The Kidzter Kids Meet Motown
Eva Emily Ellis,
Apprentice Musicologist, 1st Class
© Kidzter, 2014
Dedicated to Lamont Dozier, for sharing his Motown memories
“A time travel trip back to Motown’ glory days when everything was Uptight (Alright) for a trio of today’s youth. What a great way for kids to learn the love of music history.”
Joel Selvin, S.F. Chronicle Music Critic & Author
Click HERE To visit the Motown Discography where you can preview and download the biggest Motown hits
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THE KIDZTER KIDS
The historical events you will read about are true.
You are there with Eva, Carlos & Jimi, the Kidzter Kids, as they witness music history that really happened.
It was the most terrible band practice ever! Eva couldn’t remember when she and her best friends had ever bickered more. And arguing with her friends was her least favorite thing ever.
Carlos, a guitar prodigy, was only interested in working on his own songs. Jimi, an amazing drummer, didn’t want to have any vocals, just instrumentals. And that didn’t sit well with Eva. Eva played keyboards and sang. She wanted the vocals to be the main focus and always insisted the songs be done in her best key. They were giving each other the hardest time ever.
“Let’s just try some of my words to your beat,” Eva suggested to Jimi.
“Your words stink,” replied Jimi.
Well, your beats stink,” added Carlos.
Oh dear, thought Eva Emily Ellis.
Eva knew that Crystal Canary and Floyd Fox, her teachers at the Kidzter Music School, were not happy about what was going on. They had assigned the students to work together to write songs. The purpose was to learn the benefits of teamwork. Teaching collaboration, the art of working together creatively, was a hallmark of the Kidzter Music School. It was one of its most important lessons. This was why the faculty was beside itself with frustration. When it came to Eva and her friends, their teaching seemed to be falling on deaf ears. While the other students were working smoothly together, Eva, Jimi and Carlos were acting like spoiled brats, bickering and fighting. They were barely listening to each other as they played. As for writing songs together, they were getting nowhere.
Each one of them would find an excuse to stop practice to make a demand.
“Faster,” urged Carlos Garcia.
Carlos was tapping his foot, as he always did when he was impatient. His glasses slid down his nose.
“Higher key,” requested Eva.
She tugged in frustration on her long flowing red hair.
“No vocals – none,” demanded Jimi Cole.
Eva could see Jimi’s eyes shining behind his sunglasses. He looked fierce.
All around them, other groups of students were collaborating well. The cousins who comprised the Kiddie Kats had almost finished writing a song. Koala Jack and the three Roo brothers (Axel, Ozzy and Elton), who usually fought like cats and dogs, were working together without arguing.
But Eva, Jimi and Carlos did nothing BUT argue. Once Carlos pounded out a drum pattern that Jimi didn’t like. In response, Jimi kicked over Carlos’ snare drum. Eva had never seen her friends be so mad.
“You’re messing up my song,” yelled Jimi.
“I’m just trying to make it better,” protested Carlos.
“You made it worse. I don’t need your help,” replied Jimi.
Eva was angry too, but knew better than to say anything, even though she thought that Carlos’s groove only made the song sound better. When her best friends fought, it just made her feel small. Smaller than she already was (and she was, indeed, already quite small).
Eva did not like being small. Not at all. But being small seemed to be her destiny. She loved music history and every musician with whom she shared a name was also small or short. There was “Little” Eva, who sang “The Loco-Motion,” and “Pee Wee” Ellis, who played saxophone in James Brown’s band. No one large ever seemed to be associated with her name.
The boys and Eva kept bickering. Arguing about everything.
Eva knew they were in for it when Mort Moose joined the teachers in the band practice room for a conference. At the Kidzter Music School, Mort Moose was the big cheese – the most important person around. He had been a fabulously successful manager in the music business who had steered many musicians to the top of the charts. With his fortune made, he bought a “haunted” mansion and established the Kidzter Music School in it as his way of “giving back”. He was the founder, headmaster and landlord, all rolled into one.
Eva whispered to Jimi and Carlos, “I think Mort’s really upset.”
“Yeah,” said Jimi. “I hope we don’t get detention.”
“Me, too,” added Carlos.
Now Mort was headed towards them.
“Uh-oh. Here he comes,” said Jimi.
“Now we’re in for it,” whispered Carlos.
“Oh, rats,” Eva whispered back.
Just then, she happened to look out the window and saw a shadow move. To Eva’s surprise, it was the shadow of the telescope on the roof of the mansion.
Strange, she thought. That telescope NEVER moves.
But she didn’t think about the telescope for long, because there were other things to think about. Like DETENTION!
The happiest day of 10-year old Eva’s life was when she got an acceptance letter from the Kidzter Music School. Had she blown it? Was detention the worst that could happen? There was always the possibility of being asked to leave. That was worse. MUCH worse, thought Eva Emily Ellis.
Mort walked toward them and crisply said, “Students, follow me.” They knew better than to question him. Jimi, Eva and Carlos fell in step. But to Eva’s surprise, he didn’t lead them to his office or a classroom, but to the stairs that climbed to the roof of the old rambling mansion.
Mort opened the door to the roof and shepherded the three students through. They were on the roof. Eva heard that Professor Rock, the mad scientist who built the mansion, had been struck by lightning on this very roof while conducting an experiment. His ghost has haunted the mansion ever since.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Mort Moose. “There’s nothing to be scared of up here. But there is lots for you to learn.”
