The Supremes Headline a Reunion of Soul Music's Brightest Stars as Motown Turns 25

updated 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Someday," the Supremes sang back in 1969, "we'll be together." And on a nostalgic night in California, 14 years after Diana Ross left the group, they were. The occasion was the taping of a TV special marking Motown Records' 25th anniversary. Dressed in a sequined top and black skirt, Diana Ross began singing Someday when fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong emerged from the wings. It was a memorable moment, to be sure, but the fact that it was not the highlight of the evening is a tribute to the incredible sway Motown has held over soul music for the past quarter century. Barely two verses into the song, the Supremes were joined onstage by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves—a veritable soul music hall of fame.

That a single record company could boast such a star-studded lineup is due to the perseverance and perspicacity of one man—former auto assembly line worker Berry Gordy, who launched Motown in the summer of 1958. From his inauspicious headquarters at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Gordy fashioned a multimillion-dollar music empire that succeeded where all others before him had failed: He brought soul to white audiences. The Supremes turned out 12 No. 1 songs in the '60s, and Motown became known as "Hitsville, U.S.A."

Motown's past may be brighter than its future, however. There have been defections over the years, most notably Ross' switch to RCA Records in 1981. Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson have also left the fold. Still, the remarkable sense of loyalty that Gordy commands was evidenced by their presence at the taping. "Berry Gordy has always felt that he's never been appreciated," Ross told the crowd of some 2,500 at Pasadena's Civic Auditorium, "especially by the people who left Motown. But this is about the people who came back, and tonight everybody came back."

In spite of the turnout and nonstop parade of hits like You Are the Sunshine of My Life and Ain't Too Proud to Beg, the evening was not without its problems. While the NBC show, scheduled to air in May, will probably run only two hours, the taping wore on for almost five. The black-tie audience, which had shelled out as much as $500 a head (proceeds went to sickle-cell anemia research), was visibly restless. Some front-row denizens loudly discussed the fact that Ross, who appeared to shove Mary Wilson during Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand, had a run in her stocking. Earlier, in an unrehearsed move, Diana slid on and offstage during British New Waver Adam Ant's ill-received rendition of the Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go? Motown claimed the show was sold out, but twice during the first 10 minutes attendees were asked to move up from the balconies and rear of the auditorium to fill empty seats and give the appearance of a full house.

After the taping some 1,000 singers and guests repaired to Plaza Pasadena to eat ribs and peach cobbler. The atmosphere was subdued. The usually taciturn Gordy stood to deliver a speech. "I'm a man of few words," he said, "and I mean to keep it that way. I'm way ahead, and I'm much too smart to press my luck."

"Yesterday-Today-Forever" was the stated theme of the evening. With black artists recording for every major label, that "forever" may be wishful thinking. But, considering the distinguished array of alums massed onstage, the company's place in history is secure. "Motown caused a revolution in music," observed rock perennial Dick Clark. "Until Motown charged out of Detroit, the only thing black about music was the vinyl of the records."

From Our Partners