Remembering the Marvelettes and the hit factory's beginnings
Published: May 16, 2012
"The only place we did our warm-ups was in our basements, but we were basically doing the very same thing these kids are doing here," said Contour Joe Billingslea. "You had to keep that energy up the whole time and I'm noticing these kids already got the juices flowing, so they should be really good."
"Even before we went to Motown, we'd get together and practice, but when we got to Motown we had a vocal instructor that had us working the scales," added Vandella Ashford-Holmes. "I think they're sounding wonderful."
Vandella Beard-Helton hoped to impart some wisdom to the young thespians. "Education has to come first. Entertaining is up and down, it can peak and fall back down."
But Billingslea wanted them to respect and maintain the dream of finding success. "There's going to be a lot of people they'll meet, family and friends even, who'll doubt them at some point. I hope that if they really believe in what they're doing they'll never doubt themselves and stick with performing, even when it gets really hard, which it will."
Sperling pointed out the guests in the room, letting the company know that more than a few Detroit media outlets and The New York Times were represented. Having the full attention of the company, one last introduction was made.
Smiling proud and warm, a tall woman took a seat among the other Motowners. In his introduction, Sperling, who wrote and directs Now That I Can Dance, said "more material has come from her than anyone else for this play. She's the source, she's our narrator, it's her story as much as anything. Ladies and gentlemen, original Marvelette, Katherine Anderson-Schaffner — Kat!"
The crowd went crazy.
Then all eyes were on Mosaic's Marvelettes, who performed an inspired run-through of "Too Many Fish in the Sea," choreography and all. The song appears in a soul-shaking fantasy concert scene that even includes founding member Georgia Dobbins.
A professional performance of Motown material comes with a serious and unique responsibility. Motown has been more than cooperative with Mosaic since they first started discussing this production more than five years ago. (It's the second time Now That I Can Dance has been staged since the inaugural run in 2005.)
To put it in perspective, Gordy is a famously stingy (or at least protective) businessman when it comes to licensing out Motown material for film and theater. That, in large part, is why we're left with vague, rehashed versions of the Motown story in productions like Sparkle and Dreamgirls, stories acted out to the accompaniment of songs that strive to capture the Motown era. But as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang on the 1968 Motown hit: "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby."
Think of the cash that could be made from producing a string of Motown biopics, each one starring all the same actors as the last, but the main story arc in each focuses on an individual act or group. Kind of crazy to think we haven't even gotten a one-off called Hitsville. So, until we start seeing some big-ticket projects getting the official Motown stamp of approval, it's mostly the young people in Mosaic who get to fill this cultural void.
After "Too Many Fish in the Sea," the floor was opened up for a Q & A with the resident stars.
With the show's opening night just a few weeks away, here these kids were, trying to perfect their roles with sacred authenticity, and then they got to pick the brains of some of the subjects they're portraying.
Actor Matthew Webb portrays several parts in Now That I Can Dance, including a period-perfect concert announcer, a confident Contour, and a bluesman named William Garrett who played a role in the Marvelettes story. Webb wanted to hear "what the vibe at Hitsville was like on a regular day."
Billingslea described it as an open-round-the-clock space: "No matter what time of day or night you stopped by, someone was there practicing, writing or hanging out trying to pick up new songs from the writers as they finished them. We were all very fond of each other."
That last line came with a built-in caveat, as it's well-known that there was internal competition and sometimes tensions would flare. Billingslea continued: "Oh, you had your competition, of course. The Marvelettes were put up against the Vandellas and the Supremes. And the Contours were against the Miracles and the Temptations."
Billingslea said he still gets a rise out of prodding his old labelmates.
"The Temptations were very, very good performers. Voice-wise, they were of the highest quality," he said, "but they could not perform with the Contours on stage. They knew it. Everyone in the company knew it. We could outperform them on stage, but we couldn't touch their voices."
He told Webb and the Mosaic cast and choir that, after the first time he performed at the Apollo, someone told him something that he immediately took to heart: "When people come to see you, they come to see you perform. If they wanted to hear the record they could sit at home all day and listen to it. They want to see you perform. We were acrobatic, doing all kinds of splits, flips and somersaults."
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