What can he mean by that?, wondered Eva. She looked at Jimi and Carlos, who both appeared as puzzled as she was.
They tagged behind Mort as he strode along the roof to an iron ladder that climbed to the observatory, a turret-shaped structure that housed Professor Rock’s telescope. [_What kind of experiment was the mad scientist conducting in this oddly shaped tower that stuck out from the roof?, _]she wondered.
Eva, who had a fear of heights, told herself not to be scared. But her heart was beating a mile a minute. She couldn’t let her best friends see that she was frightened, so she made a special effort to look brave.
There was an arched door at the top that opened inward. Eva followed Mort through the door. Inside, there was the most amazing thing she had ever seen.
In front of her was a most remarkable machine. It was hissing, sparking and ticking all at the same time. It seemed to be steam-powered, but also electrical. Shiny brass valves piped steam while copper wire coils transmitted electricity. At the center of this improbable technology mash-up was the mechanism of a giant clock. Above, light streamed from the telescope and became concentrated on a long wire antenna that stuck out above the machine. She had never seen anything like it. Eva, who was very proud of her vocabulary, struggled to find the words to describe what she saw.
“Steampunk,” announced Jimi. “It’s very steampunk. In fact, it’s the steampunkiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Eva knew that steampunk meant not just steam-powered but something that was both retro and futuristic at the same time. Jimi was the style expert of their little group. He was up on all the latest trends. If Jimi said it was the most steampunkiest thing he’d ever seen, Eva knew she was surely gazing upon one of the most amazing steampunk things ever.
“Welcome to Professor Rock’s time machine,” said Mort Moose. “Today you are going to learn a lesson about teamwork from one of the greatest examples of teamwork in music history: Motown Records.”
Eva saw that Jimi and Carlos were excited. They both loved Motown.
So did she, of course. Who didn’t love the classic Motown songs? The list of Motown hits was almost endless, thought Eva. What did Mort mean when he said we were going to learn a lesson from Motown?
Her thoughts were interrupted as Mort made sure they all had entered the strange structure and closed the door behind them. He gestured for them to look around and said, “This is Professor Rock’s last invention. Today, we’re going to use it to visit Motown Records in the ‘60s. You need to learn a lesson about teamwork and there’s no better way than to see it in action at Motown.”
Eva, Jimi and Carlos gasped. Visit Motown? Time travel? Eva knew that the Kidzter Music School was a little bit magical. It didn’t have spells and potions like Hogwarts from her beloved Harry Potter books, but the school WAS in a haunted mansion, frequented by the ghosts of famous musicians who came by to jam or teach. And strange and improbable events seemed to happen with amazing regularity. But time-travel? Who knew?, thought Eva Emily Ellis.
Mort directed Eva, Carlos and Jimi to sit on the edge of the platform that supported the amazing machine. He reached in and removed a brass pocket watch that glowed. Mort popped it into his jacket pocket.
Eva shivered, but it wasn’t cold. She was feverishly trying to understand what was happening. Mort said they were going back in time. How was that even possible? Time machines didn’t really exist. She had seen movies about time travel but traveling back and forth in time couldn’t be real, could it? Were they really about to take a journey into the past?
“Take a seat, kids,” said Mort. “There’s no time to tell you how this works. I’ll explain everything later.” Mort sat down on the platform.
“Start it up,” he said to Gizmo.
Gizmo was small, blue and furry. He was a longtime roadie who had worked for all of Mort’s bands. Gizmo believed that a rock ‘n roll roadie not only had to tend to the band’s instruments, but also had to be able to fix anything that broke. “The show must go on,” was his motto.
But, for all the respect Eva and her friends had for the little roadie, there was something about Gizmo that scared them. Sure, he was sweet and friendly. But they had heard about the various times his confidence that he could fix anything crossed over to recklessness, endangering himself and others. Gizmo had shocked himself with loose electrical cables, singed his fur with stage fireworks and occasionally scared the pants off everyone around him. The fact that Gizmo was at the controls made Eva nervous. She was sure that Jimi and Carlos shared her anxiety.
Gizmo moved several levers. The telescope that poked out of the roof of the observatory moved slowly into another position. As it did, the light that streamed through became more and more intense. Suddenly the clocks began to spin. Thousands of brass gears and steam-powered pistons started moving in harmony. The light started to swirl around the antenna as hissing and humming sounds grew louder. Just then, Gizmo began to play a keyboard attached to the device. It was like no keyboard Eva had ever seen before. It was made of antique brass and copper and also seemed to be powered by both steam and electricity.
The room itself was shaped like a giant bell. There were speakers around the ceiling that looked like those she had seen in pictures of old-fashioned record players. As Gizmo played, strange sounds came from the speakers. The sounds got louder and louder — and stranger and stranger, thought Eva.
“That’s the music of the spheres,” said Mort Moose. “Hang on tight.”
Gizmo continued to play. The vintage tubes, pumps and generators pulsed and throbbed, sparks occasionally flying.
Commanding their attention (not easy amidst all the strange and alarming noises), Mort Moose held up the stopwatch. “We will only be gone an hour, so you won’t miss your next class.”
