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Motown Family Portrait

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Wednesday, 29 December 2010
in Today in Black History

With the final standing ovation in the museum’s Contemporary Artist Gallery, the “Music from the Apollo” listening series came to a close. Momentarily, the collected paintings took a backseat as the shapers of the Motown sound enthralled the audience, certainly the largest attendance of all the sessions in the series. The guests of honor were Motown consultant Maxine Powell, The Miracles member Bobby Rogers, and the one-and-only Martha Reeves of The Vandellas. All was hosted, as always, by Al McKenzie, former music director for the Temptations.

The overriding theme of the event had to be the feeling of family that the Motown musicians shared. Powell served as Motown’s image-maker and finishing school matron, making sure that each performer carried themselves in the classy tradition of the label. Reeves would later comment, in response to a question about competition between the girl groups of Motown, that “Mrs. Powell would not allow them to fight amongst each other,” instead focusing on competing as a collective unit against other record labels.

Bobby Rogers recounted stories about The Matadors becoming The Miracles and how he met Martha Reeves while the two were in high school. As it turns out, Rogers’ wife, a friend, and his sister-in-law and niece were in attendance in the audience. Eventually, the whole room joined in on a verse of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”

It was Martha Reeves, however, that brought the whole thing together. Her stories illustrated how much the family of Motown meant: spontaneously having to take over as secretary at Hitsville, U.S.A., encountering the boy who would become Stevie Wonder, the two-take recording of “Dancing in the Street,” to the inclement weather which kept them in England for another week. Every story involved interactions with staff and fellow musicians at Motown, down to the woman who provided wigs for quick hair changes at shows. Coincidentally, that woman was also in the audience.

The familial feeling continues to extend. Many in the audience thanked the speakers for contributing universally adored music and their contributions to the city of Detroit. The speakers returned the sentiment, crediting Detroit for supporting Motown to national fame.

On the whole, the experience felt less like a lecture and more like a reunion. It goes to show the power of the accomplishments these people have earned, that they’ve gone past the level of artists we are comfortable listening to and into something we are used to having in our lives.

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Interviews from the Apollo

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Thursday, 16 December 2010
in Today in Black History

The stories that could be told about and around Harlem’s Apollo Theater are infinite. For this article, we will focus in on the generation-spanning experiences of two men who possess the distinction of performing at the famed venue as part of some of the most well renowned acts of their day.

Herman Hopkins graduated from Cass Technical High School and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941. This was no ordinary enlistment, however. As a musician, Hopkins and 23 other young men were recruited from Detroit, and 4 other major cities, as the first black musicians in the Navy.

Upon returning to Detroit, Hopkins began to play professionally and eventually joined the band of Paul Williams (who would later earn the name of Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams after his 1949 hit, “The Hucklebuck”). The group played their first outside-of-Detroit gig at Baltimore’s Royal Theater, earning national recognition as they sold out the venue.

It was also as part of this tour that the Paul Williams Band was booked to perform at the Apollo. Hopkins recalls doing 3 shows a day and meeting a lot of famous acquaintances. “It feels good to be recognized among that crowd,” a statement that could apply to their peers as well as the infamous audience. “It was very critical to succeed” at the Apollo and in New York itself as an entertainment center.

Photo courtesy of the Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams Estate

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Black Statue of Liberty as Performed at the Apollo Theater

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on Tuesday, 07 December 2010
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The poem I read on "It's Showtime At The Apollo" in 1995 changed my life.  I wrote that poem while I was still living on Detroit's West Side and I’d never been to NYC. I wanted to write a poem, at 21, that celebrated women of color, girls that looked like all of my girls. I didn't know the full history of NY's Statue of Liberty when I wrote my poem, and of course, I would later learn that the original statue was actually an African woman breaking shackles off her ankles and arms.

This is the poem. It was later published in my first book, The Words Don't Fit in My Mouth.

Black Statue of Liberty
by jessica Care moore

I stand still above an Island Fists straight in the air Scar on my face Long braids in my hair
People fly from all over just to swim near my tide or climb up my long flight of stairs but they trip on their shoe string lies piece by piece they shipped my body to this country
now that i'm here
your people don't want me
I'm a symbol of freedom
but i'm still not free
I suffer from race, class and gender in equality
I wear a crown of knowledge cause i'm a conscious queen my mask is one of happiness but my history here if full of misery, done deliberately

I am america's true statue of liberty cause liberty is just old mother nature and although you don't love her she'll never hate ya she's earth, wind and fire don't tempt him to show her power turning all weeds to flowers looking into her wise eyes will make a blind man see how can you dare name a Eurocentric girl after me?

