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Rare photographs show Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes' first UK tour

New exhibition chronicles Motown artists' first group tour in the UK

When Motown artists came to the UK for their first ever Tamla-Motown group tour in 1965, the only known names on the bill were The Supremes.

Other US stars including Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, and Martha & the Vandellas were still under the radar.

The venues they performed in outside of London were, at best, half-full. A British star, Georgie Fame, was added to the bill, to help sell tickets.

Now a new exhibition of rare photographs at London’s Proud Galleries chronicles Motown’s first visitors to the UK in a candid way, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of international hits for the record company that was founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy.

The Supremes, including Diana Ross, stepped off the plane at Heathrow with hat boxes for the tour in 1965; they had already had a UK No 1 hit, “Baby Love”, in 1964 . An informal group shot includes Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder at the Cumberland Hotel in 1965, where they stayed for the tour in London.

It wasn’t until 1966 that people finally recognised a Motown “sound”, and the record company continued to bring its artists to Britain as it grew in popularity.

The Jackson 5 can be seen in images sightseeing at Buckingham Palace in 1972 prior to their Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, as well as hanging out on the King’s Road. But Motown artists felt somewhat disappointed and puzzled at the lack of attention during the 1965 tour.

“This tour was ahead of its time,” says Adam White, a Motown expert, who worked at Universal and viewed the photos from the EMI archives when Universal acquired EMI in 2012.

“This was the first time black, rhythm’n’blues artists came on a group tour. Nobody knew who this 14-year-old Stevie Wonder was. He’d had a big hit, “Fingertips”, in America but not in the UK.”

White, who recalls a nearly-empty Colston Hall in Bristol for the Motown tour in 1965, didn’t care that few others turned up.

“It was utterly mind-blowing seeing the Motown stars in person.” He had persuaded his boss at a record store to start a Motown mail-order service. “I knew all the fans as we were part of the Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society.

“There was not much pop music you could listen to on the radio – you needed to search around.”

‘Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins!’, Proud Galleries, The Horse Hospital, London NW1 (www.proud.co.uk), 14 May to 13 July.