Meanwhile, Gizmo was simultaneously playing the keyboard and adjusting dozens of dials and switches that were connected to hundreds of valves and hoses and tubes. They combined to produce an amazing heavenly sound. All the controls were shining brass and wood, obviously lovingly repaired and restored by the little blue roadie.
Gizmo turned his full attention to the keyboard, playing chords on it as if it were a modern synthesizer. The resulting sounds from the instrument swirled and swelled to a gigantic climax as the room vibrated. Lights sparkled and danced around the ceiling. A field of light seemed to encircle them. Suddenly the room went dark and the walls fell away, spilling the three kids, along with Mort, onto the front yard of a small house.
Were they really in Detroit?, wondered Carlos.
Were they really in the ‘60s?, wondered Jimi.
Would they get out of this alive?, wondered Eva Emily Ellis, who doubted everything, especially when Gizmo was involved.
Time left: Sixty minutes.
“Where are we?” asked Eva.
“If all went well, we’re in Detroit, Michigan,” said Mort Moose. “And this house is the home of Motown Records.”
It certainly didn’t look grand enough to be Motown, thought Eva. But, sure enough, they saw “Hitsville U.S.A.” painted on a sign over the front door Eva knew that Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, had put that sign up when he started Motown. He rented the house with an $800 loan from his family. This must be the place, she thought.
She also knew that Motown was short for “Motor City”—a nickname given to the city of Detroit because of its close connection to the automobile manufacturing business.
There was a sign by the entrance of Hitsville U.S.A. that read “Auditions Today.” And there was a long line of aspiring musicians lined up, apparently waiting their turn to audition. More and more hopefuls were arriving and getting in line every minute.
Eva could see all the people waiting in line. But they, apparently, couldn’t see her or her friends. The sudden appearance of three kids accompanied by a well-dressed moose had not attracted the slightest bit of attention.
While Eva was wondering if they really were invisible, Mort said, “Come on, kids, we only have an hour.” He pulled the brass pocket watch from his pocket.
Looking at the pocket watch, Mort said “there is so much for you to learn at Motown…and so little time.”
And then he clicked the pocket watch.
Time left: Fifty-nine minutes.
Suddenly they were inside the Hitsville house, in a simple living room that served as the reception area. Eva looked out of the large picture window to the lawn they had just been standing on. She could see that the line of hopeful auditioners (was that even a proper word for people doing musical tryouts?, she wondered) had gotten even longer. It now stretched all the way down the street for as far as she could see.
The room was filled with people. Some were there for the auditions. Some, like the receptionist, were hard at work. And others just seemed to be hanging out. Once again, no one paid the slightest attention to Eva and her friends.
Very strange, she thought. You would think someone would notice their little group. It was as if they really were invisible – and inaudible. “Come with me,” said Mort. No one but Eva, Carlos and Jimi seemed to hear him.
They followed Mort down a hallway. There, seated in front of a closed door, was a boy who looked to be about their age. Eva was startled to see that he was gazing directly at them. She had gotten used to the idea of being invisible.
“You can’t use the toilet right now,” the boy said. “They’re recording. You can’t flush.”
“We don’t need to use the bathroom,” said Mort. “We’re just trying to find the studio.”
“My name is Tommy,” said the boy introducing himself. “What’s yours?”
“I’m Mort,” Mort Moose replied.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mort,” said Tommy, who looked toward Eva.
“My name is Eva,” she said, “and these are my friends, Carlos and Jimi. We are very pleased to meet you too.”
Tommy explained that the engineers used this small bathroom as an echo chamber to improve the sound of their recordings. But sometimes a performance was ruined when someone unknowingly used the bathroom and flushed the toilet. So Tommy, whose mom worked at Motown, had been given the job of guarding the door.
Berry Gordy’s Dad, who everyone called “Pops,” was busy building a new echo chamber in the house’s attic. So Tommy’s job might not last too much longer.
Just then a voice down the hallway shouted “Hey, Tommy, we’re done. People can flush again.”
Suddenly, the hallway was full of people who had clearly been waiting for the bathroom to be available. A line quickly formed at the door. Everyone said “Hi” to Tommy but clearly couldn’t see Eva, Mort, Carlos, or Jimi as they walked past them. Tommy seemed puzzled.
Mort said, “I should explain why we’re here.” Of course, no one but Tommy and the kids heard him.
Tommy gestured for them to follow him as he opened a door and they all disappeared inside.
Time left: Fifty-seven minutes.
Mort, Eva, Jimi and Carlos followed Tommy through the doorway. Mort closed the door behind them. They found themselves in a small room. From floor to ceiling, the room was jam packed with tall, narrow boxes.
Tommy said, “No one will bother us here in the tape library. “Now, why can’t anybody else see you?” asked Tommy. “How come just me?”
Mort took a deep breath (which sounded more like a snort).
“Tommy, have you read about time-travel or time machines,” he asked.
“Sure,” said Tommy. “I love science fiction.”
“Well, this is no fiction, its real,” said Mort. “We’ve come from the future to visit Motown.”
“So that we can learn about teamwork,” added Jimi.
“But we only can stay in the past for one hour. So we can’t waste any time,” said Mort.
“Can you help us?” asked Carlos.
“Can you be our guide?” asked Mort.
“Of course I can,” answered Tommy. “But, why am I the only one who can see you?”
