Remembering the Marvelettes and the hit factory's beginnings
Published: May 16, 2012
Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962 is performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 18-19, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 20, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, at 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit (entrance is on John R); $20 general admission, $12 for students and seniors; purchase at mosaicdetroit.org or at the DIA box office, 313-833-4005; info at 313-872-6910.
You may think you know the Motown story: the story of mogul Berry Gordy and his belief that he could take an act with a modicum of talent and turn them into stars.
In the Gordy assembly line at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., the process started with raw, often unknown talent. Then came songwriters, who often doubled as producers, the likes of Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. The ultra-prolific Funk Brothers added the music. Off the line would roll the polished product, such acts as Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, with songs like "My Guy," "Hitchhike," "Baby Love," "Uptight" and "My Girl."
In the early '60s, Detroit's most popular exports didn't run on gasoline; they ran on soul.
You probably know the first hit single (Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and the first No. 1 Billboard R&B hit ("Shop Around" credited then to "The Miracles featuring Bill 'Smokey' Robinson") and the first No. 1 Billboard pop hit ("Please, Mr. Postman").
But do you know the story of Katherine "Kat" Anderson?
She's the 16-year-old girl who, with a few of her girlfriends, came in fourth place at their high school talent show yet still won a contract with Motown Records and made their world debut with the aforementioned "Mr. Postman."
Before they were placed on the conveyor belt, the group went by the Casinyets — and "Postman" had a bluesier feel. Georgia Dobbins, the leader of the group, wrote it but, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, was denied permission by her parents to sign a recording contract with Motown.
Kat Anderson and her friends — Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman and Juanita Colwart — promptly recruited recent graduate Wanda Young. (The song was reworked into the love-longing pop tune we know today. Upon Dobbins' suggestion, Horton moved to the feature vocal role. When they cut the tune, a young Marvin Gaye sat behind the drum kit.)
On Dec.11, 1961 "Mr. Postman" soared to the top spot on the Billboard chart.
The Marvelettes recorded 22 more Billboard Hot 100 singles, and Kat Anderson sang on all of them, including "Too Many Fish in the Sea," "I'll Keep Holding On" and "Don't Mess With Bill."
By 1970, she was a 25-year-old showbiz veteran, married to the Temptations' road manager Joe Schaffner and the only original member of the Marvelettes. She decided it was time to disband the group, before Motown's move to Los Angeles.
A Motown icon head-to-toe, yet you most likely don't know Mrs. Anderson-Schaffner's story. After that she dropped from public view, finally obtaining her high school dipoma at 55 years old. But she's back, for a limited time only, as the center figure in a stage musical. And if you don't know her, rest assured that a group of Detroit's young people has been learning the Motown story for you firsthand.
It was a recent Sunday at Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit's rehearsal space, less than a mile east from the old Hitsville, now rechristened the Motown Museum. Two Vandellas (Rosalind Ashford-Holmes and Annette Beard-Helton), a Contour (Joe Billingslea) and one very important Marvelette (Anderson-Schaffner) sat before the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit who rehearsed a production that sets out to tell their story in Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962.
Founder Rick Sperling turned his company into an award-winning cultural institution that's performed at the Kennedy Center and has had the honor of being invited to White House. (Trivia-time digression: Sperling's brother Gene is President Obama's chief economic adviser.) This summer marks Mosaic's 20th year of making world-class musical theater.
The kids, 11 to 18, were as well-behaved as they were giddy. The opportunity to warm up their voices in the presence of Motown hit-makers, and the news that there'd be a few minutes of full vocal rehearsal, sent them over the top in shouts, claps and gasps. Sperling asked for an intense and professional warm-up and got just the rousing recital he was looking for.
While the entire Mosaic ensemble practiced singing backup on "Too Many Fish in the Sea," the Motown originals sat at a table looking on and catching up.
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