Black History Month: The Wiz

Up until now, I’ve reviewed only movies with black directors, but I’m making an exception today because although Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz, it’s one of the few all-black musicals and was a big deal on its release in 1978. Transferred from the stage to the screen in what was then the most expensive musical production ever, the film was shot on location in New York and in studio space in Queens, and it starred Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Forty years after its release, the movie doesn’t stand out as one of the great musicals committed to film, but it does have many wonderful numbers and a great cast.
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Detroit: The Motown Museum is Where It’s At

It took a little wheedling, but I convinced my friends that we could postpone our river walk until after we’d visited the Motown Museum. We were in Detroit for a short 48 hours, so every moment counted, and the warm, sunny day beckoned. But after we’d been on the tour and stepped out into the sunlight, we all agreed that we’d made the right decision. Because let me tell you, dearest fellow travelers, the Motown Museum is fantastic.

The house that Gordy built

You can only visit the museum on a tour, which lasts 45 minutes and costs $10. Worth it! About 20 of us gathered in front of a dynamic young woman who explained to us that Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, bought a total of 8 buildings on this residential street (and later a building downtown) in order to house his growing empire. We were standing in one of those, an administrative building, and later on the tour we’d go next door to the white-and-blue two-story that started it all.

We watched a short video full of hit songs and former Motown employees talking about the beginnings of the business. I liked that they confined the interviews to people who talked about their own legacy, rather than outside music critics or even non-Motown artists waxing poetic about the people and sounds that influenced them. There’s enough of that out there, and fair enough, I’m just another white girl who claims Motown music for a big part of her own history. It’s only right that the museum give the airtime to the people who made it all happen.

Berry Gordy was many things: Clearly, you can see he was a looker. He was also a boxer until he decided that girls wouldn't go for a man with too many scars. He served in the Korean War and wrote songs for Jackie Wilson; getting paid pennies for those songs convinced his pal Smokey Robinson that Gordy needed to start his own company in order to keep the money he earned.

The legacy that the people in the video were careful to emphasize was that of a “positive sound.” One person said they changed the world with love and respect, “without making a big deal of it.” They “changed hearts with music and hope.” (Of course there was a lot of change going on in the ’60s, and more radical forms of protest were necessary to bring about important reforms, sure. But great music that everyone could come together for was a crucial part of those changes. Don’t knock the power of music.)

After the video, we went upstairs and our guide told us the secret to the Motown sound. She stood under a part of the ceiling that had been cut away, which created an echo effect. She sang some familiar songs–Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes–and had us sing along. Luckily, we were in a boisterous group and everyone sang along loudly. It’s no fun to be on an interactive tour if no one’s going to interact.

We wandered around the gallery upstairs, checking out the photos and gold records on the walls, and the special exhibit on Marvin Gaye, which included some of the outfits he wore on stage. Also, a fedora and white glove donated by Michael Jackson, yes! One wall was plastered with album covers. Our guide told us that when they were first starting out, they were careful not to put the artists’ pictures on the covers (can’t cross over if the white audiences won’t even pick up the record), and then when they were hugely popular their faces were all over those album covers, and then when they were promoting some white artists like Teena Marie, those artists’ faces weren’t on the covers because the label was too well-known for having black artists! What a bizarre world we live in.

After all this, we went downstairs and next door to the original house. Everything was left pretty much just as it was up until Gordy moved the whole operation to LA in 1972 (the tour did gloss over what a loss this was for the beleaguered city of Detroit), so when Gordy’s sister opened up the museum in 1985, a lot of it was already there. The front desk that Martha Reeves answered phones at before graduating from secretary to performer; the candy machine that always had Baby Ruths three in from the right so Stevie Wonder could find his favorite candy; the scrap paper with running card game scores. And in the back: Studio A.

the original garage band music

I just about grabbed onto something to keep from fainting when we entered Studio A. I’ve been to a lot of historical sites in my various travels, and some of them hit me hard while others have little impact. This was one of those places that took hold of me right away. Studio A is where all the Motown hits up til 1972 were recorded. For the entire 1960s, it was open pretty much 24 hours a day. The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, not to mention the Funk Brothers and other musicians who made those voices sound as good as they did. They all stood in this small room–a converted garage, which had a dirt floor for the first couple years of recording–and made the music that we all know by heart. It was a little overwhelming.

All the original instruments are in there. The control room still has grooves in the floor from when producers would pound their feet to the beat. A few pictures taken in the room show you how crowded it got with artists, producers, and writers. Our guide led us all in a verse of “My Girl” and had us do the Temptations dance (you know, the snapping your fingers in a swinging motion from side to side, then a little fancy spin if you have it in you). And then boom, it was over, through the gift shop and back out into the sunlight. Into the world that owes a lot to that small house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.

Yeah, that's the Temptations dance I was talking about. Being done to great effect by my friends and me.

Images 1 and 4 mine. Image 2. Image 3.