If you’re of a certain age and you hear the name Motown 25, naturally you think of Michael Jackson. His Thriller album was starting to hit the stratosphere as he took to the stage with his spangled garb — his lone sequined glove, black loafers and white socks — and broke out the “moonwalk” for the first time on national television.
But do you remember anything else about the show? No? Don’t feel bad; unless you were one of the people who popped a blank tape in the VCR to record it on May 16, 1983, the day it aired on NBC, the memories of the show have likely faded from your brain. Until this year, the only bit from the special that had ever been repeated on air was MJ’s moonwalk, usually unfurled during one of those “best TV moments of all time” countdown specials.
TJ Lubinsky, who was then 11 years old, was one of those people who taped the special when it first aired. A New Jersey kid who grew up listening to oldies stations like WCBS-FM in New York, he had fallen in love with doo wop and the music of Berry Gordy’s revolutionary label at a young age. So when Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was listed in his local TV Guide, he was armed and ready.
“Everybody was looking for Michael Jackson, and I was too. But for me, I was more into the fact that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were going to reunite to sing all their great songs,” says Lubinsky. “That was everything you ever wanted to see, because I couldn’t see those acts any other way.”
When the show finally became available for rebroadcast this month — 32 years after it first aired — Lubinsky, who has produced most of the pledge-gathering doo wop shows that often pop up on your local public television station, seemed like the natural person to bring it back to people’s TVs. An edited version of the special has been playing on public television during the month of March, and has done well for the stations that have run it.
The unedited version of the broadcast is finally available on DVD from Time-Life, who was able to wrangle the music and image clearances to ensure that the special could be released intact. Lubinsky edited out segments that he didn’t think got to the heart of Motown – Adam Ant doing Supremes songs, a performance by DeBarge, a dance-laden intro that Lubinsky said was “a great little dance skit scene…but it went on for a long time.”
What Lubinsky cut out, of course, were attempts by the producers to connect with a young early-‘80s audience, not just boomers. As it was in the planning stages, it was thought that the big selling point of the show would be the reunion of the still-a-superstar Ross with The Supremes. But that ended up fizzling, with Wilson and Birdsong only momentarily singing the Supremes hit “Someday We’ll Be Together” with Ross before everyone crowded on stage for the grand finale.
Other than that, what was left in showed why the special was a big hit at the time, seen by a healthy-even-for-the-'80s audience of 47 million people. But it also displayed a good amount of manufactured “event” cheesiness that was the hallmark of the dying art of the television variety special.
Recorded at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in March of 1983, Motown 25 felt more like an award show than a celebration of the family atmosphere and superior musicianship of Berry Gordy’s Hitsville USA studios in Detroit, which opened its doors in 1959. The audience was stuffed into tuxedos and gowns; Smokey Robinson sported his best Jheri curl as he introduced the show; and host Richard Pryor did his best to infuse life into a monologue about the history of Motown, even though it was obvious he was cold reading off a teleprompter.
Much of it played like the kind of nostalgia show that made Gordy reluctant to do it in the first place, at least if his feelings were anything like Mary Wilson’s were at the time: “At this point in our lives most of us were no longer with the people we started out with,” she says. “You have your own life that you’re doing and the thought of going back was kind of, not scary, but just well what is this going to do for me?”
Too much of the show felt like a TV special instead of the fantastic concert it should have been. For every great moment, like Robinson singing with the Miracles for the first time since they broke up in the early '70s, there were cringe-worthy moments, like a too-cursory medley of some of the hits from Motown’s “smaller” acts like Junior Walker, Martha Reeves and Mary Welles, interspersed with cheesy patter from Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid reprising their roles from WKRP in Cincinnati, which had been cancelled the year before. Why would we want to hear DJ talk from Johnny Fever and not more of songs like “Shotgun” and “Heat Wave”?
