On May 16, 1983, much of America was sitting in front of the television watching the event that was Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Featuring a star-studded guest-list including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, the anniversary special still holds a special place in the hearts and memories of many. Now after 31 years, the vibrant program has finally been released on DVD in various editions.
EBONY.com recently spoke with executive producer Suzanne de Passe about the magic that was Motown 25.
EBONY: The day following Motown 25, it seemed that everyone in the country, regardless of race or class, was talking about the show. Did you anticipate such a major reaction?
Suzanne de Passe: We were so focused on getting that sucker in the can, we didn’t think about what the reaction might be. But from watching the rehearsals, we knew we had something special. Honestly, the program took on a life of its own; it made a lot of people very happy.
EBONY: What was it like to have so many big names together after all those years?
SP: It was like when Quincy [Jones] recorded “We Are the World,” people just automatically checked their egos at the door. People walked in and saw all their old friends and it turned into a party.
EBONY: Well, it might’ve been a party for them, but you were chaperoning.
SP: It was more like being the ringmaster with a whip and a chair. [laughter]
EBONY: Of course, Michael Jackson performing “Billie Jean” and doing the moonwalk for the first time became the highlight of the show.
SP: A letter came by massager during rehearsals saying we were forbidden to tape “Billie Jean.” The reason was that Michael wanted to do it for the people in the theater, but he didn’t want it on the broadcast. I went to Michael, and said, “Are you serious? I’ll tell you what, we will tape it and you come to the editing room. And, if you don’t like it, we won’t use it.” Luckily he not only liked it, he loved it. His manager later told me that performance helped sell four million more copies of Thriller.
EBONY: What was Berry Gordy’s reaction when you proposed the special?
SP: He had mixed emotions, which was understandable. Many of the biggest artists, including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and the Jacksons, were no longer on the label.
EBONY: Marvin Gaye, for one, never bit his tongue when it came time to talking smack about Motown.
SP: Well, he could talk all the smack he wanted, but he was one of the happiest people on earth to be there. If you watch closely during the finale, he almost can’t wait to get to Berry Gordy to give him a hug. There’s often a big difference between business considerations as opposed to the business of the heart.
EBONY: There are a lot of stories about the night of the taping, one being that Diana Ross and Mary Wilson were fighting with each other. I’ve read that Wilson wearing a red dress, instead of black and white, made Ross upset. Is that true?
SP: No, not at all. The dress code wasn’t something we were worried about. We just wanted to get the three of them on stage at the same time. If Mary Wilson had shown up in a potato sack, I would’ve been fine with it. [laughter] I thought they both looked stunning.
EBONY: Part of the mythology of that night has it that James Jamerson, bassist and former member of the Funk Brothers—the Detroit session men who played on many Motown classics—bought a ticket and sat in the balcony. Why weren’t the Funk Brothers invited to the show?
SP: I’ve never heard that story, so I don’t know if that’s true, but part of being the producer is being fiscally responsible. The musicians that we put together were excellent. We weren’t trying to reenact the Motown sessions, we were trying to do a television show. Everybody was working for scale, so we never thought to fly the Funk Brothers in and put them up in hotels. That would’ve cut into our music budget considerably.
EBONY: DeBarge was the youngest and newest act on Motown 25. What were they like?
SP: They were thrilled and excited to be there, but they required a bit more rehearsal. We had a place upstairs called the Gold Room, and Lester Wilson, our choreographer, worked with them. They were talented but not seasoned.
EBONY: Were there any wild moments?
SP: Diana Ross coming out with Adam Ant was a shock. She was supposed to be a surprise, so when she got on stage with Adam, I was like, “What the heck?” There was so much we had to cut from Motown 25, but what saved that segment was Diana Ross.
EBONY: Every few years a new record company is calling itself “the new Motown.” Is that even possible?
SP: No, because the magic of Motown was about people being in one place working together to make this music that people are still covering and sampling. Motown wasn’t just pioneering a sound, but a cultural dynamic.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.