For Detroit’s close-knit Motown family, Sunday marks the end of an era

When the Motown alumni reunite in Los Angeles on Sunday for their annual get-together, there will be plenty of hugs, backslaps, catching up and reminiscing, full of longtime stories being shared once again.

The Heroes and Legends (HAL) Awards, founded by former Motown secretary and songwriter Janie Bradford, will be held at the Beverly Hills Hotel – the latest iteration of a festive event that for decades served as a family reunion unofficial Motown.

But this HAL event is also the last, as organizers and attendees face a poignant and stark reality: the truth of the aging, loss and march of time.

“With so many deaths, with so few of us left, it’s become harder to put it all together each year to keep the excitement going,” Bradford said.

Miracles' Claudette Robinson, left, and HAL Awards founder Janie Bradford attend a celebration for Mary Wilson at The Paley Center for Media on February 25, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.

Many of the people who will be in attendance on Sunday night are remnants of the Detroit Central team that worked, created and played in Motown in its early days and helped cultivate one of the most important phenoms in music history. American. They created Motown, and it’s a life story that they uniquely share.

Guests will include Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., 92, making a rare public appearance since the start of the pandemic, as well as artists such as Duke Fakir (Four Tops), Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson (Miracles), Brenda Holloway and Scherrie Payne (Supremes).

But the gathering will also include behind-the-scenes people who are just as embedded in the Motown story. They were the “unsung heroes” as Gordy used to call them: people like Pat Cosby, who ran the company’s tape library, and Billie Jean Brown, who ran the quality control department. . Many came from Detroit for the occasion, as they have done regularly for years.

“They all support each other,” said Sujata Murthy of Universal Music Enterprises (UME). “It’s a tight-knit group. They always show up together, whether it’s for something triumphant or tragic.

Murthy, who helps oversee the Motown catalog as executive vice president of media and artist relations for UME, will receive this year’s Cornerstone Award, one of seven honors at Sunday’s HAL event.

Motown Records continued and flourished well beyond its Detroit days, of course, and today the LA label is home to artists such as Vince Staples, Erykah Badu and Kem.

But for those on the front lines in Hitsville, USA in the early years, there is a distinct sense of unity and pride.

“When other companies talk about family, it’s different. Motown really became a family from day one,” said Bradford, who was hired by Gordy in 1959 as one of the first employees of the West Grand Boulevard house that became Motown’s headquarters. “It’s always there for us whenever we’re together. Even if we haven’t seen someone for years, it (comes back) like yesterday. We hold out our hands. We need each other. We lend a hand. »

Motown alum Pat Cosby, left, and Motown legend Martha Reeves speak before the funeral of Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy on Saturday, April 22, 2017, at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

Cosby, who was hired at Motown in ’62 and also worked as a switchboard operator and album coordinator, said the family spirit extends far beyond the office. She estimates that during the 1960s, at least 90% of Motown’s staff—artists, musicians, writers, staffers—lived within a three-mile radius northwest of Detroit.

“So it wasn’t just work. After the 9 to 5 was over, we were still together. Family picnics. A special event at 20 Grand. We shopped at the same stores, lived in the same neighborhoods,” Cosby said. . “We were going to be thieves, as they say, because of the work we did — but also because it stayed consistent outside of Motown properties. We were all helping each other.”

Their Motown experience was shaped by another unusual circumstance: they were young people who learned as they went.

“We didn’t come in there with the experience of being an album coordinator or dealing with licensing or dealing with copyrights,” Cosby said. “We came there to try to figure out how to make this work.”

The living alumni are keepers of Motown’s original flame, and their shared experience has forged a special bond. At this point, most are over 70 and still part of a warm, close group who know they’ve contributed something extraordinary.

But these former students are also well aware that they are part of an increasingly small family. And this reality is a regular topic of conversation between them.

“Family lives on, and it lives on through all of us. And we still love each other,” Smokey Robinson said at an event at the Motown Museum last month. But he went on to note, “When I go and look at the pictures in this building, I see 80% of the people are gone. (People) we grew up with.”

Smokey Robinson talks about the inspiration of the Motown family while addressing a crowd at the unveiling of the expansion work at the Motown Museum in Detroit on Monday, August 8, 2022.

Robinson was on hand to inaugurate the latest phase of construction of the museum, where a $55 million expansion aims to bridge that Motown past with a vital real-time future.

Robin Terry of the Motown Museum will be in attendance at the HAL Awards to receive an honor on behalf of the museum’s late founder, Esther Gordy Edwards. Terry applauded Bradford’s work to celebrate “the titans of the music and entertainment industries alongside our beloved Motown heroes whose legacies as trailblazers and story makers will live on and inspire through the Motown Museum”.

Bradford started the HAL Awards and accompanying HAL Scholarship Foundation in 1990 to financially support young people in the performing arts. Due to his Motown connections, the event quickly became a de facto annual get-together for his old friends and colleagues back in the trenches in Hitsville.

Gordy praised Bradford’s efforts on that front.

“For 30 years, the Janie Bradford Heroes and Legends Scholarship Foundation has awarded many deserving young people with scholarships, while providing the Motown family with a place to relate every year,” the Motown founder said in a statement. “Janie has kept the Motown spirit of family, love and togetherness alive. It’s (the ceremony) last year, and I personally applaud her for all the love she’s shown us at all.

Cosby said she had “a list of 35 or 36 Motown family members who have died since the last HAL event,” which was held before the pandemic.

Losses since 2021 include Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Wanda Young Rogers of the Marvelettes, songwriter-producer Lamont Dozier, Funk Brothers guitarist Joe Messina and – most recently – singer Mable John.

“It’s tough,” Bradford said. “It’s a shock every time you hear that someone else has died. Setting up HAL has become more difficult because there is a smaller pool of people to draw from.

After Dozier’s death in August, his longtime creative partner, Eddie Holland, was emotional as he reflected on the uniqueness of the Motown family and the sting of continued loss.

“When we needed each other, everyone was there. It was a strange and beautiful relationship being involved with Motown created,” Holland told the Free Press. maybe see each other in another life. Every time someone from Motown dies, someone that we grew up with, it takes us a little longer each time. It kind of erases the memories, that thought of “it will last forever”.

Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]

Winners of the Heroes and Legends Awards 2022:

Doug E. Fresh (Pioneer Award)

Sondra (Blinky) Williams (Outstanding Award in Music)

Billie Jean Brown (Paceter Prize)

Toni Basil (Pioneer Award)

Duke Fakir (Triumph Award)

Jon Platt (HAL icon price)

sujata murthy (Cornerstone Award)

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