LBJ Library Spotlights the Little House That Motown Built

Collection stars Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Supremes & more

Even though pools mostly closed after lifeguards returned to school before Labor Day, recent tropical thunderstorms remind us that summer’s technically not over until the autumnal equinox on Monday. Serendipitously, one tidy little housing of 11 CDs carries its summer jams into January at the LBJ LIbrary.

A mural by local artist Chris Rogers greets visitors at the LBJ Library’s exhibit Motown: The Sound of Young America, A 60-Year Retrospective (Photo by Alyssa Quiles)

Motown: The Sound of Young America, A 60-Year Retrospective opened at the UT landmark back in April, but it runs through Jan. 26 and just yesterday enjoyed a steady stream of ethnomusicologists pouring over its artifacts. They punched up songs on the jukebox, took an interactive drum lesson, and attempted to line dance like one of the Temptations. At the exhibit’s grand unveiling, Miracles worker Claudette Robinson, Supremes original Mary Wilson, and soul survivor of the Four Tops, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, 83, stepped out from the grooves of a true music history marvel – Motown Records.

Shaking the latter’s hand felt like getting a moment with Abraham Lincoln.

What the 16th President of our unholy Roman Empire in decline began Civil Rights-wise came to one of its many heads in the Sixties behind the music and personage of Robinson, Wilson, and Fakir. Entering the temple of a humanist such as Lyndon Baines Johnson makes all the sense in the galaxy while heading into a space where the seeds of the cultural revolution started. Without Motown and the blues and jazz feeding Detroit’s sponsoring Renaissance, the Beatles, Stones, and much of the British Invasion suddenly lacks keys components: soul, social conscience, and million-selling hooks lifted from the fattest books of the music library – gospel, R&B, classical.

An expanded edition of 2008 box set Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, released in June to coincide with the imprint’s 60th anniversary, adds 10 more tracks to the original for a total of 208 and a bonus disc. Conceit explained in the title, the collection comes housed in a sweet little… house. A photographer’s headquarters in the Fities, the two-story domicile with a studio out back at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in the auto hub (motor city) of Detroit became ground zero of a big bang still expanding on hips and lips around the globe: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars, the Jackson 5 – Michael Jackson – and on, and on, and on. If Brenda Holloway’s torchy tear jerker “Every Little Bit Hurts” had gone No. 1 in Bora Bora, it’d be on here instead of the first Clash box set where Mick Jones croons an equally killing version.

Jackson 5 stage costumes or wardrobe from 1979 cult classic The Warriors? “Warriors, come out to plaaay." (Photo by Alyssa Quiles)

Instead, lovers and dancers get a series of mix tapes that succeed in recontextualizing an eternally anthologized catalog that will take another 100 years to unpack. (Wonder what format that takes in 2120.) Dominoes fall fast and furious from the very first handclap – “You Really Got A Hold on Me,” “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “I’ll Be Doggone” – and suddenly an hour later you’re into Jagger & Bowie (“Dancing in the Street”), James Taylor (“How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You”), and Rod Stewart (“This Old Heart of Mine”), because those all topped charts on multiple continents. Only a sprinkle of anachronisms dot Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, but the revelations pop like the first 45s spun atop Mount Olympus.

Stevie Wonder proselytizing “Blowing in the Wind (disc 2), Rare Earth heavying up Smokey’s “Get Ready” (disc 3), and deep cut initiations like Irish No. 1 “I’m Still Waiting” by Diana Ross all constitute discoveries or rediscoveries. Disc five rattles off tried and true but no less Wonderous confections of space and time that still today sound like the future: “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City,” “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” Those slide into Temptations funk and Robinson’s quiet, baby-making storm (“Baby That’s a Backatcha”). And who, pray tell, is that coming up around the bend? “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Sail On” – mmm, sí: The Commodores. Remember Lionel Richie at ACL Fest 2013?

Rick James, Dazz Band (“Let It Whip”), and Rockwell all emerge from the latter years and CDs here, which really boil down to two words: Boyz II Men. And maybe El Debarge – entirely too much El Debarge. Come to think of it, the Motown exhibit doesn’t host an El Debarge station.

Sing like a Supreme, fawn over their stage dresses and the Jacksons’ black Warriors outfits, and take in this one statesman from a long and bloody lifetime ago celebrating Motown at 50 at ye olde White House. Shut that open jaw at a giant print of Wonder in the studio as backed by the house band maestro Earl Van Dyke and four bass strings civilization will boogie too until man’s unceremonious extinction: James Jamerson. And look, what’s that little box under glass?

Burning Down the House: Motown: The Complete No. 1’s (Photo by Alyssa Quiles)

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Motown Records, Motown: The Sound of Young America, A 60-Year Retrospective, LBJ Library, Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, Claudette Robinson, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson, Supremes, Four Tops, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Jackson 5, Boyz II Men, El Debarge, Lionel Richie, The Commodores, Temptations

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