But when the special settled down and let Motown’s biggest names sing full songs or extended medleys, it’s not hard to feel the electricity that was in the theater during the taping. The Four Tops and The Temptations, still smartly clad in matching suits and tuxes, traded off and sung each other’s biggest hits. Stevie Wonder played a medley of his classic '60s hits along with newer ones like “Sir Duke.” Even a duet between Robinson and Linda Ronstadt — a non-Motown artist — scored of the park due to Robinson’s smooth delivery of his hits “Ooh Baby Baby” and “Tracks of My Tears.”
But Marvin Gaye really hit it out of the park, first by giving a three-plus-minute treatise on the history of music in the black community, then by getting up from his piano, grabbing a microphone, and giving a stirring rendition of his 1971 call-to-action anthem “What’s Goin’ On.”
“It was so relevant, it’s still relevant,” says Wilson about Gaye’s monologue, which she believes he created on the spot. “It was just a beautiful speech and we were all kind of spellbound as everyone was watching from the side of the stage.” The performance was sandwiched between his 1982 career comeback mega-hit “Sexual Healing” and his tragic shooting death at the hands of his father in April of 1984, the irony of which Wilson still can’t get over. “I had a chance to sit down and watch the show with my little popcorn and I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “They say Elvis is the king I mean I think Marvin Gaye is the king. You watch him he was so full of emotion, it was just so intense.”
Then there’s MJ. Watching his part of the special, not just the reunion with his brothers to sing Jackson 5 songs that he made famous when he was ten years old, but the still-famous rendition of “Billie Jean,” two things came to mind: 1) “Billie Jean” was the only song on the entire special that was lip-synched, and 2) It was the only one that wasn’t a Motown song; Thriller was an Epic release. Even Gaye, whose “Sexual Healing” was on Columbia, ended up performing a song he released on Motown.
From what Wilson remembers, Jackson wanted to do the new song as a condition for appearing to sing the classics. “It was almost like seeing a new fantastic artist, which he emerged to become and it was all due to this show,” she says. “It’s like when you go to an oldies show and you know people only want to hear the oldies but from this oldies show you got something new and everyone was excited about it.”
So, the most famous performance of Motown 25 wasn’t even a Motown song. But it didn’t matter. “It never bothered me that he was lip-syncing 'Billie Jean’ because we wouldn’t have seen the fancy footwork,” says Lubinsky. “You couldn’t do both at the same time. And if you listen to the record, he’s singing to himself in multiple parts. There was no way that could happen either.”
It’s still exciting 32 years later. Jackson’s performance, especially the moonwalk, brought the audience to their feet, something that hadn’t happened much until that point. And it didn’t hurt that he and his brothers charged up the crowd with '80s renditions of their Motown classics, with the 24-year-old Michael taking the sweet prepubescent love songs and infusing them with some grown-man sexual urgency.
In retrospect, knowing all that went on with Jackson from that point until his death in 2009, the moment is remarkable in its purity. Here was MJ, already a star but still needing to use a duet with Paul McCartney as the lead single to Thriller. He didn’t have Neverland or Bubbles or Blanket; he was just a young man trying to separate himself from his kiddie past. It inserted a blast of currency into a special that, to that point, had been a peon to songs of the past, no matter how special they were.
Despite its flaws, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today. Forever was the one of the last great specials of its kind. The world of music on television was changing, with the MTV Video Music Awards soon setting a standard that made the sight of popular musicians in tuxes look like a stuffy relic. But the performances should be more than enough to prompt fans to go out and buy the DVD for more than just nostalgia reasons. They may just need to fast forward through the '80s TV cheesiness to get to the good stuff.
Joel Keller is one of the cofounders of the site Antenna Free TV and cohosts the weekly AFT Podcast. He was editor-in-chief of the now-defunct TV Squad, and since those heady days, he’s written about TV and other topics for The New York Times, The A.V. Club, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create, Vulture, Parade, Indiewire and elsewhere.