Dancing in the streets of Britain

It is the 40th anniversary of the Motown invasion of Britain. Adam White was there, and saw it happen. He remembers a disaster that quickly turned to triumph
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The Independent Culture

Forty years ago, The Supremes - and about two dozen of their fellow Motown performers and musicians - toured Britain for the first time, playing and singing their hearts out, while striving valiantly not to be dispirited by a low audience turnout, the inclement weather and the differences in food (and toilet paper) that came with the territory.

Forty years ago, The Supremes - and about two dozen of their fellow Motown performers and musicians - toured Britain for the first time, playing and singing their hearts out, while striving valiantly not to be dispirited by a low audience turnout, the inclement weather and the differences in food (and toilet paper) that came with the territory.

The Tamla-Motown Revue of 1965 marked the only time that Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder - three of the four pillars of Motown - toured the UK together. They saw the insides of ABC, Odeon and Gaumont theatres up and down the country. I caught them at the Colston Hall on Tuesday 23 March, at the first of two shows in my home city.

A ticket for the 6.45pm performance cost £4. To see Ross, Robinson and Wonder on one bill today would cost rather more and, of course, is never likely to happen. The fourth act on that tour, Martha Reeves, has been the most accessible in the years since. She has made a decent living from Britain's perpetual love affair with the sound of Motown and, in 2003, even toured with a mobile jukebox show, Dancing in the Streets. Some of the towns would have been same ones she saw in 1965, although one hopes the food was better.

For my part, I can never forget Martha and her Vandellas bouncing on stage that March night, wearing brilliant white dresses and giving another dimension to the song that had earlier ignited my infatuation with Motown: "Heat Wave". When they sang "Dancing in the Street", summer arrived in spring.

Delving today into the history of that tour has been illuminating, if sometimes at odds with other published accounts. Reeves's autobiography, for example, mentions "huge crowds". Jack Ashford, one of the backing musicians, writes in his book about "sellout" audiences. At least Mary Wilson of the Supremes doesn't mislead in her Dreamgirl tell-all, and it's just as well: in an NME interview published right after the tour ended, she acknowledged that it was a flop.

Those few of us in the Colston Hall knew as much - but did not care. The small crowd played well to the snobbery of we serious Motown fans, the ones who had been into the music for several years before the tour crossed the Atlantic. This was "our" music, these were "our" artists, and the fact that the majority of British concert-goers didn't recognise the uniqueness of this sound, didn't realise that they were missing a major event, only reinforced our innate sense of superiority.

Sometimes, there were sound reasons for this attitude, such as the appalling local cover versions of Motown originals - among them, "Do You Love Me" (Brian Poole and the Tremeloes), "Where Did Our Love Go" (Peter Jay and Jaywalkers) and "Baby I Need Your Loving" (The Fourmost). The last of these, released by EMI, was so offensive that the boss of Motown, Berry Gordy, complained, not least because the British record company was also Motown's licensee.

Of course, empty seats in theatres throughout England, Scotland and Wales were not what the artists wanted. "It's always - I won't say the word 'scary' - but disheartening when you go out there and you see the house is half-full," says Mary Wilson today. "It hurts, but once you're on stage, even though you're kind of aware that the audience is not there and you wonder why, I don't recall anyone doing less than their best, ever. You perform as well for five as you do for 500. That's what I remember."

What I remember about The Supremes from 23 March, 1965, was the group in black dresses, belting out "Baby Love" and "Stop! In The Name Of Love", the latter with its iconic police-constable choreography - suggested to the trio by The Temptations' Paul Williams, while the Revue was camped at the Cumberland Hotel in London, before the tour began.

What I didn't know were some of the artists' more uncomfortable experiences. "The hamburgers were definitely not the hamburgers we were accustomed to," says Wilson. "And all Americans love lots of ice, and we could never find ice. We could not stand hot beer, so there were cultural differences that were often in our discussions." And there were other things. "The toilet tissue was extremely hard," the ex-Supreme laughs. "We could not figure out why. It was what we used to call wax paper here in America."

