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Concert Wed Dec 11 2013
Motown may have begun as just another record label; however, with a roster of groundbreaking artists like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Jackson Five and others, it quickly skyrocketed into a pop culture phenomenon.
Having an impact that has reached beyond music to other areas that include fashion, film, movies, theater, and television, Motown, the brainchild of founder Berry Gordy, is responsible for some of the most memorable melodies in music history.
During the label's chart-topping reign, there were two groups who were at the forefront of and helped confirm the "Motown sound": The Supremes and The Four Tops. With classics like "Where Did Our Love Go" and "Stop in the Name of the Love," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and "Baby I Need Your Lovin'," respectively, these iconic groups helped define an era of music that even after five decades, still gets people "dancing in the street."
This month, Chicago's holiday season will be aglow with "Mary Wilson's Holiday Spectacular Featuring Special Guests The Four Tops," from December 23 through January 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Recently, I spoke with two notable Motown alumni, Mary Wilson of The Supremes and Abdul "Duke" Fakir of The Four Tops, who discussed their friendship and the early days of Motown, the impact of holiday music, future projects, and just why they're looking forward to a "spectacular" holiday season.
With Thanksgiving now over, we're officially into the holiday season. Growing up, what was Christmas like for you, pre-Motown?
Wilson: We had great Christmases; they were really ideal, you know, where the huge tree was always decorated, doing all the cooking, and then the family would always come over. For me, Christmas was probably the best holiday. Everything was idyllic.
Fakir: I come from a very large family and Christmas was always a great time of year. We weren't financially fit, but there was a lot of love and a lot of sharing. A lot of times, I had to make a choice between Christmas and my birthday--my birthday is the day after Christmas--so being from a very poor family, of course I always chose the Christmas gift. I told myself that somewhere down the line, I could make up for those birthdays. And I did; when I was able, I started really enjoying my birthday. [Laughs].
When your groups really took off and as you became more and more successful, were there times you were on the road during the holidays? What was that first time away like?
Fakir: The first time away was horrid. We had a show to do Christmas night — we were on the West Coast where there was no snow and very few Christmas lights, so the spirit was not there. We all looked at each other and said, "Wow, what are we doing here?" There were other times when we had to be away, but when they give you an offer you can't refuse, you have to do what you have to do.
Wilson: I don't know if ours was the same. I always recall being home on Christmas — we rarely worked on Christmas.
I've read that Motown always had Christmas parties — what were they like?
Wilson: Even before we became famous, the Motown Christmas parties were big. They were always huge parties and everybody was there. A lot of us were not famous yet but we'd still get presents; sometimes, they were little wristwatches, and as people became more famous, well, of course, the gifts became bigger. One year, we actually got fur coats, so that was like, the "biggie."
Fakir: And we were grateful for those Christmas parties. Regardless of all the bad stories that came out of it, Motown was a family and Berry Gordy was like the dad. We'd all get together and sing Christmas carols, and he had gifts for everyone; a few of us that were a little closer to each other, we would even exchange gifts. They were great parties that would last almost all night long.
Wilson: They were always so much fun. There was lots of singing. We always had a good Christmas at Motown.
The Supremes and The Four Tops, as well as other Motown artists, recorded Christmas albums for the label — was this required for everyone?
Fakir: No, they weren't required, but we always wanted to, though. We did not record a Christmas album while we were initially at Motown; as a matter of fact, we didn't record one until 1995, which was years after we were back and forth at Motown.
Wilson: The Christmas albums probably came about because everyone there had families and we all came from the same kind of family background. So I guess it was something that just evolved because it was part of the Christmas celebration. I think it evolved from that — normal activities.
Speaking of Christmas music, Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" are two songs that have been recorded by dozens of other artists. What would you say it is about these two songs, particularly, that makes them so popular?
Fakir: With "This Christmas," it's the melody--and the way Donny did it--he touched so many people's hearts with the way he sung that song. It was just one of those songs that had great lyrics, great chord changes, and well, it was Donny Hathaway! And Nat King Cole — that has always been the premiere Christmas song. It's one of those great songs, period, that just happens to be a Christmas song. Some songs are just so classic that everybody loves them.