“I don’t know for sure,” answered Mort. “The most important law of time travel is that we can’t change the past. So mostly we can just watch and learn and nobody can see or hear us. But, every time there’s been one person who can see and hear me, just one. Usually it’s a kid”.
“So, I’m the kid,” said Tommy.
“That appears so,” agreed Mort. The time machine seems to work by changing the frequency of our molecules. Your molecules must be in tune with ours.”
“Wow,” said Tommy.
Wow, thought Eva Emily Ellis. If there was every anything that deserved a “wow”, this was it.
After a moment, Tommy said “I know all about how we do things here at Motown. Mr. Gordy set it up just like a factory, like the automobile plant he used to work at. Everybody in the team does their part. And instead of making cars, we make hit songs.”
“Excellent,” said Mort
“But I want to know more about your time machine,” said Tommy.
“Me, too,” said Eva and Carlos.
“And me,” added Jimi.
“No time,” answered Mort. He pulled the pocket watch from his pocket.
“This is the time control”, said the moose. “When I tap it, we can travel in space and time. So we can learn a lot in an hour. But we have to get started. Just tell us where to go.”
Tommy thought deeply for a few seconds. Then he said, “The most important thing at Motown is team spirit. Once a week we have a big meeting and we sing the Motown song. Smokey wrote it.”
Mort clicked the pocket watch. Light swirled around them and they were no longer in the tape library.
Time left: Fifty-three minutes
Suddenly they were in the Motown recording studio. Everyone who worked at the record company was there: singers, secretaries, engineers – everybody. The room was jammed. Eva recognized Smokey Robinson, one of Motown’s biggest stars, who Tommy had identified as the song’s author. Mort pointed out Berry Gordy, himself. They were all singing the Motown song.
Oh, we have a very swinging company
Working hard from day to day.
Our main purpose is to please the world
With songs the DJs love to play.
Nowhere will you find more unity
Than at Hitsville U.S.A.
Tommy whispered to Mort, “Everything at Motown starts with the songwriters. Let’s go to “songwriter’s row”. The moose clicked the pocket watch.
Time left: Fifty-one minutes
They were suddenly upstairs at Hitsville U.S.A. Eva noticed that the second floor of the house was as busy as the first. There was a kitchen where enough food to feed an army was being prepared. It smelled delicious. Like before, people looked up and said “Hi” to Tommy, but no one noticed Mort and the kids.
They followed Tommy to a series of little rooms that were filled with people who were either pounding on a piano or singing little bits of incomplete lyrics. Some of the doors were closed, but in the ones that were open, Eva could see that each room had an upright piano and a portable tape recorder.
Tommy whispered, “This is where the songwriters work. Motown uses teams of songwriters and they all have to come up with five songs a day. There’s a lot of competition to get a new song recorded.”
He stopped next to a door that was slightly open.
“This is where HDH works,” he said.
Noticing a puzzled look from the group, Tommy continued: “HDH stands for Eddie and Brian Holland, they’re the two Hs. And Lamont Dozier. He’s the D. They’re the top songwriting team. Let’s listen.”
“I don’t care if Gladys Horton hates the song, I know it’s a hit,” said one voice.
“That’s Lamont Dozier,” whispered Tommy.
“Well, if the Marvelette’s won’t sing ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ maybe we can give it to one of the other girl groups,” said another.
“That’s Brian Holland,” Tommy whispered.
Eva loved “Where Did Our Love Go.” It was one of her favorite Motown hits.
“The other girls won’t want to do it either once they know it’s a hand-me-down song,” said another voice.
“And that’s Eddie Holland,” added Tommy.
“Well, maybe we can get the Supremes to sing it,” suggested one of the voices.
“You mean the ‘no-hit’ Supremes? They won’t like it either. Not with the Marvelettes turning it down,” said another.
“Won’t matter,” said the third voice. “They don’t have the clout to say no.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan,” agreed the first voice. “Now we better get busy on something new. I’ve got this idea…”
The next thing they heard was a melody being played on the piano. It sounded familiar to Eva. Whoever was playing piano repeated the notes until a voice joined in.
“Sugar pie, honey bunch…” sang one of the songwriters, accompanied by sparse piano playing.
Now Eva could identify the melody. It was a song called “I Can’t Help Myself.” It would eventually become a big hit for Motown.
Sure enough, another voice joined in as the pianist repeated the notes, following “Sugar pie, honey bunch” with the words “I can’t help myself.” Eva couldn’t believe she was actually hearing the creation of one of her favorite songs.
The kids heard one of the songwriters say, “Let’s get that on tape,” and then the faint whirring sound of the tape recorder being turned on. Eva had heard that sound before, but only at a museum dedicated to preserving old recording technology. In her head, she could see two reels of tape spinning.
HDH repeated the piano riff and the lyrics for the tape recorder, joining their voices to emphasize the words. It already sounded great, thought Eva Emily.
“Lamont, where did you get that ‘sugar pie, honey bunch’ stuff?” asked one of the Hollands.
“My grandmother used to have a beauty parlor and my granddad would sweet talk all the ladies. He’d call this one ‘honey bunch’ and that one ‘sugar pie.’ I just thought of it when you played that piano riff.”
“I like it. We can work this song up for the Four Tops. We need a song for the Tops,” said a voice that Eva knew must be one of the Holland brothers. “Let’s get it finished so we can take it to the quality control meeting today.”
