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Motown Moldies 

The Rock Hall celebrates Black History Month with a concert series of acts trying to relive their glory days.

No more splits and flips for the casino-hopping - Contours.
  • No more splits and flips for the casino-hopping Contours.
The various Motown artists about to descend upon the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum aim to celebrate a classic style of American pop, and they're sure to stress their African American heritage. The Velvelettes, the Contours, and the Miracles (February 7); Mary Wilson (February 15); and the Four Tops (February 27) are performing in the name of Black History Month, a February tradition in this and other Midwest cities. But the groups also have a greater challenge -- namely, showing how so-called oldies acts can stay vital at a time when the men still outrank the women and pretty much call the shots. That's certainly the way it was when Berry Gordy ruled Motown in the '60s, making accessible black pop synonymous with his Detroit assembly line.

All the acts set to play the Rock Hall were part of that line, effectively exhausted by the time Gordy moved the Motown operation to Los Angeles in 1971. In the '60s, they were stars -- particularly the Miracles and the Tops. But as that decade waned, and ego, litigation, and technology began to erode Motown quality control, they began to lose clout. Smokey Robinson became more executive than performer, and in the latter guise, he was far more successful as a solo act than as head Miracle; the Tops began to lose their chartmaking prowess; and the Velvelettes, who never were able to put together a full album at Motown, disbanded because of marital problems. The cruder Contours, who come from the Coasters, Hank Ballard, and Midnighters tradition, lost their novelty appeal, and secondary Supreme Mary Wilson grew disenchanted with Diana Ross's megalomaniac luster in a dispute that continues to chafe.

Gordy knew how to turn out the product: shiny, resonant, melodic -- even socially conscious. But he wasn't as good at customizing it or giving it personality.

While Motown's glory days are long gone, there have been spurts of power that transcend nostalgia. In 1999, the Temptations, with lone original Otis Williams, scored with the Uni/Motown album Phoenix Rising and the single, "Stay," a pop tune sampling the Temptations' chestnut "My Girl." In 2000, the preening Ross played 12 dates of a Supremes "reunion" tour before concert promoter SFX pulled the plug in early July. Part of what jinxed the tour was Wilson's refusal to join, citing Ross's inequitable salary. Ross's assumption that she could tour with two latter-day Supremes seemed particularly arrogant to Wilson, no slouch in the pride department herself. Wilson led the Supremes from 1971 -- when Ross turned solo diva -- until 1977, the year of the group's official breakup.

"It's very difficult for someone to get a record deal like myself, a mature artist," says Wilson. "Those artists who have managed to maintain are very special people; most are going from one company to another. It's a younger market."

But Wilson's years at Motown did teach her to keep busy and maintain her poise -- lessons that haven't been lost on the Velvelettes, either.

Since the Supremes ended, Wilson has written two books and recorded two independent CDs, essentially vanity efforts for sale at her shows. She was inducted into the Rock Hall, has performed with the likes of Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison, and this fall will produce and star in Sophisticated Ladies, a musical based on the work of Duke Ellington.

Wilson will perform early Supremes material and more contemporary tunes by the likes of Brenda Russell, Sting, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and Sly & the Family Stone. She doesn't see anything wrong with revisiting the past.

"I hate when people say 'oldies show,'" she says. "If you're going to see Barbra Streisand, she's going to sing all the songs she made hits. Is that an oldies show?

"There are a lot of people out there who are performing but can't record, so they're stuck in some category of oldie that makes them seem like they're not good," she continues. "A lot of times, the public doesn't know the politics and thinks it's the artists. The artists are dying to record."

The Contours have been recording, too, and maintaining their performance chops on the fledgling casino circuit. Sylvester Potts, who founded the group with Joe Billingslea and signed to Motown in 1960, says the Contours are selling their self-produced New Directions CD at shows at the Motor City Casino in Detroit, the Foxwoods Casino in southern Connecticut, and similar venues in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi.

"We've been working," says the deep-voiced Potts. "We're trying to get into the casino circuit. It's a good circuit to work year-round." Originals Potts and Billingslea, 18-year veteran Charles Davis, and five-year members Al Chisholm and Gary Grier have been working steadily since the "Dirty Dancing" tour of 1988 resurrected their classic "Do You Love Me."

"We don't do the splits and flips anymore," says Potts, 62. "But we still dance. I'll probably still do the splits. I just won't try."

Three of the original Four Tops -- Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir, along with Theo Peoples, who replaced Lawrence Payton after Payton's 1997 death -- will perform at the hall on February 27. They'll play their deeply soulful hits, fronting a band of at least "nine horns and a rhythm section -- the minimum," according to Fakir. What they won't do is new tunes by Norman Whitfield, the legendary Temptations producer who has been crafting an album with them for nearly four years.

"Norman is very protective of this album," says Fakir, who, like Wilson, blasts radio for ignoring his type of music and artists his age. "He's written some memorable songs for us."

Cal (Carolyn) Gill, a.k.a. Cal Street, is also eager to step into the spotlight again, though her Velvelettes will likely be sandwiched between the Contours and the Miracles. The Velvelettes are the only group in the Rock Hall's Motown array intact from the start (the only original Miracle to perform will be Bobby Rogers). The velvet-voiced Street; her sister, Mildred Gill-Arbor; and sisters Bertha Barbee-McNeal and Norma Barbee-Fairhurst -- will perform for about 20 minutes, stressing such minor hits as "Needle in a Haystack" and the catchy, flirtatious "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'," a minor hit remade by Bananarama in the mid-'80s.

Not only do the Velvelettes plan to record again -- former Motown production kingpin William "Mickey" Stevenson was talking to Street about that just the other day -- but they'll also be featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp series honoring girl groups and in a Universal Music Enterprises doll collection, she says.

Which, in a sense, will bring the Velvelettes full circle from their time with Gordy and his well-oiled operation. In the early '60s, Gordy's nephew, Robert Bullock, caught them at a talent show in Kalamazoo and recommended them to his powerful uncle. They auditioned for Gordy in 1963, when Street was only 14. Ultimately, they released a clutch of Motown singles in the mid-'60s -- and competed with the far more powerful Supremes, Temptations, Miracles, and Tops. Only in 1999 did the first and only Velvelettes album come out: The Very Best of the Velvelettes, 15 tracks of singles and B-sides.

Although the Velvelettes didn't have the clout of their more commercially successful contemporaries, they had the same training: from Maxine Powell, the charm-school teacher; Cholly Atkins, the choreographer who taught them precision steps; voice coach and pianist Maurice King; Harvey Fuqua, Gordy's brother-in-law; and Marvin Gaye, a Moonglow.

"She wanted to prepare us to present ourselves in song and body carriage to kings and queens," Street says of Powell. "She wanted us to be very graceful and articulate. She wanted us to stand out from the average entertainer and was very insistent, when we were eating, that we would have supreme etiquette skills. Motown entertainers were some of the more polished entertainers."

It's that legacy as entertainers that continues to drive these Motown stars, even as they're reduced to working casinos and county fairs.

"I love the business so much," says Wilson, the disenchanted former Supreme. "I don't want it to go to the dogs. We learned a lot from artists I grew up watching: Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne. They had their acts together, and I think our era did the same thing -- especially the Motown artists. I would like to see that continue. It should evolve into something great instead of going backwards, where you can't even watch someone when they speak."

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