Yet once they were on the coach, the young performers (Stevie Wonder was 14; the band's bassist, Tony Newton, was 18) bonded with the Brits on board. When not on stage, Pete Moore of the Miracles quenched his thirst with the compere, Tony Marsh. "He took me to all the famous pubs through England," recalls Moore. "I got drunk quite a bit before it was over, but it was such an experience, I think about that even today." The one-time Miracle also remembers when the bus was stopped en route to Birmingham, by three men toting rifles. "We didn't know what to think," he says. It was one of Marsh's pranks.

The compere may not have been aware that, in America, at least one Motown Revue had been fired upon in the South. And Gordy and his travelling stars would not have known that one of their UK venues was named after Bristolian merchant, civic benefactor, and slave-trader Edward Colston, an officer in the Royal African Company in the 17th century. Bristol, of course, was one of Britain's main staging posts for the slave trade.

Back in London, television's Vicki Wickham was one of Tamla Motown's most effective evangelists, working for Ready Steady Go! and booking many of the Detroit acts on that influential music show. When the 1965 caravan arrived, Wickham recorded a dynamic one-hour special, The Sound of Motown, featuring all the touring acts (plus The Temptations), hosted by Dusty Springfield, another Motown zealot. Like Ready Steady Go!, it was produced by Associated Rediffusion, a company run by "ex-Navy people," who, says Wickham, "almost rang a bell for tea. It was so conservative that how we got something like the Motown special by them, I will never truly know."

Wickham understands that the tour was premature for Britain. "People were really at that stage into hit records, and if you didn't have a current hit record..." The Supremes had had two of those, but releases by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Miracles had not troubled the Top 20. "Looking at the tour now," concludes Wickham, "we should have all known that it would fail. It was too ambitious."

Yet the groundwork had been laid and, soon enough, Motown's relentless output of brilliant pop records brought its popularity in line with its ambition. In 1965, the company collected just one UK Top 20 hit. By the end of 1966, its artists had logged eight, including an apt title by the Supremes: "You Can't Hurry Love." In its own time, the invasion succeeded.

It continues to this day. In fact, the sound and spirit of Motown may have been absorbed into the British cultural bloodstream more fully than we realise - and perhaps more completely than in its country of origin. In the run-up to the last general election, Labour Party officials were said to have asked the music research firm The Sound Lounge for a campaign theme with a Motown feel.

The songwriter Lamont Dozier, a powerful source of Berry Gordy's business in the 1960s, has made London a second home, to work with the likes of Helen Terry, Mick Hucknall, Alison Moyet and Joss Stone. Meanwhile, the UK Performing Rights Society logs show Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' "Third Finger, Left Hand," one of Dozier's early copyrights, penned with his colleagues Eddie and Brian Holland, to be one of the most-aired wedding-anniversary and hen-night staples. (And you can buy a ringtone.)

Recent records by the likes of Emma Bunton and - for goodness sake - the Doves have been hailed for paying homage to the classic Motown sound. And, when the silver-haired survivors of Gordy's original studio band, The Funk Brothers, played at the Royal Festival Hall a year ago, half the sell-out crowd seemed to be under 25.

But perhaps the ultimate measure of this country's unique devotion to Motown was apparent last April, when EMI quietly became the sole owner of Gordy's treasure-chest of songs, Jobete Music.

"Only the Beatles' catalogue... is considered more valuable," noted one commentator. He might also have pointed out a conjunction: one of the first attention-grabbing covers of a Motown song was by The Beatles: "You Really Got a Hold On Me."

Adam White's two-part documentary 'The Motown Invasion' begins on BBC Radio 2 on Tuesday at 8.30pm. An exhibition of photographs to mark the 40th anniversary of the Tamla-Motown Revue runs from Wednesday to 4 June at Redferns Music Picture Gallery, London W10 (020-7792 9914). 'Hitsville UK' is out on Monday on Motown/Universal