Wilson: The '50s and '60s were a time when blacks were moving forward and making a name for themselves. Obviously, Nat King Cole was one of the first to do that, so I think that's why I think his song was famous. Those songs are remade and remade but Nat King Cole's has been the one that has lasted throughout the generations. But I still say The Supremes had one of the best Christmas albums that has lasted every year.
Christmas is the one holiday that's accompanied by music from all genres. What are your thoughts on music and its impact on the spirit of the holiday season?
Fakir: It's like taking cold food and warming it up; Christmas music at Christmas time is delightful. I start listening to it well before Thanksgiving because it uplifts me. I think it does that to everybody. It brings families even closer. It raises the level of warmth and love.
Wilson: That is a great question because music is really a huge part of Christmas. I have always gotten into music for Christmas. For me, one of the biggest parts of Christmas celebrations is the singing.
This month, you're both performing here for the "Holiday Spectacular" at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance — how did Chicago get to be the lucky recipient of this show?
Wilson: I am very happy to be doing the show in Chicago; Chicago is kind of home for me. I lived there for a number of years and I've also worked there throughout the years; also, the majority of my family is there.
Fakir: We're very excited about coming to Chicago during the holidays because it gives us a chance to be in a solid city. And even though we won't be home for Christmas, our families can come and people can enjoy the Motown feeling at Christmas time. It's going to be a well produced show in a great city and it's gonna be very uplifting.
How did this collaboration come about?
Wilson: Reach Out Entertainment, the management company that represents me, talked to me about doing a show in Las Vegas. In the meantime, there was someone in Chicago who talked about doing some shows. They realized Christmas was coming up and we decided to work together on something. We're working on some pretty big things and this will be our first event.
Fakir: Mary and I have always been very close since the days of Motown, so she reached out to me and we decided to do this and thought it would be a lot of fun. Chicago has great theater and we wanted to put a Christmas show together in a place where we can enjoy it, since we are both moving more towards [performing in] theaters and doing less 'one-night only' concerts. It's a great coming out time for her since she has upgraded her show, and as for The Four Tops, it's the beginning of us going into 2014, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary. It's just a great time to celebrate that, through the Christmas spirit, with one of my best friends.
In the show, in addition to singing classics from your respective groups, you're coming together for Christmas classics and then perform the duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside." How was that song selected?
Wilson: I'm a lucky girl to be singing that with Duke. It's a beautiful song. We chose it to go along with this holiday celebration because we have been friends for years and we were trying to figure out a song that really represented us. I think this song really epitomizes friendship and we're very happy we'll be singing that duet together.
Fakir: That song is just a natural for us because we're kind of like that with each other, anyway.
Being longtime friends, you are, of course, fans of each other--what is your favorite song from the other's group?
Fakir: I've got two favorite songs by The Supremes: There's something about "You Can't Hurry Love" — it moves me in an upbeat way. But "I Hear A Symphony" is probably the prettiest. The music in that song is just beautiful. It fit them so well.
Wilson: For me it's "Bernadette." Oh how I wanted my name to be changed to Bernadette because of that song! [Laughs]
What's next for the two of you? Any new music? Tours?
Wilson: "Holiday Spectacular" is the kickoff for 2014 for me. I have a new CD entitled Life's Been Good to Me that is due out the first of the year, and the first single is already online. I also have The Mary Wilson Gown Collection, which is all of the gowns worn by The Supremes. I'm hoping to launch an exhibit for it in Las Vegas.
Fakir: There are so many things we're working on, including more theatrical things. We're doing a 60th anniversary TV special, and we're looking to do a reality TV show for casting for our upcoming musical. Then, the tour will be "The Four Tops and Friends," which will probably start in Vegas, and then we'll go from city to city and pick up friends along the way. To do what I've been able to do for 60 years is such a blessing. We all should remember where our blessings come from and who buys the tickets. Those are the real stars — the Lord and the record buyers.
"Mary Wilson's Holiday Spectacular Featuring Special Guests The Four Tops" runs December 23 through January 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; show times vary. Tickets are $59.99–$119.99 and are available online, at the box office, or by phone, 312-334-7777.