I remember the holidays of my childhood. During the Christmas countdown my Momma And Her Sisters shopped in a frenzy of yule-time acquisition; the intensity of their excursions should have obliterated all of our belief in the North Pole.
We were taken to visit Santa, nevertheless, at a Winter Wonderland created each year at the Ford Rotunda, a legendary automotive building – for this was Detroit after all.
When the Rotunda burned down in the early 60’s (in my child’s mind, the end of the world, I thought there would never be Christmas again) our visits to Santa switched to the biggest, best downtown department store.
At the J.L. Hudson’s Christmas extravaganza I was on best behavior, standing proudly next to the elegant Colored women who worked the elevators, some of the most beautiful ladies in Detroit, regal and serious performing their floor-to-floor labors. That they weren’t allowed to work the sales floors I didn’t know ‘til I was older, and many such things had changed for us all.
I remember Christmas Eve vigils, nearly sick with excitement, hot chocolate and cookies at the ready, even after I, the eldest, made them disappear to insure my younger sibling’s continued belief in Santa – a noble sacrifice indeed.
Unable to wait for parental rising, there was the 5 a.m. race downstairs. We swam in the wrapping paper of Hot Cars and GI Joes, Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens, and for me – books, always books. We visited cousins in our new Christmas clothes, opened more presents and ate under Grand Mamma’s firm church gaze, that warned that we best not forget “the real meaning of the day”.
With the exception of a squabble over a sibling’s gift, or later years of toppled Christmas trees from too much paternal drink – traumatic then, now fading into that hazy place where, if one is lucky, unpleasant memories go and are softened into funny family anecdotes – our Christmases were idyllic indeed.
But few of my holiday memories are better than the Motown Revue.
In an annual Christmas week ritual of the 60’s, for a few years Motown’s “Cavalcade of Stars” staged shows for throngs of Detroiters, black and white, who lined up around the Fox Theatre. It was better than the movies, the circus and Ice Capades wrapped up in one.
Standing in line we shook with cold and anticipation as we waited in our new coats and dresses, crinolines starched tutu stiff and quivering like antennae. Excited boys pulled loose from grown-ups, finger-poppin’ and Temptation Walkin’, imitating their favorite singers on the icy sidewalk.
Finally the doors burst open and the show began. Some of the artists were famous, some new; grueling bus tours, concerts and the Motown machine were molding them all into professionals.
The Contours, one of the earliest Motown groups, clowned and sang in the old soul way, a doo-wop vaudeville that was smoothed out of Motown’s newer acts though we loved them just the same.
The Marvelettes were fine with hair piled high, fringes shimmering in the lights. They sang “Mr. Postman” with the counterpoint claps and we thought they were as good as the Supremes – though of course there was no use arguing, the Supremes were the Supremes.
There was light eyed, light skinned, light voiced Smokey, he and his Miracles made the girls swoon and scream, though I assimiliated my Momma’s judgment, that he could neither really dance nor sing so well, but was still a genius.
“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid”, a cultured if ungrammatical lyric, one line out of thousands that Smokey inscribed. We danced to his intellect, sang to his rhymes; each new record proof he was a gifted urban bard.
Then there was the moment when the incredible 4-Headed Microphone appeared onstage, heralding the coming of the Temptations. The medley of their songs began and they took the stage: the sleek, dark archangels of cool, archetypal urban Black men, symbols of the Motor City.
Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, Velvelettes and Vandellas, took and shook the stage. We applauded the “stars”, though they performed at local clubs and high schools and roller rinks, and could be seen outside the headquarters of Motown, or driving around town in pastel Cadillacs.
We knew each word and nuance of all the Motown songs, and endlessly choreographed our “routines” as if we would one day, in some fantastic emergency, be asked to perform. Still, the Temps, Four Tops, Supremes and all were almost a generation older than us; we were way too young for affairs and heartache, or the sweet seductions and lost loves of their songs.
No matter, we loved them, and their popularity had exploded across the land. Before us was the Sound of Young America, the hopeful, young America of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and we cheered them on in our hometown Detroit.