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'What's Going On' at Motown Museum with David Ellis

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

David Ellis is the Digital Media Curator for Motown Museum in Detroit, Michigan, where he co-curates the museum's annual exhibits and develops online digital content of the legacy of Motown Records and Alumni.

'Riding the wave of the '50th Anniversary' of the "What's Going On" album, in light of my client Gromyko Collins' Audacity of Becoming Marvin Gaye initiative to be cast for the role of Marvin Gaye for the up-and-coming biopic, what can you tell us about the role of Motown Museum in honoring and celebrating the memory and legacy of Marvin Gaye?

It’s been an interesting journey, first with COVID, and then the museum being shut down as well. So, we’ve really had to figure out how to keep our presence out there, still make money and still tell the Motown story, though no one could come to the museum. I started making a lot of digital content for my job, explaining the singers, where they come from, their stories and stuff like that.

It’s kind of crazy, as in the case of Black Lives Matter, for example, I was doing regular stories about the singers, ‘Here are their big hits’ ‘Here’s where they went on tour’ ‘They did this…’ But once things started happening in the world, especially after Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd were murdered, I started burrowing in on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, and really explaining his thought process. ‘What was going on back in 1971?' ‘Why did he choose these lyrics and things like that?' So that’s how we started to move more into a social conscious and content priority for our social media and digital platforms.

So what exactly do you do for Motown Museum?

With my role, I have direct communication with the Motown artists. It's an honor for me to speak with them daily and become a part of their extended family. They trust me to share their legacies with our audience, and I do not take that lightly. In our conversations, I listen to them and hear their hearts. I understand how they would like their history to be told and I try my best to execute that. Whether it is an exhibit or a digital presentation, I make sure that I am representing them in the best light.

I have a great deal of respect for them, too. Knowing their stories makes me respect them even more. They went through so much in the 60s, just to entertain, just to make music, traveling on the road with all the racism...people shooting at them and things like that. This is Smokey [Robinson] we're talking about. This is Marvin we're talking about. People trying to shoot them down in the south on tour. It's like they went through so much. It was like you have no idea! I respect it. You know!

Is there a part of the Motown story that fascinates, excites, or encourages you?

You know, it's just the overall story of Motown--Black Excellence. At a time where black people were just trying to get a seat at the table, Berry Gordy made his own table, and everyone had the opportunity to sit at it. It's the story of overcoming so many obstacles while just doing what they loved. When they went on tour in the 60s, it was a culture shock for them, because the majority of them were from and had never left Detroit. So when they went on tour in the South, it was their first time experiencing blatant forms of racism.

It's interesting to hear the stories of, you know, how they dealt with that. How scared they were on the road, but still loving to perform, through all that...having the drive and motivation to still hit that stage. Because at the end of the day, they loved to sing. Like it's just that simple. Their passion was to sing, to perform. So they just had to overcome all those obstacles and hurdles, just to do what they loved to do. This kind of shows how passionate they were about their craft. They were passionate and they were having fun. A lot of the alumni, like the Vandellas, producer Paul Riser, just say 'We were just having fun!' It isn't even like we would just have fun. Like sometimes we tried to like get them to get so deep and everything. Yeah, like 'We were just having fun!'

For those wondering and possibly wanting to visit and take a tour of the museum, or take in its exhibits, what exactly is the connection between the museum and Motown Records? What would be the importance of even paying it a visit?

Motown Museum is a direct extension of Motown Records. It shares the same bloodline. So we have a duty to share the true and authentic stories of our Motown legends. Every Motown artist, musician, staff member, etcetera has an equally important story and we hope that those stories can inspire future creatives. With Marvin Gaye being a huge pop culture and historical figure, certain aspects of his life have been misinterpreted over the years. At the museum, we try to humanize him. We want people to understand where he came from and why he was the way he was. He was a passionate man who didn't always do everything perfectly. But those imperfections also made him the genius that he is known to be.

To honor the social and political impact of the "What's Going On" album, we installed an eight sign outdoor exhibit titled, Still Going On. The exhibit stretched an entire mile -- beginning right in front of the museum on W. Grand Blvd and ending at Woodward Avenue. Each sign depicted a different song from the album and explained the historical events that led Marvin to write that specific song. To show modern parallels, we explained how those events in the 1960s and 1970s are still relevant today with our current social climate. It was a very moving exhibit because guests were forced to see that our country, unfortunately, still has a lot of work to do for justice and equality.

What are some things that people who were close to Marvin say that most of us would find either out of character or interesting, to say the least?

"We call the Motown singers, musicians, engineers, producers and staff members Motown Alumni. The alumni, when they bring up Marvin, all kind of say the same thing. That he was a little shy and kept to himself. However, at the same time, they knew that there was something different about him. That there was a spark inside of him. When he first got to Motown, he played the drums and piano and didn't sing much. He played drums on the Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman”. Once he started singing, one of the alumni said ‘He can sing, too!’ Everyone began to notice that he was more and more creative as an artist.

