It is not often that you can be witness to a candid, intimate, passionate discussion of music and culture that involves the mainstay performers and managers that helped to shape the history that they now draw on to advise the future. It is less often that the discussion also involves a contemporary player in the industry who owes his success, not only to the drive to succeed, but to the very people that came before and now sit to his side. Such was the scene on November 18 at the Wright as the museum held the second of its “Music from the Apollo Theater” listening sessions. They are all hosted by the famed, award-winning, and all-around musical man Al McKenzie, former music director and keyboard player of The Temptations. The November 18 session had, as guests, Bertha Barbee and Caldin Gill, of Motown girl group The Velvelettes, and Randy Scott, musician and producer whose credits include Kirk Franklin and Tim Bowman.
It would take many pages to list the collective accomplishments of these unsung hit makers, but more significant is what they represent. Bertha and Cal reminisced about performing as girls three times a day at the Apollo, having to take turns at napping with the rest of their quintet in-between shows. Randy regaled the audience with the story of his long shot trip from Michigan to New York and having to borrow over-sized clothes from friend and comedian Sinbad when he performed on (and won) three straight recordings of “Amateur Night at the Apollo.” The parents of Cal, who was still in 9th grade when The Velvelettes formed, objected strongly to anything that would interfere with her education; Bertha was a junior music major, and the rest of the group were also either in college or high school. Similarly, Randy’s father, whose dedication to his son’s passion extended to driving him to the Apollo, objected to Randy’s initial contract offerings, pushing for his son to finish college and to be wary of pitfalls of the industry.
As the evening grew late, talk turned to the idea of the black community being able to hold onto or reclaim the musical culture and contributions that we have given to the country and world. Amidst the talk was the central idea that education and hard work were important. If The Velvelettes were better educated about the industry, they may have been able to negotiate better contracts from the infamous Motown management style, a fact that Al McKenzie attested to. When I asked Randy Scott what he would have done if the Apollo crowd had turned sour on him in the initial performance, he admitted that he would have spent a few weeks crying, but would eventually muster the courage to continue on.
It’s stunning how similar the stories of the Velvelettes and Randy Scott were and continue to be. As Detroit, Michigan, the U.S., and the world moves forward, one can apply the lessons to every facet of life and push others to do the same.