Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

The Temptations, Motown and me

As the jukebox musical "Ain't Too Proud" rolls into town, Misha Berson revels in memories of sweet sounds from the transistor radio as she was growing up near Detroit.

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From left: Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane from the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud,” coming to Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo © 2021 Emilio Madrid

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If you just put your hand in mine
We’re gonna leave all your troubles behind
We’re gonna walk and don’t look back…”

From “Don’t Look Back,” by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White

I’M IN JUNIOR HIGH ON A SNOWY WINTER’S DAY in a Western Michigan city. I’m sitting in the dark, dank  girls’ locker room in the school gym, and I’m miserable.  Puberty is treating me bad on a number of fronts. 

But somebody has a transistor radio – those  pocketable precursors to boom boxes – and it’s blaring a blast of euphoria. Maybe “My Guy.”  Or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”  Or anything, anything at all, by the Temptations.

Any Temps singles could, at least for a couple of minutes, raise my sagging juvenile spirits roof-high.  Decades later, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”  had the same effect as the opening number of the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Now on tour, the show heads to Portland’s Keller Auditorium for performances Tuesday-Sunday, Feb. 7-12, after a run at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle.

From the jump, hot-white lights illuminate a line of five young black men looking sharp in smartly tailored, identical suits. The bouncy, infectious rhythm line — guitar, handclaps, drums, piano — kicks in.  And with precision dance moves the guys launch into the tune, a sly celebration of female attributes, with playfully metaphorical lyrics by Smokey Robinson. (“If good looks were a minute/You know you could have been an hour…”)

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IT WAS THE TEMPTATIONS’ FIRST BIG HIT after many flop singles, as Ain’t Too Proud narrator and group co-founder Otis Williams informs you. And whether you grew up on it, as I did, or hear it for the first time, this marvel of harmony, poetry, and swag is irresistible.

That buoyant number, and other 1960s hits by the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, delivered what  Motown labelled “the sound of young America.”  But they also really constituted the first  Black mainstream playlist for young white America.

Before Motown, there were basically two pop radio streams for teens: one ranking white artists (in the 1950s, the Everly Brothers, Elvis, Dion and the Belmonts, etc.) and another for Black artists (Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Etta James).  Yes, there were some crossover hits in the 1950s, often mellow ballads by crooners like Nat King Cole. But for decades Billboard Magazine relegated most Black artists to its Rhythm & Blues Chart (first labelled the Harlem Hit Parade), while the magazine’s Hot 40 and Hot 100 ranked predominately white artists’ record sales.

That started changing in the early 1960s. A seismic shift happened when the addictive tunes out of Motown’s Hitsville studio in Detroit crashed the charts. And when the classy acts in suits and formal gowns integrated the showrooms of Vegas, swanky nightclubs like the Copacabana, mainstream radio and popular TV variety shows – all part of Motown honcho Barry Gordy’s grand plan.

I BEGAN LISTENING TO BLACK ARTISTS early in life, thanks to my dad’s love of so-called Dixieland jazz (especially Louis Armstrong) and my older brother’s modern jazz fixation (thank you, Miles and Coltrane). But by junior high, Motown was music my peers and I were constantly absorbing.  The Beatles and other British Invasion bands, too – but they were exotic, from far away. We knew, and were proud, that Motown stood for Detroit, the Motor City – 100-plus miles due east, and where I was born.

There was plenty of racism to go around in Western Michigan, where I spent my early adolescence.  At my first school dance the Black and white kids did not mingle or partner together.  They grooved separately, but they all grooved to Motown. How could they not?  It was pulsating in the air we breathed.

So yup, Ain’t Too Proud is yet another Broadway jukebox musical stocked with golden oldies. And The Temps can really stock it with the cream off their crop: Starting in 1964, they had 37 singles on the Billboard Top 40,  four hitting #1.   

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The show conjures the sonic glory of this invigorated vocal group, which married doo-wop harmonies to slick, hook-laden soul and suave choreography. The group, of course, got  enormous help from Gordy, Smoky, and other crafty songwriters, and a stable of powerhouse Detroit backup musicians  known as The Funk Brothers.

