Motown revival 

Remembering the Marvelettes and the hit factory's beginnings

Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962 is performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 18-19, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 20, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, at 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit (entrance is on John R); $20 general admission, $12 for students and seniors; purchase at mosaicdetroit.org or at the DIA box office, 313-833-4005; info at 313-872-6910.

 

You may think you know the Motown story: the story of mogul Berry Gordy and his belief that he could take an act with a modicum of talent and turn them into stars. 

In the Gordy assembly line at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., the process started with raw, often unknown talent. Then came songwriters, who often doubled as producers, the likes of Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. The ultra-prolific Funk Brothers added the music. Off the line would roll the polished product, such acts as Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, with songs like "My Guy," "Hitchhike," "Baby Love," "Uptight" and "My Girl." 

In the early '60s, Detroit's most popular exports didn't run on gasoline; they ran on soul. 

You probably know the first hit single (Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and the first No. 1 Billboard R&B hit ("Shop Around" credited then to "The Miracles featuring Bill 'Smokey' Robinson") and the first No. 1 Billboard pop hit ("Please, Mr. Postman").

But do you know the story of Katherine "Kat" Anderson? 

What's that? 

Kat Anderwho? 

She's the 16-year-old girl who, with a few of her girlfriends, came in fourth place at their high school talent show yet still won a contract with Motown Records and made their world debut with the aforementioned "Mr. Postman."

Before they were placed on the conveyor belt, the group went by the Casinyets — and "Postman" had a bluesier feel. Georgia Dobbins, the leader of the group, wrote it but, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, was denied permission by her parents to sign a recording contract with Motown. 

Kat Anderson and her friends — Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman and Juanita Colwart — promptly recruited recent graduate Wanda Young. (The song was reworked into the love-longing pop tune we know today. Upon Dobbins' suggestion, Horton moved to the feature vocal role. When they cut the tune, a young Marvin Gaye sat behind the drum kit.)

On Dec.11, 1961 "Mr. Postman" soared to the top spot on the Billboard chart. 

The Marvelettes recorded 22 more Billboard Hot 100 singles, and Kat Anderson sang on all of them, including "Too Many Fish in the Sea," "I'll Keep Holding On" and "Don't Mess With Bill." 

By 1970, she was a 25-year-old showbiz veteran, married to the Temptations' road manager Joe Schaffner and the only original member of the Marvelettes. She decided it was time to disband the group, before Motown's move to Los Angeles.

A Motown icon head-to-toe, yet you most likely don't know Mrs. Anderson-Schaffner's story. After that she dropped from public view, finally obtaining her high school dipoma at 55 years old. But she's back, for a limited time only, as the center figure in a stage musical. And if you don't know her, rest assured that a group of Detroit's young people has been learning the Motown story for you firsthand.

It was a recent Sunday at Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit's rehearsal space, less than a mile east from the old Hitsville, now rechristened the Motown Museum. Two Vandellas (Rosalind Ashford-Holmes and Annette Beard-Helton), a Contour (Joe Billingslea) and one very important Marvelette (Anderson-Schaffner) sat before the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit who rehearsed a production that sets out to tell their story in Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962. 

Founder Rick Sperling turned his company into an award-winning cultural institution that's performed at the Kennedy Center and has had the honor of being invited to White House. (Trivia-time digression: Sperling's brother Gene is President Obama's chief economic adviser.) This summer marks Mosaic's 20th year of making world-class musical theater. 

The kids, 11 to 18, were as well-behaved as they were giddy. The opportunity to warm up their voices in the presence of Motown hit-makers, and the news that there'd be a few minutes of full vocal rehearsal, sent them over the top in shouts, claps and gasps. Sperling asked for an intense and professional warm-up and got just the rousing recital he was looking for. 

While the entire Mosaic ensemble practiced singing backup on "Too Many Fish in the Sea," the Motown originals sat at a table looking on and catching up.

