Motown Records stumbled into the 1980s from the ‘70s, watching its greatest hitmakers return to the charts via other labels — Diana Ross at RCA, Marvin Gaye at Columbia and, of course, Michael Jackson and his brothers at Epic. Its fortunes perked up a bit in 1982 with hits from Lionel Richie and DeBarge, but overall, the label was on a downhill slide from its glory days.
Then came 1983.
That year saw two significant events restore interest in Motown and its peerless catalog (and fatten its bank balance) that would resonate for decades — and would also affect the way film, television and music intersect.
May 1983 saw the debut of NBC’s Emmy-winning “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” The show was watched by 34 million viewers and introduced Jackson’s moonwalk to the world — cementing his status as the world’s biggest superstar — but it also had a huge impact on the legendary Motown quintet the Temptations. The group’s duel format with the Four Tops was one of the show’s centerpieces, and was an element the Temps and Four Tops would take on the road for decades to come. Meanwhile, the Temps’ former lead singers, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, revived their Motown hits with an assist from Daryl Hall & John Oates a year later and became a steady touring machine.
But more significantly for the label and its catalog, September 1983 saw the release of “The Big Chill,” a film laser-targeted at the Baby Boomer generation that included nine songs from Motown’s glory days. Lawrence Kasdan’s picture ran in theaters for a little more than four months, grossing $56.3 million — and the Motown-released soundtrack was just as popular as the film. The soundtrack reached gold status — half a million shipped — in three months, went platinum (a million) within six months and was certified six-times platinum in 1998. Three years after its release, it passed “Saturday Night Fever” to become the longest-charting contemporary soundtrack in history; it would stay on the album chart for 161 weeks, peaking at No. 17. In 1985, long after “The Big Chill” was out of theaters, the only soundtracks that sold more copies were “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Purple Rain.”
But even more so, it was a game-changer for advertising, and film and TV. Producers started to take a hard look at how nostalgia could play in a contemporary setting with music as a driver, using original recordings rather than sound-alikes and rewrites. Before long, advertisers were turning to oldies to sell sneakers and automobiles, with Lincoln-Mercury driving the effort by featuring the music of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Martha & the Vandellas.
For the first time in a long while, an ad could even create a hit record: In 1986, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was introduced to a new audience via the fictional, animated R&B covers “group” the California Raisins, which was originally created as an advertising vehicle for the raisin industry but ended up releasing four albums.
In the wake of the film’s success, even album rock radio started shifting toward older tracks such as the ones the film revived, such as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get You Want” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” — a move that arguably could be called the dawn of classic-rock radio. Oldies radio, too, was on an upward swing as a genre — K-Earth’s first year strictly devoted to classics to the ‘60s and early ‘70s was 1985 — and the soundtrack expanded the number of Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson songs in the radio repertoire.
And all across America, nightclubs were getting in on the thirst for the Sound of Young America as “Motown Nights” sprang up across the country, especially in the boomer-heavy suburbs.
It also certainly didn’t hurt that Phil Collins, Soft Cell and the duo of David Bowie & Mick Jagger had hits with Motown classics in the first half of the ‘80s, further solidifying the enduring appeal of the material.
Five years after “The Big Chill’s” debut, Gordy sold the label to MCA for $61 million. Richie and Stevie Wonder were its hottest stars, but there’s little question that the catalog is the crown jewel — due in no small part to “The Big Chill” and “Motown 25.”