Learn About Motown’s Impact at this New Detroit Riverfront Exhibit

Several Motown alumni, including an original Miracles member, were present for the unveiling.
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Photograph courtesy of Motown Museum

A series of panels that connect Motown Records’ musical history with its direct influence on later releases — from J Dilla to Amy Winehouse — were unveiled on Detroit’s Riverwalk this Monday.

The eight-panel outdoor exhibition, called “Pushin’ Culture Forward,” is the third installment of the Motown Museum’s “Motown Mile,” series and was created in honor of the record label’s 65th anniversary.

Each panel compares a Motown track to a newer song that was inspired by it; a cover (Dolly Parton’s “My Girl [My Love]”); a sample (Rick James’ “Super Freak,” sampled by MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj); or an interpolation (Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own”). Visitors can scan a QR code to hear each of the songs side-by-side, along with video footage.

Several Motown alumni were present for the unveiling, including Claudette Rogers Robinson of The Miracles; Motown bandleader Cornelius Grant; arranger Paul Riser, and former Motown executive Miller London. C. J. Emmons, who is the principal singer on Dancing with the Stars accompanied them.

“It is such a blessing to know that something you did that was ‘having fun,’ today has become history around the world,” said Rogers Robinson. The 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee contributed vocals to such hits as “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.”

Curator Kemuel Benyehudah and Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry provided insights on the exhibition, which was created in partnership between the museum and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

“I’m honored and still amazed,” said Grant, who is a former bandleader for The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye. “We never knew what we were doing back in the day…we just loved what we did.”

Here are a few things Hour Detroit learned along the way:

1. Motown’s ‘70s pride anthem inspired Lady Gaga.

 “I Was Born This Way,” is a disco track popularized by the late Carl Bean in 1977. Bean, an openly gay performer, sang the chorus, “I’m happy, I’m carefree, and I’m gay/I was born this way” to inspire acceptance and pride.

“We hear rumors that Motown was so conservative, but Motown was actually one of the first music labels to distribute a gay protest single,” Benyehudah said.

As the panel points out, Bean’s Motown release was the driving influence behind Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit “Born This Way”, which was released 34 years later and has since become a touchstone LGBTQ+ anthem of the 2010s.

“For us to release a record like that in 1977 was a huge statement,” London said. “We went to traditional radio stations with this record, and there were very few of them that would play it. So, we made a 12-inch out of the song, we took it to all the disco places in New York City, and all the other disco places around the country.”

Their alternative marketing method worked — in 1978, it peaked at No. 15 on the U.S. dance charts. Though Bean’s version is best known, the first recording of the song by Valentino was released and distributed by Motown in 1975.

In 1969, Motown hired London as a regional sales manager. It was a big first — he became the label’s firstBlack regional sales manager — and the first Black sales professional to work in the sales department at any major label across the country. He went on to become executive vice president and general manager at Motown, before working in senior management positions at RCA and A&M Records. London is a character in Detroit playwright Dominique Morriseau’s Broadway hit Motown: The Musical.

2. Motown influenced country music.

One of the panels compares The Temptations’ recording of “My Girl” to Dolly Parton’s 1977 cover, in which she replaced the title lyric to a gender neutral “my love.”

“She was a country music artist who covered R&B and soul,” Benyehudah said. “Motown has been inspiring artists to get out of ‘boxes’ for decades, long before [Beyonce’s] ‘Texas Hold ‘Em.”

Riser, a former Motown arranger, helped orchestrate unforgettable tracks like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.” As he viewed the panel, he recounted arranging the strings for The Temptations’ quintessential 1965 rendition.

“The Temptations, they had taken ‘My Girl’ to a certain level, and they said it just needed something else, and they couldn’t figure out what it was,” Riser said. “They brought it to me, and I just did what I do. But it made all the difference in the world — thank God.”

Rogers Robinson, who was sitting close by, is the “girl” in the song. She was married to Smokey Robinson from 1959 to 1986 and was the inspiration when he penned the lyrics with fellow Miracles member Ronnie White.

3. Amy Winehouse’s ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ interpolates ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’

The 7th track on the late Winehouse’s 2006 album Back To Black includes compositional elements from the timeless 1967 recording “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Tarell. The interpolation is incredibly obvious when you hear the two recordings side-by-side, though they’re in different keys — the iconic “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” on the rim, and the orchestral walkdown.

“In the sales department, any time there was a sampling done by another artist, and it was a hit, we’d get excited, because that builds our catalog,” said London. He referenced Diana Ross’s 1970 recording of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which became her first No. 1 hit as a solo artist.

“Pushin Culture Forward” is free and will be accessible to the public through the late fall. The panels are located along the Detroit Riverwalk between Hart Plaza and Cullen Plaza. For more information, visit motownmuseum.org/visit/pushin-culture-forward.