Do you remember what you watched on TV on Monday, May 16, 1983?
If I were to start singing
People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two . . .
Would that spark any memories?
How about if I asked if you to recall The Temptations waging a “Battle of the Bands” with The Four Tops? Witnessing reunions of The Supremes and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles?
How about the very first time Michael Jackson — yes, the Michael Jackson — ever performed his signature move, the Moonwalk?
All of this and more took place on Monday, May 16, 1983 as NBC broadcast Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the greatest record label.
The Best of Motown
Unseen on television for decades, PBS is bringing the legendary concert to a PBS station near you. An updated version of Motown 25: Yesterday – Today – Forever, will premiere on most public television stations at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 28 (check your local listings), then will repeat immediately following. TJ Lubinsky, executive producer and co-host of public television’s My Music series has also created a 7-CD set of original Motown hits, classic album tracks, and rarities to accompany the airing of this extraordinary TV special that won a George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy Award for Best Variety Program.
To say that this program is a must-see is putting it mildly. This is the music of our generation, the songs sung by the legendary artists we grew up with.
- My Guy — Mary Wells
- Heat Wave — Martha and The Vandellas
- I Want You Back — The Jackson 5
- You Really Got a Hold on Me — The Miracles
- Uptight — Stevie Wonder
- Get Ready — The Temptations
- I Can’t Help Myself — The Four Tops
- Marvin Gaye doing an epic version of What’s Going On (He would be murdered less than a year later.)
- Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, replete with the opening pose with the fedora, black sequin jacket and glove, to the moonwalk routine in the song’s bridge
- And, yes, The Tracks of My Tears which featured a duet by Smokey Robinson and Linda Ronstadt
Trust me, memories will keep flooding back to you because music is where memory lives and our young adult years are tied so intrinsically to these songs and those times. For the past 10 years, my colleague Craig Werner and I have been cataloguing the music-based memories of Vietnam veterans for our soon-to-be-published book We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of veterans have affirmed the staying, and healing, power of songs like My Girl, Nowhere to Run, What’s Going On, Tracks of My Tears and many, many more. The music sustained us as soldiers/veterans and connected us as a generation.
For me, the nostalgia goes even deeper. I was lucky enough to be elected co-chairman of the social committee at tiny Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va. in early 1967. That would result in, among other things, my having my hands on the hips of a pink-suited Junior Walker of Shotgun fame (he’s in the Motown 25 show) as he led a locomotion line through the audience when he played at my small college.
But the most amazing thing was that my co-chair, Ken Miller, and I had won the first-ever campus-wide election for social chairman in large part because our campaign pledge to the students of Bethany College was that “we’d bring Smokey and The Miracles to campus” if we were elected.
Smokey and The Miracles
Well, elected we were and thanks to Kenny’s contacts in nearby Pittsburgh, Pa., we booked Smokey and The Miracles to appear at Bethany’s Rhine Field House on a gloomy March Sunday in 1967. In addition, we had to drive from Bethany to the hotel in Pittsburgh where The Miracles were staying, bring them (Smokey, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and Ronnie White) to Bethany, do the Sunday night concert, and then drive them back to Pittsburgh.
While I don’t remember much about the ride to or from the concert, I do remember the lilt of Smokey’s voice when we met him in the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh and how he took his gloves off to shake hands. His hand was soft and warm.
“Hi, I’m Smokey,” he said in his sweet voice.
And we were off!
Given how long ago 1967 is and the fact that I was “working” during the concert that night, I don’t remember much about their set except they sang all their biggest hits and even premiered The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage that night.
But what I do remember most vividly was what happened after the concert. The guys’ (Smokey’s then wife Claudette Rogers-Robinson wasn’t with them) “dressing room” was the boys’ locker room in the Bethany College gym, and Kenny and I waited for them on the bleachers after they changed and the crowd had cleared out. I watched as they walked slowly, single-file, toward us from the locker room across the gym floor that just minutes ago had been filled with almost a thousand adoring fans. A basketball backboard and hoop was stationed behind and above the bleachers where we were sitting. I noticed Pete and Bobby looking up at the hoop as they headed in our direction.
By the time they reached us, Pete shyly said, “Man, I would love to play some ball right now. I haven’t shot any hoops for a long time.”
I thought Pete was joking but then I saw that Bobby and Ronnie were nodding their heads. I turned toward Kenny and Smokey to see what they thought. Smokey waved at us.
“Go ahead and knock yourself out,” he laughed. “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.”
And he sat. And so did Kenny who wasn’t much of a basketballer. But I was a player and was thrilled by the prospect, regardless of what time it was. I raced to the locker room and came back with a new Wilson basketball. We quickly collapsed the bleachers (moving Smokey and Kenny) and squared off — Pete and me against Ronnie and Bobby.
Our dress shoes sounded funny and out of place on the hardwood floor and we slipped and slid a little too much. But our inner city playground basketball genes eventually took over and the next thing I knew we were all down to our T-shirts, sweating, dribbling, shooting, hustling and talking trash.
We played to 7 by ones and split two games. Bobby was taller than the three of us and was killing us on the boards, tipping in missed shots and grabbing rebounds. As we geared up for the rubber match, Smokey’s voice, not as lilting and sweet as before, rumbled across the gym.
“Game over! We gotta get back!”
We slung our shirts and jackets over our shoulders and began to head out. I looked behind me to see Bobby Rogers waving at me to throw him the basketball.
“You gotta make your last shot,” he smiled at me as he caught the pass and banked in a short jumper.
Bobby and Ronnie are now dead. As are Mary Wells and almost all of The Four Tops and The Temptations. And Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.
But you can see them this Saturday on PBS as the way we want to remember them. Smiling. Singing. Entertaining.
All of them making their last shot.
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