Motown in our town: the 1965 Motortown Revue hits the UK

It was 50 years ago today: The Motortown Revue landed at the Finsbury Park Astoria on Saturday 20 March 1965, on the first night of a package tour that took them around the UK. A 24 day trip visiting 21 theatres for two shows a night – plus a live TV special.

For your ticket money, you  got Martha & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Little – he was still only 14 years old after all – Stevie Wonder and headliners The Supremes, all backed by the Earl Van Dyke Six, crack members of the Funk Brothers, the in-house studio musicians who played on just about every great Motown you ever bought.

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Motown had snagged itself a few hits by  this time – The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’ had even got to Number One – but the real reason for the tour was to launch the Tamla Motown label. Up to March 1965, there were no Tamla Motown releases in the UK because Tamla Motown didn’t exist. All those classic records from Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandella and the Supremes came out on Stateside. The tour then was an important milestone in Motown’s international expansion and crucial in Motown breaking the UK, an ambitious label from Detroit, a booming city. And you would imagine there was a rabid audience for the music as this is 1964/5 and we were Mod-mad. Not to mention Motown’s huge influence on our own groups. The Stones did Can I Get A Witness and The Beatles sang three  Motown songs on With The Beatles – Please Mr Postman, Money and You Really Got A Hold On Me.

But the Motortown tour was a mixed critical success –  and a complete commercial disaster. Outside London, theatres were half full. The whole Mod thing was very London-centric so why any promoter thought they could attract 4,000 punters to then Stockton On Tees ABC or the Gaumont Theatre, Ipswich is beyond me. And the top price tickets were 17/6, then 15/, 12/6 and 10/, a good five bob higher than name groups charged in 1965. The highest priced ticket to see the Rolling Stones on their Spring 1965 tour was 12/6. On the plus side, if you went to the first show and were blown away as most were, you could go to the box office (if you could afford it) and easily get tickets for the second show.

In fact ticket sales were so sluggish even for a bill with that line-up that the Number One act in the UK, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames whose Yeh Yeh was the currently top of the charts, was added to the line-up for extra box office appeal.

The entourage arrived at London Airport on 16 March 1965 by a crowd organised by the British Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society and headed straight to the Cumberland Hotel overlooking Marble Arch. After a day of two of press and photo-ops, including one in Marble Arch itself – well, it was handily across the road – the first order of business was to tape a one hour Ready Steady Go! TV special called ‘The Sound of Motown’ at Rediffusion Studios, 128 Wembley Park Drive in Wembley.

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All the Revue acts played as did The Temptations, who didn’t tour but flew in for the label launch. The Special was devised and introduced by Dusty Springfield and RSG producer Vicki Wickham, both Motown zealots who had previously booked Martha, Marvin, Kim Weston, The Isley Brothers onto RSG! It was a challenge to convince Associated Rediffusion to put on an hour of Motown, and it was apparently only after Dusty agreed to host – and she hinted she’d never again appear on RSG! – that the powers that be agreed to make the show. Associated Rediffusion, who made the show, was 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.”

In the dressing room, the Supremes and Diana in particular needed some dance moves for Stop! In The Name of Love and begged The Temptations for some inspiration. Paul Williams made a hand move like a traffic cop and it stuck. Some say it was Melvin Franklin. It became a trademark move though. They also changed costumes and wigs between each of the three songs they did. Afterwards Dusty threw them a party which they all attended at her flat at 113 Baker Street. Martha and Dusty remained friends until Dusty’s death.

The first night of the tour was 20 March and two shows 6.40 and 9.10 at the Finsbury Park Astoria at 232 Seven Sisters Road N4, followed the next night with two at the Odeon Hammersmith and 6pm and 8pm. It then went off round England, Scotland and Wales to places like Bristol and Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Newcastle, Wolverhampton, 21 towns in 24 days. They all travelled together in a 52 seat coach on A roads. After a long trip to Bristol on the A4 – the M4 didn’t open fully till 1971 – Berry and the three Supremes opted to rent a limo for themselves for the rest of the tour. Everyone else stayed on the bus and bonded, including the Blue Flames. The Earl van Dyke Six went on first, followed by Martha & the Vandellas, a comedy spot by Northern comedian Tony Marsh before Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, hit from a 3 year residency at the Flamingo Club’s Allnighter at 33 Wardour Street W1 closed the first half. After an interval, Earl van Dyke kicked things off again followed by Smokey & the Miracles, Little Stevie before the headliners The Supremes closed the show. On many nights the entire revue came back on and finished with a version of ‘Mickey’s Monkey’.