Tommy whispered, “That’s how songwriting works at Motown. There are teams of songwriters and producers. The teams work together to come up with songs. But they have to get approval at the quality control meeting before they can go into the studio or for a song to be released as a single. There’s lots of teamwork involved, but at the same time, there’s lots of competition, too. Mr. Gordy thinks that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a great thing,” chimed in Mort Moose.
“Now lets visit the ‘charm school,’” said Tommy.
Mort clicked the watch.
Time left: Forty-six minutes.
With a click of Mort’s watch the group was transported to a similar building across the street from the main Hitsville building. They were now standing in Motown’s artist-development headquarters. Every performer was required to work on manners, vocal delivery, dance moves and more.
It really is like a factory, thought Eva.
They were peering through a doorway where an elegant older woman was surrounded by a circle of Motown performers.
Tommy whispered, “That’s Maxine Powell. She teaches all the performers about manners and etiquette. Sometimes they call it ‘charm school.’”
The older woman looked particularly dignified, thought Eva. And the young man she was working with looked particularly familiar.
“That’s Marvin Gaye,” Tommy whispered.
The older woman turned her head and noticed Tommy. Before she could shoo him away, he asked, “Is it okay if I watch, Mrs. Powell?”
“Sure, Tommy,” she said. “Just be quiet and don’t distract us. Marvin and I have work to do.”
“Yes, Mrs. Powell, I’ll be quiet,” said Tommy as he sat on the floor.
Marvin spoke: “Mrs. Powell, I don’t think I need the charm school and I don’t think I need any special training.”
“You don’t need as much guidance as some of the other artists,” said Mrs. Powell. “But you still need a little bit of help. For instance, you sing with your eyes closed and that gives the illusion that you’re singing in your sleep. You have to keep your eyes open, Marvin. The eyes are the mirrors of your soul, so we have to work on that.”
To Eva, Marvin looked a little bit deflated, but the headmistress of the Motown finishing school continued. “And then we should focus on your walk because you’re leading with your shoulders and your head.”
“Something’s wrong with my walk?” asked Marvin.
The older woman smoothly replied, “Well, Marvin, you’re so handsome, but I want to make sure you properly use every ounce of your body when you’re walking.”
Marvin beamed at the compliment.
“And we need to make sure your ears are always parallel with your shoulder line,” she added.
Then Mrs. Powell turned her attention to a very thin, very young, very animated woman. Well, thought Eva, not quite a woman. She was more of a teenager than a woman. And she really looked familiar. The girl was very thin and had incredibly big eyes. There were two other girls about the same age standing next to her.
Jimi whispered to Eva, “Wow. I think that’s Diana Ross.”
“It is Diana Ross,” said Carlos excitedly. “She looks so young.”
“That’s because she is so young,” explained Mort.
“And those must be the Supremes,” said Eva, gesturing at the two other girls.
“You mean the ‘no-hit’ Supremes, don’t you?” asked Jimi, being a smart aleck.
“Now, Diana, what did I see you do with your eyes the other day?” asked Mrs. Powell. “You were rolling your eyes.”
“I was just singing, Mrs. Powell,” said Diana. “I was ‘souling.’”
“It was too distracting. Not classy,” responded Mrs. Powell. “My job is to prepare you to meet kings and queens and presidents. You need to be ready to play Buckingham Palace and the White House.”
“Kings and presidents?” said Diana. “I just want to have a hit. I’m going to be a big, big star.”
In response, Eva could see the other girls shaking their heads and silently mouthing the words, “That girl is crazy.”
“And once you have a hit, then what?” asked Mrs. Powell. “You are diamonds in the rough. You just need a little bit of polish.”
She firmly repeated the rules:
“Don’t stand with your legs wide open.”
“Don’t protrude your backside.”
“Don’t hunch over.”
“Don’t grimace. Be emotional but don’t look like you’re in pain when you’re doing it.”
“Young ladies always wear hats and gloves.”
“And now for our next lesson,” she said, “let’s learn how to sit.”
Eva was confused. Why would you need to learn how to sit? She thought.
Mrs. Powell showed the girls how to approach the chair at an angle. “Touch the seat with an inside leg, put one foot forward, slide in gracefully, then cross the ankles, put your feet flat on the floor and make sure your backside is precisely three inches from the back of the chair.”
And then she was back to the rules:
“No finger snapping.”
“Your best friend is your self image. Discover yourself. You may have come from the streets and the projects, but this isn’t about where you’re from, it’s where you’re going.”
This lady wasn’t just teaching manners, thought Eva. She was an expert in the art of self-improvement.
As if confirming Eva’s thought, Mrs. Powell said, “You’re all God’s flowers. You just need to let your inner beauty show. I’m your teacher and I’m here to enrich your life. So the best thing for you to do is to learn how to listen. Follow these positive guidelines and be determined and consistent and you’re going to go places in life.”
She continued: “Fans are fickle. They can build you up today and tear you down tomorrow. Whenever you receive a compliment, always be humble and say, ‘Thank you very much, but we’ve still got a lot to learn. I hope the next time you see us we’ll do even better.’”
It was quite a team that Berry Gordy had put together at Motown, thought Eva. It was a team that worked together to build stars. Not just by matching great songs, singers and musicians but one that actually taught then to move, polished up their manners and inspired them with rules to live by.