"The only place we did our warm-ups was in our basements, but we were basically doing the very same thing these kids are doing here," said Contour Joe Billingslea. "You had to keep that energy up the whole time and I'm noticing these kids already got the juices flowing, so they should be really good."

"Even before we went to Motown, we'd get together and practice, but when we got to Motown we had a vocal instructor that had us working the scales," added Vandella Ashford-Holmes. "I think they're sounding wonderful."

Vandella Beard-Helton hoped to impart some wisdom to the young thespians. "Education has to come first. Entertaining is up and down, it can peak and fall back down." 

But Billingslea wanted them to respect and maintain the dream of finding success. "There's going to be a lot of people they'll meet, family and friends even, who'll doubt them at some point. I hope that if they really believe in what they're doing they'll never doubt themselves and stick with performing, even when it gets really hard, which it will." 

Sperling pointed out the guests in the room, letting the company know that more than a few Detroit media outlets and The New York Times were represented. Having the full attention of the company, one last introduction was made. 

Smiling proud and warm, a tall woman took a seat among the other Motowners. In his introduction, Sperling, who wrote and directs Now That I Can Dance, said "more material has come from her than anyone else for this play. She's the source, she's our narrator, it's her story as much as anything. Ladies and gentlemen, original Marvelette, Katherine Anderson-Schaffner — Kat!" 

The crowd went crazy. 

Then all eyes were on Mosaic's Marvelettes, who performed an inspired run-through of "Too Many Fish in the Sea," choreography and all. The song appears in a soul-shaking fantasy concert scene that even includes founding member Georgia Dobbins.

A professional performance of Motown material comes with a serious and unique responsibility. Motown has been more than cooperative with Mosaic since they first started discussing this production more than five years ago. (It's the second time Now That I Can Dance has been staged since the inaugural run in 2005.) 

To put it in perspective, Gordy is a famously stingy (or at least protective) businessman when it comes to licensing out Motown material for film and theater. That, in large part, is why we're left with vague, rehashed versions of the Motown story in productions like Sparkle and Dreamgirls, stories acted out to the accompaniment of songs that strive to capture the Motown era. But as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang on the 1968 Motown hit: "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby."

Think of the cash that could be made from producing a string of Motown biopics, each one starring all the same actors as the last, but the main story arc in each focuses on an individual act or group. Kind of crazy to think we haven't even gotten a one-off called Hitsville. So, until we start seeing some big-ticket projects getting the official Motown stamp of approval, it's mostly the young people in Mosaic who get to fill this cultural void. 

 

After "Too Many Fish in the Sea," the floor was opened up for a Q & A with the resident stars.

With the show's opening night just a few weeks away, here these kids were, trying to perfect their roles with sacred authenticity, and then they got to pick the brains of some of the subjects they're portraying. 

Actor Matthew Webb portrays several parts in Now That I Can Dance, including a period-perfect concert announcer, a confident Contour, and a bluesman named William Garrett who played a role in the Marvelettes story. Webb wanted to hear "what the vibe at Hitsville was like on a regular day."

Billingslea described it as an open-round-the-clock space: "No matter what time of day or night you stopped by, someone was there practicing, writing or hanging out trying to pick up new songs from the writers as they finished them. We were all very fond of each other." 

That last line came with a built-in caveat, as it's well-known that there was internal competition and sometimes tensions would flare. Billingslea continued: "Oh, you had your competition, of course. The Marvelettes were put up against the Vandellas and the Supremes. And the Contours were against the Miracles and the Temptations."

Billingslea said he still gets a rise out of prodding his old labelmates.

"The Temptations were very, very good performers. Voice-wise, they were of the highest quality," he said, "but they could not perform with the Contours on stage. They knew it. Everyone in the company knew it. We could outperform them on stage, but we couldn't touch their voices." 