The fans were very passionate, even if the venues weren’t full, although in this country we wait till the end of song to show our appreciation; in the US they were used to crowds going nuts throughout the song and couldn’t work out why we were so quiet. The critics though were not keen. Some criticised the acts’ dance moves for being too polished, like a pre-war Hollywood production number. The acts had put an awful lot of time and effort into working out their dance steps and moves, they all wore tuxedos. Motown had a whole department in Detroit called Artist Personal Development Department, and had dance teachers and the fearsome Maxine Powell – always called Ms Powell – who taught ‘grooming, poise, and social graces’. By comparison, British acts of the time basically stood in front of the microphone and didn’t move hardly at all.

As for the country, well, they also thought it was cold – and these guys are from Detroit – and they all kept shillings to operate the radiators in their hotel rooms. and as usual, they hated the food, all too bland for them and no American food – except of course the good old Wimpy which clearly made an impact on Diana Ross because she mentions it in her autobiography. The hamburgers were definitely not the hamburgers they were accustomed to. And all Americans love lots of ice and every hotel has an ice machine on each landing and they could never find ice. and were laughed at when they asked. And don’t get Martha Reeves started on the loo paper, which in hotels was slick brown waxy paper

Berry and Diana got together on the tour. They had a massive fight in Manchester about a song he wanted the Supremes to perform, but she refused point blank to his face, the boss of the label, but did it at the show anyway and he realised she did it for him. Every time he thought about Manchester he thought about her and how much he loved her. In Paris, he sent everyone else home – including his three children! – and stayed with her in the Georges V for two days, beginning a six year relationship.

The tour was a huge boost for Tamla Motown, crucial to establishing it here, albeit not as as quickly as Berry Gordy had thought. It took another 18 months to crack the UK properly. Only one of the first six Tamla Motown singles went into the charts in 1965 as a result of the tour, when ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ got to No 7. Over the next 18 months, Little Stevie had his first hit here, Uptight. Smokey had Going To A Go Go but in the Autumn 1966 it was the Four Tops who broke through biggest with Reach Out I’ll Be There. When Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, who had bought the 1200 seat Saville Theatre at 135-139 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1 ( now the Odeon Covent Garden) he wanted the Number One band in the World to headline the first of his Sundays At The Saville series and paid the Four Tops at fortune to fly in and play in front of London’s new pop and culture royalty. Top Duke Fakir says it was the best show they ever did. At that point Motown had arrived.

There is a four-CD box set compiling the four issued albums of Motortown Revue live performances was released in 2002, celebrating the Revue’s 40th anniversary of the first revue. None of the UK shows was recorded, although the last show of the tour was two nights at the Olympia Theatre in paris and that was released in 1965 as Motortown Revue in Paris. The other shows are recorded in America in 1963, 1964 and 1969. The RSG! Sound of Motown special was released on video 20 years ago but as yet not on DVD. The RSG! rights are owned by Dave Clark of the DC5.

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3 thoughts on “Motown in our town: the 1965 Motortown Revue hits the UK

  1. Hi Roger, I just thought you may be interested in a project I am working on; I stumbled across about 100 previously unseen photographs and negatives of the Motown Revue and other Motown acts that visited the UK at that time. I am in the process of getting them together in an album style book with a commentary and a brief history of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. I am also negotiating some exhibitions in locations where the tour visited.

  2. Ipswich had, as had many other towns by 65′, a strong Mod following, recorded by the local press in 63′, though not enough to fill the 2500 Gaumont, but maybe the promoter was banking on some of the 10,000 Americans stationed around the area turning up!

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