“Ladies,” said Mrs. Powell to the Supremes (the “no-hit” Supremes, thought Eva), “now let me tell you how to sit on barstools.”
In unison the teenage girls said, “We never go to bars, why should we learn to sit on a stool?”
Mrs. Powell calmly replied, “A lady with class can sit on a garbage pail and look good.”
You had to love that woman, thought Eva.
Then Tommy whispered, “Let’s visit dance class.”
Mort clicked his watch.
Time left: Thirty-four minutes.
They crouched outside an open door, watching a group of young Motown singers learning dance steps from an older man. The room was lined with mirrors. Tommy pointed and whispered, “That’s my friend, Stevie.”
Tommy was talking about a young blind boy Eva immediately recognized as Little Stevie Wonder. “Little Stevie” was one of Eva’s idols, not just because of his talent but because he was called “little.” She totally identified with all the other “littles” she could find: Little Richard, Little Anthony (and the Imperials) and, of course, Little Stevie Wonder.
Eva knew that Carlos and Jimi loved Stevie Wonder’s music. She was sure they were as excited as she was.
“And those guys over there,” whispered Tommy pointing toward a group of five men standing to the side of Stevie Wonder, “they’re the Temptations.”
“Wow, the Tempts,” exclaimed Jimi.
“I love them,” added Carlos.
“And that’s Cholly Atkins,” whispered Tommy, pointing to the older gentleman in the room. “He was a legendary star on the vaudeville circuit with a tap dance act with his partner, ‘Honi’ Coles. After vaudeville petered out he got a job as the house choreographer at the Apollo.”
Eva prided herself on her musicological knowledge. She knew that vaudeville was an old time theatrical style that featured dancers, comedians and singers. The Apollo was the premier theater in Harlem that featured all the big acts that appealed to the African-American community.
“Mr. Gordy hired him to teach Motown acts how to move,” said Tommy. “He calls it vocal choreography.” [Editor note: combined text into one paragraph]
“Who’re you talking to, Tommy?” asked Cholly Atkins.
“Nobody, Mr. Atkins, I was just making up lyrics. Is it okay if I watch?”
“Sure, Tommy. Just keep your lyrics to yourself.”
Tommy and the Kidzter contingent settled on the floor. They watched as Cholly taught the group of young singers how to move. He was speaking softly but authoritatively.
“If you can count, you can dance,” said Cholly. “The most important thing is to communicate the storyline and try to make your movements reflect what you’re singing about. Only then can you get a happy marriage between the movement and the vocals. Remember when we did ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ for the Miracles? We had the band do the Monkey Dance — peeling bananas and climbing a tree.”
One of the Temptations spoke up. “We get the picture, Pops. We know our steps, struts and spins. Start the music and watch us shimmy and shake.”
Cholly dropped the needle on a record player that actually played vinyl records. Eva had only seen a turntable in movies. As the sound of one of the Temptation’s hits filled the room, the Tempts demonstrated their mastery of the moves Cholly had taught them.
You got a smile so bright
You know you could have been a candle.
I’m holding you so tight
You know you could have been a handle.
The Tempts dipped and swayed in unison.
_The way you swept me off my _
You know you could have been a broom.
The band smoothly mimed sweeping with a broom. Their gestures were perfectly synchronized. Eva recognized the song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” one of the first big hits for the Temptations.
Cholly lifted the needle off the record. “That’s good. Now work on the next verse while I help Stevie. Remember to glide, dip and slide.”
With that, Cholly turned to Stevie. Eva knew that Stevie Wonder’s real name was Steveland Morris and that he had been blind from birth. He was a musical phenomenon. It was Berry Gordy who had said, “That boy is a wonder,” and the name Stevie Wonder had stuck.
Cholly Atkins put another vinyl disc on the record player and turned to Stevie. “When you’re singing, your right hand should go up. When it’s halfway there…turn your thumb around so that your palm is facing front.”
Despite not being able to see what Cholly was doing, Stevie moved his hand exactly the way Cholly wanted him to.
Pleased, Cholly continued, “Stevie, turn it, step over here. Step on your right foot but just touch it and bring it back out and step on it.”
And Stevie did it perfectly.
With a smile, Stevie said, “Cholly, you really look sharp today. I especially love that green, blue and orange tie you’re wearing.”
Eva gasped. Sure enough, Cholly’s tie was green, blue and orange.
“Stevie’s a big practical joker,” said Tommy. “He asked me earlier what Cholly was wearing today so he could play a trick on him.”
Cholly roared with laughter.
“You are just too much for this world, Stevie.”
Stevie beamed with delight that his prank was a success.
Just then, Tommy said “Time to back to the studio.”
Mort clicked the watch.
Eva thought that the watch glowed just bit less brightly. Could the power be running down? Is that why they could only stay in the past for one hour?
Time left: Twenty-one minutes.
Eva was excited to be in the recording studio again. She had read about it and knew that it was nicknamed the “Snakepit” by the musicians who worked there.
Overlooking the studio was a glass-paneled control room that had been converted from an old kitchen.
The floors were wood. The walls were covered with either acoustic tile or thick old theater curtains that had been used for soundproofing. Eva and her friends were crouched next to Tommy, hidden behind a large rectangular barrier called a sound baffle intended to muffle any unwanted noise.
Behind the drums was a man the others called Benny. Next to him sat a large and silent man playing around with his electric bass guitar as if it were a toy.