He told Webb and the Mosaic cast and choir that, after the first time he performed at the Apollo, someone told him something that he immediately took to heart: "When people come to see you, they come to see you perform. If they wanted to hear the record they could sit at home all day and listen to it. They want to see you perform. We were acrobatic, doing all kinds of splits, flips and somersaults."

Anderson-Schaffner added that "the energy was high and the vibe was immaculate. We were family, and we were always on the road. We never thought we'd break a million, and we were on the road when it did, barely had a minute to celebrate. The boys did all the partying."

Vandella Ashford-Holmes said "the atmosphere at West Grand was that everyone really did love each other — at least until you got on the road. But when you were at Hitsville, everyone greeted each other with a hug and a kiss." 

This was the kind of interaction Sperling was hoping to produce. He addressed his cast: "See, guys, she just gave you an actionable bit of research there. She said when you arrived at Motown, there was always a hug and a kiss."

"When we went to the Boulevard, it was like we were going home," said Vandella Beard-Helton. "Once we were on Motown, we actually spent more time at the studio than we did at home."

When Sperling said, "That sounds like Mosaic for some of you," he was met with a rather harmonious choruses of yeses.

It went on like that all afternoon, Mosaic mining away at source material for what are known as "actionable" moments, insights to life in the '60s and life on the road, dealing with Southern racism, separation anxiety and educational sacrifices.

"When you're 15, 16 years old, sometimes you don't think of all the consequences that are out there when you make the decision to dedicate your life to it," said Anderson-Schaffner. "We were there before the vocal training, the choreography; we had to learn as we went. We were at the start of it all. We started it. Not the Temptations, as it's been told; not the Supremes, as it's been told; and not Stevie Wonder, as it's been told. 

"We like the idea you're telling, the original story, performing the truth. This story has never been told." 

 

Last Friday night, Now That I Can Dance opened to a packed house in the DIA's Detroit Film Theatre. The frenzy in the lobby wasn't such a surprise.

Before the house lights came down, within the first few rows, some original Motown singers and faculty mixed it up. There was original Marvelette Wanda Young, who married her longtime boyfriend Bobby Rogers, an original member of the Miracles. The graceful beauty that is Maxine Powell, at 88 years old, sat among other Motown producers, musicians, friends and family. At one point, it seemed the family representing Florence Ballard had to fend off some diehard fan. And, of course, also there with loved ones, were Vandellas Beard-Helton and Ashford-Holmes, Contour Billingslea and that one very important Marvelette 

A feature-length play featuring an all-youth cast that works just as well for adults as it does for even elementary-aged audiences is a tall order, especially when the production involves themes such as mental illness, physical abuse, violent bigotry, broken hearts and fractured friendships. But that's exactly what Mosaic does, and Now That I Can Dance shows the Mosaic company at its best. 

With well-honed humor and well-toned drama, the early Motown story is unfurled through the perspective of Anderson and the Marvelettes, though we get plenty of the Miracles, Vandellas and Contours, as well as Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells. And if there were an antagonist, it'd be the original diva herself, Diana Ross.

It's hard to say if the acting or singing is better. On one hand, there were times when you had to remind yourself that these actors aren't even out of high school yet. But being that the audience knows the rhythms and lyrics to every song in the production, it's safe to say the play delivers the purest form of fun when they're singing.

Now That I Can Dance chronicles the early years of Motown, when Marvin Gaye wanted to be "the colored Sinatra," Martha Reeves was a secretary, and Berry Gordy was just beginning to build the foundation of an immense culture-shifting factory in what looked like just another house on West Grand Boulevard. 

If you're reading this as a Detroiter, Now That I Can Dance is, in a way, also your story. It's set in a time when our nation's social fabric was being tested and torn, yet the American Dream was coming alive one song at a time in the Motor City.

Given the state of bewildering social, political, economic and racial polarization that exists today, this production reminds us of the magic we're capable of making in the midst of it all.

 

Travis Wright is arts & culture editor at Metro Times. Send letter to twright@metrotimes.com

 

More by Travis R. Wright

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