Technically, the 25th anniversary of Motown Records should have been celebrated nine months later, in January 1984, but that was only one of several details glossed over in staging the landmark television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Filmed before a rapturous live audience on March 25, 1983, the Motown 25 special is perhaps best remembered for Michael Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean,” which brought the house down and introduced much of the world to the “moonwalk.” There were other great performances that night, too, but there were also moments that revealed cracks in the joyous-reunion image that Motown chief Berry Gordy sought to portray.
The most glaring breakdown in decorum came during what could have been the evening’s greatest triumph: the reunion of Diana Ross and the Supremes. When Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong performed together that night for the first time in 13 years, they took to the stage with something closer to 20 years’ worth of unresolved resentment among them. Early in their performance of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” as Diana slowly moved upstage, Mary and Cindy had the audacity to keep stride alongside her. Diana turned around and angrily pushed Mary back—a move that was carefully edited out of the later broadcast but which prompted Smokey Robinson and others to take the stage and form an impromptu chorus/demilitarized zone between the warring Supremes.
The “Battle of the Bands” medley between the Temptations and the Four Tops was a much bigger creative success, though the biggest individual names in the Temptations—Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin—were absent due to squabbling within the group, leaving Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams as the only original Temptations on stage that night. Also missing from the stage that night was a man whose name was then unfamiliar to all but the most obsessive Motown fans, but whose contribution to the label’s success was monumental. The late James Jamerson, whose bass guitar formed the foundation of almost every great Motown record of the 1960s, was in the building that night, but as a paying member of the audience seated in the back rows. His own troubles with alcohol abuse played a part in his estrangement from the Motown “family,” but so did a decades-long history of what he and fellow members of the Funk Brothers—the Motown backing band—felt was a lack of appreciation and respect for their role in creating the famous Motown sound.