Assata Shakur Barbara Jordan Nikki Giovanni  and Angela Davis

These are the true symbols of liberty
But that stone faced french women ain't gonna save us the same folks who enslaved us I'm sitting at the back of the bus cause i feel like it I play ball not cause you pay me to dunk it dribble it or hike it

Taking all my people back home and breaking them mentally free.

I'm the walking talking breathing statue of liberty
I sweep crack pipes out school yards I nurture my man when times are hard
So, where's out statue??
What's a liberated woman gotta do?

place my name in wet cement every month i pay the rent put my silhouette on a stamp
i'm not a ho slut or tramp
my children aren't on crack and either am i
I wanna see the words
"Go strong black woman" When the good year blimp flies by.

I can bake cookies, bare babies, resides of revolutions

Get rings out of tubs, wear a suit, slick my hair back or tie it in braids
My aura is unafraid
So, no statue in the big apple can mess with me.
I'm the walking, talking, breathing, surviving
Black Statue of Liberty

Copyright 1996 Moore Black Press.

jessica Care moore is an internationally renowned poet, playwright, actor, activist, producer and CEO of Moore Black Press.  She is the author of The Words Don't Fit in My Mouth, The Alphabet Verses The Ghetto, God is Not an American, and a forthcoming book of essays, Literary Apartheid.  She has performed her poems and solo theater shows all over the United States, in South Africa, and across Europe.  From her Broadway performances at Carnegie Hall, or Harlem's Apollo Theater, London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, to New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center, moore believes poems belong everywhere and to everyone.  Her new show, The Missing Project: Pieces of the D is an international storytelling live art music show that features an experimental jazz orchestra and the work of graffiti artist Antonio "Shades" Agee.  Her debut rock album, Black Tea, will be completed soon.  moore continues to push the boundaries of genre, with her first conceptual art installation, NANOC: I Sing The Body Electric, opening at Dell Pryor Gallery in 2011.  She lives in Detroit, where she is completing her memoir, Love is Not the Enemy, and raising the 4-year old love of her life, King Thomas James Moore Poole.

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It's Showtime...

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on Wednesday, 01 December 2010
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I remember as a small child watching the Apollo with my father.  We would pop popcorn and sit back to see who had the guts to get on stage and entertain the audience.  It was amazing to see the impeccable talent and those who had dreams and goals to meet them.  This in return, inspired me to stay steady on my feet towards a successful and rewarding career.

As one of the newest additions to the Charles H. Wright Museum team, I had the opportunity to visit the exhibit titled “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing:  How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.”  The bright red lights spelling out “APOLLO,” film recordings, historical photographs covering each wall, artist interviews and songs echoing throughout the exhibit, newspaper clippings advertising for Pearl Bailey, and more were a breath of fresh air.  There were individuals that I had never even heard of, like Buck & Bubbles (Ford Lee Washington and John W. Sublett).  This dynamic duo was considered one of the best entertainers in vaudeville.  Their talents ranged from singing and tap dancing to comedy.  Each was a showbiz pro, when they teamed up at the young ages of ten and six in 1926.

As ignorant as this may sound, I had no idea that the “Apollo,” was not always owned by African Americans.  In 1935, Sidney Cohen and his manager Morris Sussman purchased the Apollo and completely transformed it into an amazing place for raw talent to be viewed.  Many entertainers believe that acceptance from the Apollo Theater’s audience is like a right of passage on the path to stardom.   There is a plethora of information in the seven walls of the exhibit and I would encourage everyone to go and see it.  What do you have to lose?  But to gain knowledge of those before us who have set the stage for great accomplishments and hard work.

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Apollo Generations

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Tuesday, 23 November 2010
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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.

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A Small Apollo Theater History Lesson

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Gregory Lucas-Myers is a 2010 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor graduate, posse
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on Tuesday, 16 November 2010
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In celebration of the exhibit, Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment, the museum is hosting a pair of events this month centered on bringing the musical experience of the Apollo directly to our visitors.  In lieu of the upcoming event on the 18th, here is a little history on the guests that will be entertaining, telling stories to, and dancing with those who take advantage of these free events!

On November 10, the museum welcomed Norman Thrasher and Kim Weston to the exhibit.  Norman Thrasher was a member of The Royal Jokers through many of their incarnations, producing such hits as 1955’s “You Tickle Me Baby” and 1966’s “Love Game (From A to Z).”  Thrasher went on to become a successful manager for artists including Barry White.

Kim Weston is probably most recognizable on her 1966 duet with fellow legend Marvin Gaye, “It Takes Two,” but she has had numerous other successes as a solo artist such as 1965’s "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” and her version of the powerful anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  She has served as a radio DJ in Detroit and still tours on occasion.

On November 18, members of The Velvelettes will be present at the museum.  The quintet is best known for 1965’s "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'.”  Although I was unable to make the previous date, I will be sure to stop in on November 18.  Who can resist spending an evening with Motown legends?

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