Motown’s 50th Classes Set for Five Thursdays

Library of Congress    The Supremes in 1967: From left, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong. Learn how music helped change American culture through the stylings of Motown starting next Thursday, Jan. 18.

A full 50 years have passed since Motown’s heyday, yet the “Sound of Young America” still excites and thrills listeners of all ages. Baby Boomers who grew up with the music of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many others, continue to put those songs at the top of their playlist. 

Younger listeners discovering Motown for the first time appreciate and enjoy the classic records, and regard Motown as a cultural watershed moment in American history, an era when racial barriers began to break down because of the music — a magical time.

Record producer, lifetime musician, teacher and writer Peter Elman, who grew up playing all the Motown hits in bands, is currently teaching courses on popular American music of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s at UC Berkeley, Sonoma State and Dominican College. Elman created this unique Motown class, where he spins records, shows select archival video clips of the original artists in their prime and incorporates historical vignettes and stories woven into a compelling slide show. 

Elman also performs songs by the artists, accompanies himself on piano and guitar and shares deep insights about the lyrics, musical arrangements and production of those gems. He was an original member of the Bay Area’s Motown institution, Pride and Joy, a band that just celebrated its 35th year. 

In the upcoming lecture series set for Thursday nights Jan. 18 through Feb. 22, at Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works, he will bring the music and story of Motown to life. The series will retell how an ambitious songwriter from a family of entrepreneurs caught lightning in a bottle in 1960. Five years later he had established the most successful independent record label in history, one that brought together some of the most talented and inspired singers, songwriters and musicians of the time. 

From a modest house on West Grand Avenue in Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr., created a virtual assembly line of hits (modeled after the auto industry), a self-contained pop music juggernaut that took the world by storm. 

Elman takes his classes from the early days through the golden years, covering Smokey Robinson, the great male groups, the great female groups — with a special look at the leading ladies of Motown — and finishes with a look at the “divided soul” Marvin Gaye and the brilliant Stevie Wonder.

“I was fortunate enough to be a teenager when those records came out, and even luckier to get to play those tunes in bands when they were new on the charts,” Elman said. “I enjoy sharing my knowledge and passion for the music and the people who made it, with folks who appreciate it as well.”

Fans of the genre or music in general, won’t want to miss this opportunity to relive and learn about an era in U.S. history when people took chances with pop music — and ended up creating lasting, eternal art.

The lecture series titled Motown: The Golden Age of American Soul 1960-1972 will be held at RCW, 2513 Blanding Ave. Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m., Jan. 18 through Feb. 22. The full series costs $135, or $25 per individual class. For more information, visit rhythmix.org or call 865-5060.