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Charles Sykes
African American Arts Institute

George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2005

IU course brings Motown to Bloomington

Among topics are label's own invasion of Britain 40 years ago

MAY 17, 2005

"Oh, you know we've got to find a way,
To bring some understanding here today."
Marvin Gaye, from "What's Goin' On."

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Growing up in the 1960s in Jacksonville, Fla., Charles Sykes learned about the rhythm and blues meccas of Memphis, Philadelphia and Detroit through local AM radio station WOBS, 1530 on the radio dial.

While high-powered AM stations are often credited with influencing Sykes' generation of music lovers, it was a local station serving the black community in the North Florida city which exposed him to the Motown sound.

Today, as director of the African American Arts Institute at Indiana University Bloomington, Sykes teaches a course that he developed as the first for-credit college course on the Motown Record Corp. More than 60 students are enrolled this summer in his class, which he has taught since 1995.

The course, which he is teaching daily during the first summer session, focuses on the influential recording label in its golden age, from 1959 to 1972 in Detroit. It delves deeply into the history, music, business and socio-cultural context of the period in which young singers mostly from Detroit -- such as the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder -- became stars, and Motown became a household word.

It is one of the most popular courses offered at IU during the summer and has a waiting list for students wishing to enroll. Sykes said his students still relate to the sound pioneered by Berry Gordy's talented stable of performers more than 40 years ago, which makes his role as a teacher easy.

"That music has transcended generations," Sykes said. "Once the students get an orientation of why we study this music and how it fits within the history of this country, and once they start listening to the songs, they find that the subjects are very relevant to people of this age.

"Many of the people who were involved in Motown at the time those recordings were made were at about the same age as the students that we have here in the class," he added. "While we're living in a different generation, some of the same things that they're talking about -- love and the problems of being in a relationship -- are very relevant still. The music nowadays speaks with sort of a different tone, but the subject matter is still pretty much the same.

"And the social issues are still relevant," he said. "It really is not so difficult to get those songs across to the students nowadays. What I have to do as a teacher is put them in tune with the times and the circumstances when that music was recorded."

Among the things Sykes' students will learn about is the Tamla-Motown Revue of 1965, which marked the only time that Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder -- three of the four pillars of Motown -- toured the United Kingdom together. The 21-date tour truly was an American response to the British Invasion a year earlier.

His efforts have received considerable support from those who were involved with Motown. Berry Gordy, founder of the company, donated copies of his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, which are used in the class.

Previous visiting speakers have included the late saxophonist Thomas "Beans" Bowles, who managed the Motortown Revue, which took Motown's young talent on the road, spurring record sales and jump-starting careers. Another visitor was Maxine Powell, who coached the Marvelletes, the Vandellas, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and other stars in her finishing classes in Motown's artists development division.

The late Johnny Griffith, a keyboard player and another member of the Funk Brothers backup band on numerous Motown hits, also visited Sykes' class and contributed memorabilia to the Archives of African American Music and Culture, which has an extensive Motown collection. Mary Wilson of the Supremes is at the top of Sykes' wish list.

Sykes, who also is adjunct assistant professor of music and African American studies, said he will go beyond the music in teaching about Motown's greater role.

"While it was an African American experience, Motown advertised its company as 'The Sound of Young America,' and the way that Motown marketed its music was to Americans in general," he said. "It made a conscious effort to reach people across races, across cultures and across geography ... That was not without challenges, because selling across markets takes unique ways to break through the barriers."

One Motown artist who is prominently in the news is Michael Jackson, who recorded with his brothers for the label. Sykes acknowledged that the current trial of Jackson may affect his legacy.

"You can't talk about Motown without talking about the Jackson 5 and Michael," he said. "Regardless of where he is at this point in time, we have to look at all of the wonderful music and the wonderful performances that were a part of that history. We will avoid judging Michael, just as we will avoid judging other artists alleged to have committed socially unacceptable behavior."

Just before the final exam, on June 14, students will experience the music as many of their parents may have, at an old-fashioned "sock hop." Sykes believes that his students need to hear and react to the music as people did during the 1960s, "and that is dancing to it." He'll teach students about dances such as "The Twist," "The Pony," "The Jerk" and "The Philly Dog," and light soul food refreshments will be served.

"Being able to move with some facility on that floor, the socks will make you slide easily and help you smooth out your moves," he quipped.

EDITORS: Reporters are welcome to attend and cover the June 14 session of Sykes' class, which will be held in the Grand Hall of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave. on the IU Bloomington campus. Call George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 for more information.