Another interesting fact is, when he went on the road and performed, they had to instruct him to, ‘Open your eyes when you sing.’ He didn’t like performing on stage at first. He would perform with his eyes closed. Artist & Development had to train him to open his eyes, to engage with the audience. He wasn’t a big dancer, so they would give him a little step here and there. I don’t think he was the most confident person at first, but listening to the alumni stories, his confidence started growing over time. And that’s when they were like, ‘He’s a master at what he does.’ Everyone was excited if they were in a session with him, whether it was the backup singers, the Andantes or the in-house band, the Funk Brothers. Everyone was excited for a Marvin Gaye session because they knew it would be magical.

As Communications Director for K|W Report, I'm always curious about ways in which fashion and style shape and impact culture. What can you tell us about the aesthetic choices of style and dress of Motown artists? And, how did Marvin Gaye's style change, for example?

Berry Gordy knew that his artists had to look a certain kind of way, to get rid of the negativity that was placed on Black people at the time. There were a lot of stereotypes, so Motown’s goal was to rid those stereotypes. So that’s when you saw them in tuxedos, in gowns. It was on purpose. Not only did it look good but they wanted to show White America that ‘We are classy!’ ‘We do know how to handle ourselves in public!' ‘We do know how to look nice and refined!’ So all of those tuxedos and all of those gowns were very necessary for the whole crossover appeal.

That is so funny because when they first started off, they would just get their outfits from stores like Hudson’s. The Supremes and their aunts would make their own gowns. A lot of the early clothing was handmade. There was a store in downtown Detroit where a lot of their aunts and family members would go get fabric to make their outfits. So, starting off, their wardrobe was really homemade and eventually they would start going to Saks Fifth Avenue, and having designers [e.g. Bob Mackie, Michael Travis, and Pat Campano] design and style their looks. Still with the intent that ‘We have to be set apart and look a certain way,’ to show this glamour, this class that people are saying black people don’t have.

Marvin, his style changed a lot, depending on his headspace at the time. When he first signed to Motown, he wanted to be a crooner. He wanted to be a jazz singer. He wanted to be like Frank Sinatra. He didn’t want to do R&B or Pop at all, so his outfits kind of matched that jazz persona that he wanted. Once he got over that, he got into R&B like the Motown regime, so he was in tuxedos just like everyone else--which he liked. But once we get to the late 60s and the early 70s when things were changing [with civil rights issues at the forefront], he was kind of over the entire, ‘I have to look a certain way for you guys to like me?’ type of thing. He was pretty much over that. So he was like, I’m gonna strip down!’ ‘I don’t wanna wear suits!’ ‘I don’t wanna wear tuxedos!’ ‘I wanna show that I’m just like these people out here in these streets.’ ‘I’m just like them. I’m no different. I’m Black…I’m no different.’ ‘I’m going through the same things that they're going through,' and so, of course, his fashion started to model that—he’s wearing sweatpants, joggers, that knit cap that we’ve all come to know. That was to kind of show that, ‘Hey, I’m human! I’m just like you guys. I’m not above. I’m going through the same thing,' and so his clothes matched that state of mind and aesthetic. He wanted to show that he wasn’t this super glamourous superstar anymore in the late 60s and early 70s.

Do you have a favorite story about Marvin Gaye that sticks with you, one that inspires you or that you enjoy retelling?

I like the fact that he wasn’t afraid to take risks. He thought outside of the box. That’s what I always love about Marvin. Like I said earlier, when he first got to Motown, everyone’s doing R&B but Marvin’s like, ‘I don’t wanna sing R&B. I wanna sing jazz!’ you know. He thought for himself. He had his own mind, and when he believed in something…he really, really believed in it. The whole “What’s Going On” album. That whole entire time period--which is so Marvin--standing on, 'What I believe in,' and kind of saying, ‘If you don’t like it, then I’m not going to record anymore, so you have to release this.’

I really look up to Marvin in that kind of way. I try to do that in my own life sometimes. To stand firm in what you believe in, and no one can alter what your decision is. If you believe in your product, and he believed in his product, you just have to push it. Once you believe in it, you’re gonna make other people believe in it too.

For the alumni, they loved to play golf with Marvin. A lot of them, when they tell stories about Marvin, go back to their playing golf. He was very much into sports in general. He tried out for the Detroit Lions in 1970 and didn’t make it, and the following year the “What’s Going On” album came out. So, imagine if he had made the team, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the album, [which the editors of Rolling Stone magazine named ‘the Greatest Album of All-Time'].

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Jan 21, 2022

Great read! Enjoyed learning a bit about the Motown Museum.

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