“That’s James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers,” said Tommy. “He’s amazing. He makes up all these great bass lines and he doesn’t even read music. He plucks the strings with just his index finger. They call that finger the ‘hook.’”
Eva had read all about Jamerson in music history class. He was a legend among bass players. Supposedly he had begun developing his technique when, as a small child, he would take a stick, string it with a rubber band and put it down on an anthill and pluck it until he could make the ants dance.
There was a bongo player, a piano player, a tambourine player and two guitar players. There were even people jumping up and down on boards to get a specific sound one of the songwriters wanted for the recording.
Had she thought about it, Eva might have expected everyone would be African American. But one of the guitarists was white and so was the engineer in the control room. And packing up their instruments was an entire group of white musicians.
“Those guys are from the symphony orchestra,” explained Tommy. Mr. Gordy hires them to come over and add a string section to the music.”
“Where are the dots?” asked one of the musicians.
“He means ‘where are the notes?’ referring to the sheet music with the arrangements. That’s what they call the charts,” Tommy whispered.
The songwriters they had met earlier, Lamont Dozier and the brothers Eddie and Brian Holland, started handing out charts to the band.
Eva stared at the control room. She couldn’t believe how simple the gear was. All of it belonged in a museum, she thought.
The Supremes were standing underneath microphones that were dangling from the ceiling. And Diana Ross was unhappy.
“This is a lousy song,” she huffed. “And that’s the wrong key for me,” she added. “It’s too low. I know you wrote it for the Marvelettes and that we’re just getting a reject.”
HDH dismissed her complaints. Never having had a hit, the Supremes didn’t have the clout to win the argument. Diana was gong to have to sing “Where Did Our Love Go” whether she liked it or not.
“Lower, Diana. Bring it down lower,” said Lamont. “The lower key makes you sound sultry.”
Eva knew that sultry meant intense and passionate.
“Don’t you try to sweet-talk me,” said the unhappy vocalist.
Despite the singer’s protests, Eva agreed with HDH. Diana Ross sounded great singing in the low key.
Ultimately, she sang the song as requested. When she was finished she asked, “Is that what you wanted?”
Lamont Dozier had a big smile on his face. “Thank you, Diana, that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Next, HDH tried to teach the girls intricate and complicated harmonies for the background vocals. It wasn’t going very well. In desperation, Lamont suggested they simply sing “baby, baby” in a fairly quick tempo.
Struggling with the low key, Diana began to sing “bay-beh, bay-beh.”
She sang it with attitude—a bad attitude.
“Baby, baby,” she sang, “don’t leave me, oooooh, please don’t leave me.”
Suddenly Eva got goose bumps. She was hearing the signature sound she associated with the Supremes. HDH liked it, too. In that moment, Diana Ross had found her distinctive voice.
They’ll never be the “no-hit” Supremes again, thought Eva Emily Ellis.
And she was right.
Just then, Tommy whispered to Mort and the moose clicked the watch.
Time left: Nine minutes.
Eva rubbed her eyes. They were in a room with people seated around a long table. There was a phonograph connected to a pair of cheap-looking speakers.
Tommy whispered, “Mr. Gordy used to work at the Lincoln-Mercury plant making cars. They had a quality control system there, and he set up one here at Motown. This is where the songs get picked for release. Folks from every department at Motown get to vote. It’s majority rule except for Mr. Gordy. He gets to outvote everybody else.”
He suddenly remembered one more rule. “And you get locked out if you are five minutes late,” he said “except for Smokey.”
Sure enough, as the clock ticked toward five past the hour, the seats at the table filled up. There were people in the room from sales and shipping as well as producers. There were women among the men and white faces among the black ones. And there were kids from off the street. Tommy being there did not seem unusual.
At last Berry Gordy himself entered. He was a short man who commanded everyone’s attention. He reminded Eva of pictures she had seen of Napoleon. Everyone called him BG.
At five minutes past the hour, the door was locked. And sure enough, right after that, there was insistent knocking on the door. Everyone looked at BG who shook his head back and forth. From outside the door came the sound of crying and carrying on. Finally, Gordy relented and let his best friend, Smokey Robinson, into the quality control meeting.
Berry Gordy ran the meeting.
He said, “We have a lot of songs to get through today, so any garbage will be eliminated quickly. If you’re submitting garbage, try not to get upset, okay? Let’s get started. Got anything for Mary Wells?”
Smokey spoke up, “Wait till you hear ‘My Guy,’ this new thing I’m writing. Number one. No question. I’ll bet on this song and I haven’t even cut it yet.”
“I’ll bet! I’ll bet!” shouted several voices at the same time, including BG.
“Number one? How much is the bet?” asked Berry Gordy.
“How much do you want to lose?” asked Smokey Robinson.
Three or four of those at the table wanted to take the bet, but Smokey backed out. “Well, I’m not gonna bet on the song reaching number one,” he said. “That would be a stupid bet. But Top 10 for sure.”
Berry Gordy persisted, “You said number one.”
“But that would be a stupid bet,” repeated Smokey.
“Then you shouldn’t have made the bet. But, okay. I’ll let you off the hook, Smoke. ‘My Guy’ probably won’t even make the charts…if it even gets released.”
“‘My Guy’ was one of the biggest hits ever,” said Carlos to his friends. “Smokey would have won that bet.”
