettes, Contours or Vandellas highlighted in any of the Motown Anniversary shows.
The way these pioneers of Motown are neglected reminds me of something I have always noticed about Detroit. We do not do a good job of celebrating our own. We seem to stubbornly resist it. I don't understand where this comes from. With Motown being Detroit's calling card around the world, why wouldn't the early pioneers be considered Detroit royalty? Yes, I understand that we treasure Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, but a royal family doesn't just have kings and queens -- it can also be filled with dukes and duchesses. Why should those who decided to settle down in Detroit be anonymous, as if not leaving Detroit makes you less worthy?
The list of artists who were never appropriately celebrated while they were in Detroit is long. It includes rock icon Jack White (who grew up in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood where I live now), Techno Music pioneers Carl Craig, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Akins, Jazz great Marcus Belgrave (I remember my total embarrassment when Mr. Belgrave was performing at a charity event and virtually no one stopped chatting to listen -- I wanted to scream "Do anyone of you know that MARCUS BELGRAVE is playing!?"). Every time I have seen a major national jazz artist come to town, at least one of their musicians is from Detroit -- yet do you ever hear Detroit's jazz scene celebrated? There are equal numbers of writers and visual artists who have achieved international acclaim yet are unknown to Detroiters. We always say we need to highlight the positive things about Detroit, yet we have a gold mine right beneath our feet that we ignore.
After Katrina, New Orleans focused on developing their music scene into a thriving industry -- highlighted in the HBO show Treme. Why are these musicians lauded for staying in New Orleans, while equally acclaimed artists who stay in Detroit are ignored? Anyone who goes to New Orleans has multiple opportunities to hear New Orleans Jazz and Cajun music. Once a tourist visiting Detroit found my phone number on the web and called me. "I am from Texas and I am a huge Motown fan," he said. "I am only in Detroit for the weekend and I am dying to hear some Motown music -- where can I find some?" Embarrassed, I had to tell him that there was nowhere in Detroit that he could hear "Motown music." How is this possible?
During the Detroit 300 celebration in 2001, there was a fabulous "homecoming" weekend of concerts. Hosted by Detroit native comedian/actor David Alan Grier, the concerts featured the Temptations, the Contours, Stevie Wonder, the DSO, and Detroit native Della Reese, along with a wide range of Detroit artists in genres including electronic, rock and roll, soul, jazz, blues, hip-hop, modern funk, bluegrass, folk and gospel. It was a fabulous weekend, but I wondered then what I still wonder today. Why can't we do something like this every year? Why can't we have an annual "Detroit Music Festival" featuring only homegrown talent? There is more than enough phenomenal Detroit talent locally and around the world to easily fill the bill every year. It could become Detroit's signature event, bringing tourists from around the world (all the Motown acts -- as well as the Techno artists -- will tell you that their music is incredibly popular in Europe and Asia).
But before we could even consider a big idea like an annual Detroit Music Festival, we need to figure out why we don't love our artists the way the world does. And that starts with why we don't celebrate our pioneers. Last week, the city of Inkster honored the Marvelettes on the group's 50th Anniversary. Vandellas Annette and Rosalind and many other Motown originals, including original Contour Joe Billingslea, were at the celebration. As we sat at that Bob Evans restaurant near the airport, Annette shook her head as she told Kat, "It's great that Inskter decided to celebrate your 50th. Our (The Vandellas) 50th anniversary is next year and I can tell you for sure that Detroit is not going to do anything like that for us."