Magical Motown

ANGI KENNEDY As a new Tamla Motown tribute show comes to Norwich, Malcolm Cook – who managed the first Motown tour of Britain 40 years ago – tells Angi Kennedy how it all began.


It was a dream line-up – Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

But when the first Tamla Motown Touring Revue came to Britain 40 years ago, only two of the 20-odd venues were sold out.

“It was about six months too early,” tour manager Malcolm Cook confides. “You couldn't afford to buy that show today!”

When the Motown mood finally hit our shores, tickets for those original shows would have been like gold dust. But at the time, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, fresh from their Yeah, Yeah success, were even added to the bill to bolster the line-up!

But once Britain got a taste for Motown, it was something that never went away.

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Of course, it had all begun across the Atlantic in the early 1960s, in a US town called Detroit. Kids there were looking for a form of expression that they could call their own, and they found it at the Motown Hitsville studio.

In 1959, Berry Gordy, a successful songwriter with his first big hit, Reet Petite, with Detroit-born Jackie Wilson under his belt, decided to form his own record company and so, in a timber-framed bungalow at West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Tamla Motown Records was born.

During the years that followed, black soul music started to reach a white audience and Motown became responsible for producing some of the world's most enduring songs of the 20th century, including I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Baby Love, My Girl, Dancing in the Streets, Where Did Our Love Go?, My Guy, Reach Out, I'll Be There, Up Tight (Everything's Alright), You Can't Hurry Love, Tears of a Clown and Tracks of My Tears.

Motown's huge impact is being celebrated in a high-octane production at the Theatre Royal Norwich tomorrow.

Dancing in the Streets, which re-creates the energy, style and music of the stars of the Motown stable, is coming to Norwich on the last date of its 34-venue UK tour before opening in the West End.

Directed by Ivor Novello Award winner Keith Strachan, the show is presented by Paul Walden and Derek Nicol for Flying Music, the prolific producer team behind The Rat Pack – Live from Las Vegas, which is now in its third year in the West End.

It has given Malcolm Cook a welcome opportunity to reminisce about that first momentous Motown tour. Still working in the music business in London, and living in Toftwood, near Dereham, Malcolm has fond memories of the great artistes whose hit records ensured Motown's iconic place in music history.

“Stevie Wonder was only about 15 and he was great fun, always laughing and singing,” he said.

“He had a special needs tutor on the tour with him, so he could keep up with his studies as we travelled about in the tour bus. His tutor, Ted Hull, was almost as blind as Stevie was.

“Stevie had some special habits back then – he would eat meals backwards, a dessert like peach melba first, then perhaps a steak or burger for the main course, and if he had any space left, he would have his soup.

“There was one unsettling little jape Stevie tended to try on anyone and on one occasion the anyone in question was me and I fell for it.

“Stevie would ask someone 'Tell me what Mal's wearing'. Then he would sidle over to me and say in a very matter-of-fact way 'Hey Malcolm, you know, you really look good tonight in that navy blue suit, blue shirt and maroon tie'.

“My first reaction was to thank him... then it dawned on the unsuspecting person that little Stevie Wonder was blind!”

Also on that original line-up were the original Supremes, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

“All three girls were charming,” said Malcolm, who has lived in Norfolk for 24 years. “I especially got along well with Mary and Florence.

“Diana was nice too, but although she was always courteous, she didn't mix as much as the other girls and seemed to be a little remote.

“The Miracles were good fun to have around, although I found Smokey to be reserved to say the least. In fact, I can't recall speaking to him once throughout the entire three-week tour!”

For Malcolm, the tour was a happy and glamorous one. “Motown was all about the look too,” he explained. “The satin suits, the gorgeous dresses. They looked incredible.”

But he was certainly not star-struck. Although he was only in his early-20s himself, Malcolm was already carving himself a reputation in music promotion and tour management.

In 1962 he had joined Eden Kane as tour manager and the following year he had moved on to Shane Fenton and The Fentones.

Malcolm was asked to join promoter Arthur Howes as company tour manager and ran tours featuring a huge range of names from the Sixties, from Cilla Black, The Kinks and the Dave Clark Five to Del Shannon, Marianne Faithful and Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas.

In 1965, he was working for promoter Robert Stigwood on a series of summer Sunday concerts at the Britannia Pier in Yarmouth featuring, among others, The Who, Cream and Max Wall.

After the memorable Motown tour, Malcolm toured Germany and Holland with David Garrick who had a big hit in both countries with Dear Mrs Appleby.

In the years that followed, he worked as tour manager for Long John Baldry and Gene Pitney before becoming manager of Alvin Stardust and Keith Chegwin. Then in 1980, came a quite different band to manage – the ska group Bad Manners!

Work with the Peterborough Country Music Festival eventually led Malcolm back into the touring business, this time with Kris Kristofferson and work with country stars like Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Don Williams and Billie Jo Spears. He also worked with The Harlem Globetrotters, Rudolf Nureyev and the stars of the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet.

Today, Malcolm manages actor John Leyton, who appeared in The Great Escape and Von Ryan's Express, as well as representing Lesley Curtis and her Eva Cassidy tribute show.

“I have been involved in the business since 1962 and I still find it tremendous fun,” he added. t

t There are still some seats available for the two Dancing in the Streets performances at the Theatre Royal Norwich this Sunday, June 26. The performances are at 4.30pm and 8pm and seat prices range from £4 to £19.50. For more information and to book, contact the box office on 01603 630000.

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