On Saturday 12 January 2019 it was 60 years to the day since the legendary Motown record label was founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy.

Coincidentally the UK tour of Motown the Musical opened at The Bristol Hippodrome on Thursday 10 January (playing until Saturday 2 February), and on the day before the big anniversary we were invited to join producer Adam Spiegel, music journalist Adam White, and Motown super-fans Gordon Chisholm and Jerry Dorber at the theatre for coffee, cake, and a natter about music and memories.

Motown 60th birthday

Adam White is the author, with Barney Ales, of Motown: The Sound of Young America. He has written about music, the music industry, and Motown for more than 40 years, but before he started out in journalism, he was instrumental in getting the records heard in Bristol and across the UK.

Adam first became aware of Motown when he heard the Martha and The Vandellas song Heat Wave played on Radio Luxembourg in 1963.

“Listening to Radio Luxembourg was really about the only way you could hear pop music at that point. The BBC Light Programme, as it was then called, would play some pop records but not that frequently. So that’s when I heard it, and it changed my life.”

He was in the audience when Martha and The Vandellas along with Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and The Miracles performed at the Colston Hall on 23 March 1965; “After seeing the show, and continuing to love the music, I went to work for a record shop in Clifton, the place where I’d been buying the records. We stocked every Motown record released in the UK and eventually brought in imports from the States too. That gave me a foothold in the music business, but later I went to London to become a music journalist and went on from there.”

Motown - Adam White

Jerry was also at that 1965 concert, but for him that was his first ever experience of Motown. “My mother was a teacher at Baptist Mills School in St Pauls. One of the staff at her school, a chap called Paul Stephenson, had been given a lot of tickets for the concert by the local empresario but the tickets didn’t go, and in desperation he put them in the staff room." 

“My mother picked up 24 of them and gave them to me. I took them in to college and had the Devil’s own job to persuade any of my friends to come with me because we’d never heard of the acts. In the end 23 of them were persuaded and we arrived at the Colston Hall on the 23rd March at about quarter past six."

"There were only about 150 people there and we wondered what on earth we’d let ourselves in for. We looked through the programme and the names were absolutely meaningless.The house lights dimmed, the stage lights came on, and wow! The concert lasted for about 90 minutes, and when we left, we were all completely stunned by the experience – we talked about it for days!”

With a smile in Jerry’s direction, Gordon points out that he was too young to go to that show. “I got involved with Motown a few years later, in around 1968. I actually came to see Stevie Wonder in 1968 at the Colston Hall. I’ve seen him twice there, the second time being in 1972."

“In Bristol there was a massive following for Motown as well as soul and reggae. In 1968 Stevie Wonder brought out the single For Once In My Life and it went to number one. But for some unknown reason people in Bristol didn’t want to hear that, they wanted to hear the B side, a song called Angie Girl."

Motown - Jerry

“When Stevie Wonder played at the Colston Hall in 1972 he was singing a very slow song, it pauses and he says: ‘What can I do?’. A girl in the audience shouts out ‘Sing Angie Girl!’ and the whole audience starts to call for it. Stevie Wonder turns around and says: ‘I don’t know the words’, so she shouts out again ‘I’ll come and sing it with you!’ He started playing on the piano and then he sang three lines; three lines from the chorus of Angie Girl, and the place erupted. He was incredible.

“Bristol had a lot of visits from a lot of Motown artists – I’ve seen The Four Tops, The Temptations, the list goes on and on. It was always well attended and even now, whenever there’s a tribute band, it’s always well supported. People like to relive their memories.”

Motown the Musical co-producer Adam Spiegel is helping to keep the Motown magic alive, working on the West End show as well as the touring production. We asked him to tell us more about the show.

“The show is Berry Gordy’s life on stage. I’ve watched the show with him and when you’re sitting next to him you can’t help glance across to him watching Ed (Edward Baruwa plays Gordy in this production) playing him on stage. I’ve never been in that situation before - watching someone, watching themselves – it’s a very moving thing to do, rather emotional. But it’s also very interesting because, because it’s his life, he is almost forensic in his examination of it. He’s an absolute perfectionist and you can’t really argue with anything he says – it’s him!”

We asked Adam why he thinks the popularity of Motown has endured for 60 years, a time in which many other genres and record labels have come and gone; “It’s just really, really good. I was listening to the radio this morning, they were playing Motown tracks and they sounded like they were made yesterday. They are so impeccably crafted; it’s not just about the performance, it’s about the production and the song-writing too. The melodies are sort of game-changing.

“Pop music is typically one of those very transient, ephemeral things, you listen to stuff from the 80s and think ‘Oh God, I can’t believe people actually enjoyed or bought this rubbish’. I mean, I love the 80s, but some of the songs were terrible. With Motown there’s not one that makes me think ‘oh, that might have been a mistake’, every single one is magical – it is the gold standard.”

Motown the Musical is at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 2 February.

Related

Motown the Musical at Bristol Hippodrome
Musicals
Motown the Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

Motown the Musical will embark on a major UK and Ireland tour in 2018-2019 arriving at The Bristol Hippodrome for a four week run

The Bristol Hippodrome
Theatre
Bristol Hippodrome theatre inside

One of the country's top provincial theatres, which proudly continues to stage major West End and Broadway productions.