BG played another record.
“This one is ‘Can I Get a Witness.’ It’s an HDH song for Marvin Gaye. How many think it’s not a hit?”
Four hands went up.
“How many think it is a hit?”
Seven hands were raised. One person exclaimed, “Number one all the way!”
“Let me ask you this: if you were hungry and had only one dollar in your pocket,” said BG, “would you pick this record or would you buy a hot dog?”
After a pause, most of the people sitting around the table voted for the hot dog. But BG seemed pleased that it had taken them a long time to decide.
“This goes out right away,” announced Berry Gordy. “Cue up the next record.”
Nobody liked the next record.
“Sounds like there’s too much bass,” said one.
“Can’t dance to it,” said another.
“The lyrics don’t make any sense,” someone added.
They were merciless, thought Eva.
Berry Gordy put another record on the turntable.
“This is ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ by HDH for the Supremes,” he said.
The “no-hit” Supremes, thought Eva Emily Ellis.
The group listened to the song. Eva noticed that everyone was tapping their feet and moving to the beat.
One of them said, “Give me that record. I need to get it on the radio.”
“That’s Barney Ales,” said Tommy. “He’s head of sales at Motown.”
“You’ve got your record, Barney,” said Berry Gordy. “Get it out right away!”
Well, they won’t be the “no-hit” Supremes for long, thought Eva.
Just then, Mort pulled out his pocket watch. Eva noticed that now it barely glowed at all. Would they have enough juice to get back home?, she wondered. Mort clicked it one more time. They waved goodbye to Tommy.
Suddenly Mort and the kids were back in the observatory. Mort’s pocket watch seemed totally depleted. It was no longer glowing at all.
“Who did you meet?” asked Gizmo, excited to see them.
“Little Stevie Wonder!” shouted Carlos with a big smile on his face.
“A very helpful boy named Tommy,” added Mort.
“The Temptations,” said Eva.
“The ‘no hit’ Supremes,” added Jimi.
Gizmo looked puzzled. He knew the Supremes had had many hits.
Mort turned to face the kids. “Well, students. What have we learned today?” he asked.
Jimi was the first to answer. “To work together as a team.”
Carlos added, “To help one another and not to argue.”
“Excellent,” said the moose. “Those are the very things I wanted you to learn.” He beamed with happiness.
“We learned more about teamwork that we could have on our own in forty forevers,” said Eva Emily Ellis.
“You have quite a gift for words, young lady,” Mort said. “I hereby appoint you Apprentice Musicologist, 1st Class. Your job is to collect all of our memories from our trip to Motown and write it all down. Hopefully other students will learn from our adventure.”
Then he opened the door and gestured for them to exit, saying, “You are just in time to get to your next class.”
The kids exited the observatory and began climbing down the metal ladder. Jimi found a large iron bolt and began banging it against the ladder. Carlos picked up the rhythm by striking the rungs of the ladder with his hand.
The sound reminded Eva of a show she had once seen called “Stomp” – in which the performers use a variety of everyday objects like pipes and bottles as drums and percussion instruments.
“Hey Eva, why don’t you add some words,” suggested Jimi.
She began singing over the insistent beat.
Jimi had been experimenting with beatboxing – a form of vocal percussion involving producing drum beats and musical sounds using his mouth, lips and tongue. He added those sounds to the mix.
“This will make a great song,” said Carlos.
They were already collaborating, thought Eva. She was very pleased about that. She loved making music with her friends.
Eva resolved to write down every single thing that they had seen at Motown, just as Mort had asked, so that all the students at the Kidzter Music School would learn the lesson of teamwork.
And so she did.
Respectfully submitted by Eva Emily Ellis,
Apprentice Musicologist, 1st Class
“Where Did Our Love Go” was the first number one hit for the Supremes. It was also the first of five Supremes songs (all written and produced by HDH) to reach the top of the music charts.
The Supremes’ version of “Where Did Our Love Go” is ranked No. 472 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Between the years 1961 and 1971, a total of 163 Motown singles hit the charts.
Twenty-eight of those singles hit number one.
The Supremes alone racked up 12 number one records.
Motown figures inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame include Berry Gordy, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Funk Brothers Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson and writers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
In [Billboard _]Magazine[’s_] list of the top songwriters of all time (in terms of number of hits on the charts), Lamont Dozier is ranked fifth, Brian Holland is sixth and Eddie Holland is eighth.
Hitsville U.S.A. is now a museum that is one of the top tourist attractions in Detroit. You can even step into the “Snakepit,” where so many hit songs were recorded.
At the quality control meeting, every song was pressed as a phonograph record and then played back on tinny-sounding speakers to mimic the poor sound of the portable radios that people used back then.
Berry Gordy commissioned a life-sized painting of himself posed as Napoleon in an old-fashioned military uniform.
In the summer of 1964, the Supremes were on tour as part of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Cavalcade of Stars. They started the tour at the bottom of the bill, but when “Where Did Our Love Go” climbed the charts, they were elevated to headliners.
“I Can’t Help Myself” was a number one hit for the Four Tops.
“My Guy” was a number one hit for Mary Wells. Smokey would have won the bet.
Click HERE To visit the Motown Discography where you can preview and download the biggest Motown hits
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The Kidzter Kids (jimi, Carlos & Eva) visit Motown in the 'Sixties to learn about teamwork.