And those smooth moves? Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles, two sublime jazz tap dancers, segued from the Basie, Ellington and Hampton big bands to teaching Motown acts how to dance — none more dynamically than the Temps. (The Broadway version of their numbers was choreographed more expansively, but in the same spirit, by Sergio Trujillo.)

Adapted from Otis Williams’ memoir Temptations (Cooper Square Press) by noted playwright Dominique Morisseau (whose drama Confederates was seen last year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival), the show’s rags-to-riches-to-ruin saga (for some) is a familiar cautionary tale. That inimitable first quintet of Temptations in their early 20s achieved over-the-top (if not overnight) success — and then endured the spiral of sorrows that can follow, from backstage frictions and ego duels, to alcoholism, drug addiction and worse.

SO, WHAT DOES AIN’T TOO PROUD HAVE that other treatments of the group’s highs and lows (including a well-received 1998 TV miniseries) don’t offer?

As with Jersey Boys, the Broadway smash show about The Four Seasons,  the music (thankfully) rules the story.  It is performed live by actor-singers able to match the men they are portraying vocally and in some cases visually.  Though there have been numerous successive line-ups of The Temptations reprising the hits in theaters and casinos and onscreen during PBS pledge nights, the immediacy of the performance, and  its origin story context, make this  more than most nostalgia fare.

 For me the production stirred up specific associations from growing up (mostly) in Michigan.  How  impressed I was to learn that my cool uncle Sid Berkowitz, was the vice principal of Northwestern High School, which many young Motowners attended (including original Temps bass singer, Melvin Franklin)!

And  Ain’t Too Proud touches briefly on sociocultural transitions I was well aware of. With the civil rights movement heating up (and Detroit burning during the devastating 1967 riots it never fully recovered from), the Temps and others in the Motown stable chafed at Gordy’s dictate to avoid controversy in the music. He clung to the notion that Black music was only accessible to white audiences if it wasn’t as risqué or gritty like raw R & B,  and didn’t challenge the status quo. 

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But finally Gordy relented. He eventually agreed to let  velvet-voiced Marvin Gaye create an impassioned album of protest songs which is now a classic: “What’s Going On?”

By then, the Temps had already recorded their first protest song, “Ball of Confusion.” The group’s sound was changing (more psychedelic/electro), as was the personnel. David Ruffin, the distinctive baritone whose lead on “My Girl” melted hearts, had been fired for frequent misbehavior.  A while later Eddie Kendricks, the Temps’ terrific falsetto lead on many tunes, left in a huff.

By then, I had moved away with family  from Michigan. And with Bob Dylan and the folk rock explosion, I moved on musically too. 

But hearing tunes by The Temptations in their prime can send me right back to that desultory basement locker room, when I was supposed to be changing out of gym clothes and heading to my next class. If “The Way You Do the Things You Do” or “My Girl” rang out from some other straggler’s transistor radio, I would inevitably pause while tying my shoes, to revel in that intoxicating music. It was a gift. And I’m grateful to Motown for those songs that took root in my soul, and the divided soul of our nation, and still flourish there.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank You, you took me back to the Motown review at the Fox Theater in Detroit. Me and my Wife first date, December 1965

  2. I seen Ain’t too proud on Broadway in 2018. It was great. I intend to see it again (with friends) when it comes to the Straz Theater in Tampa in May.

  3. When will this be in the Washington DC area, because I would love to see this. I was raised in Detroit and remember all those songs, my sister use to go to the 20 grand and see them live, of course I was too young. but would listen on the radio. Would really love love love to see this show. Cynthia McMillian

    1. The ‘Gold Room’ at the 20 Grand with “Frantic Ernie Durham”. Good memories.

    1. Donna, looks like it’s not hitting Philadelphia on this tour. You can keep track of the tour’s schedule at the link just above.

  4. I grew up in Detroit, Mi and have always appreciated the Motown Sound. I have gone to many Motown want to be shows. No disrespect intended. This looks like the real deal. I do not
    believe I will be disappointed. See you in Charlotte, North Carolina. Randall Hall-Walker. Love the reviews!

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