The Sound of Young America now has 60 candles on its birthday cake. And in Detroit, the party is just getting started.
Motown is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2019, marking 60 years since Berry Gordy Jr. founded the company that became a musical, cultural and commercial force inextricably linked to the city, right down to the name.
The anniversary will bring a series of high-profile hometown events led by the Motown Museum, including a new exhibit, a spring block party and a celebrity-studded Motown 60 Weekend in the fall.
The birthday is officially Saturday: On Jan. 12, 1959, Gordy secured $800 from a family co-op fund to start his independent record company.
But the Motown anniversary campaign will be a yearlong affair, including global initiatives by Motown Records and Capitol Music Group, the latest corporate parent since Gordy sold the label in 1988. It will be a year that honors Detroit stars now gone and the luminaries still with us — working alumni such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson and Martha Reeves, along with groups such as the Temptations and Four Tops, helmed by respective founding members Otis Williams and Duke Fakir.
Motown’s anniversaries have become a tradition in their own right. The label waged high-profile campaigns for the 40th and 50th occasions, and “Motown 25” — broadcast on NBC in 1983 — became one of the most iconic music specials in television history, with moments that included a moonwalking Michael Jackson.
Close to home, those entrusted with the Motown legacy are aiming to turn 2019 into a community jubilee.
That will include the host of activities driven by the Motown Museum, housed at the Hitsville, U.S.A., complex on West Grand Boulevard and site of the label’s 1960s heyday.
The museum will roll out a 60th-anniversary exhibit in early spring, and May 19 will bring a block party to the Hitsville grounds, with live music, food trucks and free museum tours — a beefed-up edition of the annual Founder’s Day event that’s held in commemoration of the late Esther Gordy Edwards, who started the museum in 1985.
The Motown Museum has also launched “Archive Dives,” a Facebook video series that will periodically reveal little-seen artifacts from the collection.
“This is obviously a tremendous milestone year for Motown. Our approach is to celebrate six decades of not only phenomenal music but these iconic artists that came out of Detroit,” said Robin Terry, the museum’s chairwoman and CEO. “Our planning has been about accomplishing that so everybody in the community can participate in one way or another.”
The museum’s keystone event will be Motown 60 Weekend, a three-day affair in September that will include “Motown icons and the next generation of artists,” as Terry put it, descending on Detroit for a black-tie concert dinner, a gospel show and a celebrity golf event.
Full details will be released in coming months, but here’s what we know so far: Motown 60 Weekend will run Sept. 21-23 at sites in Detroit, led by the opening-night “Hitsville Honors,” a black-tie dinner concert. The next day will feature a Motown-infused gospel concert in partnership with area churches, and the weekend will wrap with an event called the Soul-In-One Motown Golf Classic.
The 60th-anniversary hoopla comes at a crucial time for the nonprofit museum, which is in the throes of a $50-million fundraising campaign as it looks to expand the complex with 40,000 square feet of exhibit, performance and meeting space.
As anniversary plans come together, the museum has been working closely with the current Motown Records regime, led by president Ethiopia Habtemariam. The company, based in Los Angeles since the early ’70s, has increasingly moved into the hip-hop realm in recent years, with a roster that includes the Atlanta trio Migos.
In December, a day before a visit by former first lady Michelle Obama, Hitsville hosted a Motown Records contingent that included Habtemariam, label staffers and a contingent of young roster acts — part of the company’s push to reconnect with its Detroit roots.
And Motown Records just got the anniversary ball rolling early Friday with a digital playlist curated to mark the Saturday birthday, featuring 70 vintage songs.
For all the global attention likely to be trained on Motown this year, the hometown celebration will take precedent in Detroit — a celebration of the record label and hit legacy that became the city’s most prominent contribution to popular culture in the 20th Century.
“The world is going to be celebrating Motown throughout this 60-year anniversary, but no other city can claim the birthplace,” says Terry. “For Detroit, this is a special moment to really celebrate a legacy that was birthed out of this city, with its genius and its talent pool.”