Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever is a 1983 television special that was produced by Suzanne de Passe for Motown Records to commemorate Motown’s 25th anniversary after being founded in January of 1958. The program was taped before a live studio audience at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California on March 25, 1983…..and was broadcast on NBC on May 16 of that year. Among its highlights were Michael Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean”….Smokey Robinson’s long-awaited reunion with The Miracles….a Temptations / Four Tops “battle of the bands”….Marvin Gaye’s inspired speech about black music history and his memorable performance of “What’s Going On”…a Jackson 5 reunion….and an abbreviated reunion of Diana Ross & the Supremes….who performed their final #1 hit from 1969….“Someday We’ll Be Together”.. The show was co-written by de Passe with Ruth Adkins Robinson….who would go on to write shows with de Passe for the next 25 years….including the follow-up label tributes through “Motown 40,”
Junior Walker performed 30 seconds of his signature hit “Shotgun.” It was performed as a solo; The All-Stars, his long-time group, did not participate….while Lionel Richie performed his hit “You Mean More To Me” in a pre-taped segment….as Richie did not appear with his former group the Commodores….who appeared without him on a separate live segment of the special by singing their smash hit “Brick House”….which was led, as on the original recording, by Commodore Walter “Clyde” Orange….as the other original Commodores….William King, Ron LaPread, Milan Williams, and Thomas McCleary….were present and performed on this segment.
Marvin Gaye, who had left MoTown a year before to sign with Columbia Records….nd had a current hit with “Sexual Healing,” agreed at the last minute to join the roster of other Motown legends to perform…..when he played the piano and gave the audience a narrative of black music history before he stepped off the piano and sang his classic 1971 hit….”What’s Going On”….to a thunderous applause….as this performance on the show….following his appearances on February 23, 1983 on the Grammy Awards and the NBA All-Star Game, was one of his final national television appearances before his murder a year later in 1984.
The ‘first lady of Motown’ Mary Wells and the Vandellas frontwoman Martha Reeves were each given a 30-second spot during this celebration….with each singing one of their biggest hits….in this case: “My Guy” and “Heatwave”, respectively. Michael Jackson….who had recently released his worldwide best-selling album Thriller prior to this special…..is reunited with his brothers to perform a medley of their hits….“I Want You Back”, “The Love You Save”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”, and “I’ll Be There” ….as brother Randy joined the group for the medley….who had replaced Jermaine when he left the Jackson 5 for a solo career,…as Jermaine was also there performing with his brothers for the first time since leaving the group in 1975. Michael originally turned down the opportunity to perform at the show believing he had been doing too much television at the time….however at MoTown founder Berry Gordy’s request….Michael agreed to perform under the condition he was allotted time for a solo spot….to which Gordy agreed…..and as the other members of the Jackson 5 left the stage….Michael transitioned dramatically into his own solo spot….performing “Billy Jean”….which is widely hailed as his breakthrough performance as a solo artist….which at the time was in the middle of a seven-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 music charts. This was also the first time he performed what would become his most famous signature move, the moonwalk….which only accentuates the treasure that this video is..
This special marked the long-awaited reunion of Motown VP Smokey Robinson with his original group The Miracles with Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, Claudette Robinson (then wife of Smokey) and Marv Tarplin….who was on stage with them, slightly off-camera to the right, but can be seen in certain shots for the first time since he left the group 11 years before (in 1972). Original Miracles member Ronnie White did not participate in the reunion for personal reasons. As Motown’s first group to perform on this special night….who also were the label’s first million-selling act by singing four of their greatest hits…. “Shop Around”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, “The Tears of a Clown”, and “Going To A Go-Go”.
Stevie Wonder, accompanied by his band and his girl group Wonderlove sang several of his greatest hits including….“I Wish,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Sir Duke,”….which was also preceded by a vintage clip of Wonder singing his first hit “Fingertips.”
Motown 25 was a showcase for the highly anticipated reunion of the Supremes….Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Supremes replacement Cindy Birdsong….who had replaced original member Florence Ballard after her passing in 1976….as they performed 4 of their greatest hits including….“Someday We’ll Be Together”, “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love”.
Master of Ceremonies for this special was comedian Richard Pryor….who opened this segment with a fairy-tale story of ‘three maidens from the Projects of Brewster’ ….which was then followed with a montage of various Supremes’ video clips….as Diana Ross then started down the center aisle of the auditorium with a rendition of her hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.
When Ross finished, she made a brief speech about ‘the night that everyone came back’ (although some of the surviving artists and musicians had not been invited). After the beginning chords of “Someday We’ll Be Together”, Birdsong entered from stage left, and Wilson entered from stage right. Shortly after the first verse, Wilson took over the lead vocals. A few moments later, Motown labelmates such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and others quickly filled the stage for an impromptu finale. Although producer Suzanne de Passe had instructed Diana to introduce Berry Gordy after leading the finale (a fact unknown to Mary) Wilson decided to do the honors by calling Berry down herself. Additionally, earlier in the program, Wilson made a brief tribute to Ballard, and former label mate Paul Williams of the Temptations. By the time the reunion aired on May 16, Ross/Wilson altercations were widely reported, including an article and pictures in Us Magazine, and the performance resulted in negative publicity for the group.
The Temptations and Four Tops competed in a “Battle of the Bands” style event….with the only original or “Classic Five” Temptations performing were Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams….since Eddie Kendricks, who left the group in 1971 and David Ruffin, who left the group in 1968 and was replaced by Dennis Edwards….had a falling out with the group…..while Paul Williams, who also left the group in 1971 had died in 1973….and Al Bryant, who left the group and was replaced by Ruffin in 1964 had died in 1975. Joining Williams and Franklin were then-Temptations Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, and Ron Tyson. On the other hand, all of the original members of the Four Tops performed including…. Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, and Lawrence Payton….with Levi Stubbs providing the lead vocals. The two groups performed “Reach Out I’ll Be There”,”Baby I Need Your Loving”, “Get Ready”, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, “My Girl” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Can’t Get Next to You”, among other numbers. The joint performance was a success, and the Temptations and Four Tops toured together for two years following the special.
While Motown 25 was billed as “Yesterday, Today, Forever”….artists from the golden era of Motown….such as The Marvelettes, The Vandellas, The Contours, Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Marv Johnson, Jimmy Ruffin, Edwin Starr, The All-Stars, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and The Velvelettes were not included in the special….while newer artists such as DeBarge, High Inergy and José Feliciano were. Non-Motown artists such as Adam Ant….who paid homage to the Supremes singing “Where Did Our LoveGo“ with Diana Ross….and Linda Ronstadt….who performed “Ooh Baby Baby” and “Tracks of My Tears” with Smokey Robinson….since she had hits with both songs….while having her 1976 her version of “Tracks of My Tears” showing up at #12 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart, a first for a Motown song.
Additional appearances were made by Dick Clark, Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid….who reprised their WKRP in Cincinnati roles as disc jockeys….along with fast-talker John Moschitta and Jr., T.G. Sheppard….who recorded for Motown’s 1970s country label and had two #1 hits on Billboard’s country chart….along with actor Billy Dee Williams…and The Lester Wilson Dancers…who performed the a dance routine at the opening and in the middle of the program. Additionally, clips of Rick James and The Mary Jane Girls were featured during the special.
Any way you cut the pie….this 25th MoTown Anniversary Special was indeed special and proved to be a historic night in which many of the best MoTown groups and artists would never perform again together….which makes this a treasure worth watching over and over again.