Resilient Neighborhoods: East Side nonprofit hosts Motown-themed luncheon starring senior residents

If you ask anyone what Detroit is known for worldwide, you will most likely get two answers: the automobile industry and its distinctive Motown sound. Incorporated in 1960, the soul music phenomenon with crossover appeal still inspires generations today. It’s given us musicians like the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few, whose music has touched people living far beyond the streets of Detroit.

Motown artists will forever have their musical footprint in history for future music lovers to explore due to Berry Gordy, Jr. taking the risk of starting his own recording company and sharing Detroit's talents with the world. The music created as the Motown sound broke down racial barriers and united people of all ages. Today, if you’re lucky enough to have conversations with older people in the city, they can probably take you back to learn how Motown shaped their lives and to understand their pride and joy for Detroit’s Hitsville, U.S.A., where it all began.

In this spirit, The Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance (DCPA) is hosting a Motown holiday luncheon and talent show on Dec. 13 for senior residents in the Gratiot Woods community. The holiday event is one of many activities the nonprofit has provided for residents to participate in and enjoy. DCPA was formed in 1967 when a group of Catholic priests gathered together to become a healing organization for the people of Detroit during high racial tension. Today, the nonprofit's services include affordable housing, economic and commercial development, anti-racism training, and programming for youth and seniors. 

In 2022, DCPA was one of six Michigan recipients of the Enterprise Community Partners Thome Aging Well grant. The funding helped the organization start its Raising Hope Senior Program, a project focused on providing seniors in the Gratiot Woods community with food delivery, transportation, and social events. Over the past year, Joyce Francois, manager of the program, and Denise Sutton, a resident hired to assist with outreach, have been working to meet residents' needs, uplift their spirits, and give people new experiences. Finding activities that fit the accessibility challenges many residents face can be difficult, says Francois. 

“Initially, we just took trips to Walmart because folks needed to get groceries. Then we started adding bigger functions like the Charles H. Wright Museum,” says Francois. “The whole idea of Motown came out with residents saying we want to go to the Motown Museum. But if everybody can’t go, what are we going to do?”

The Motown Museum is in its third and final phase of expansion.  The campus will include an immersive exhibit experience, a performance theater, and a casual cafe. The museum has an elevator, a wheelchair-accessible ramp for wheelchairs, and wheelchair-accessible restrooms. However, according to its website, it only partially conforms to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) guidelines, meaning some parts of the content aren't fully accessible. 

"Instead of trying to get Motown to bring [our residents] in,” Francois says, “we’ll get our residents to bring [in] Motown."

Denise Sutton, a Detroit native who grew up on Joseph Campau and Canfield, became the talent scout for the event. Sutton lives at the Van Dyke Center and can witness bits and pieces of the residents' talents. She remembers those she's heard sing at the organization’s yearly Gospel Fest and other activities and had a good idea of who to invite to perform at the holiday luncheon. 

Denise Sutton. Photo by Steve Koss.

“Mrs. Vickie sings during that Gospel Fest,” says Sutton. “ I told her how I would feel if she would consider singing at the luncheon because I know she has that voice that will touch people regardless of what song she sings. Same thing with Mrs. Lewis. Being around each other, doing things together, gave me an idea of who would be good.”

Keeping it in the family 

For some families, music is a part of everyday life, not just in having it play all the time but also in working hard to break into the music and entertainment business. Cousins Victoria “Vickie” Wilson, 71, and Diane Heard, 74, residents of Van Dyke Center, belong to such a family. They started singing in their home church, Greater New Southern Missionary Baptist Church, along with another cousin who grew up with them on Detroit’s East Side. In the 1970s, Wilson’s mother helped the girls form Devine Vocals, a gospel group.

“Our family was always singing and always in church,” says Heard. "My aunt, Vickie’s mother, started us as a group, and we would go around [to] different churches singing. We’d be in the kitchen just cooking and singing. That’s why our harmony was so tight. A lot of people used to compare us to The Emotions or En Vogue, you know, those tight-harmony type groups.”

Diane Heard. Photo by Steve Koss.

In 1971, the group changed its name to Detroit Sisters of Love. Wilson says it was around this time they met George Gordy and Allen Story, the writing and producing team for Motown who, along with Anna Gordy Gaye, co-wrote "What Christmas Means to Me." Many artists covered the hit, including Stevie Wonder in 1967.

“They had us under contract for about seven years,” Wilson says. “We worked on the Boulevard and the one on Woodward. They had us do backgrounds for known artists. That was called ‘putting it in a can and then putting it on a shelf,’ says Wilson. “We got to hear some of our backgrounds on David and Jimmy [Ruffin] ’s songs like ‘Living in a World I created by Myself.”

Wilson says during that time, the group also sang at many of Detroit’s clubs and won talent contests, some judged by Motown greats. “We won contests at The 20 Grand, the Gold Room, and the Blue Room. Some judges were The Temptations, Martha, and others… We were entertainers,” says Wilson.

The Detroit Sisters of Love were so passionate about being entertainers that they sometimes traveled to different cities with a U-Haul to find music gigs. They’d pack up the band and the instruments and hit the road to show people their talent. 

“That was called the Chitlin’ Circuit. Sometimes, you didn’t have time to get into a hotel because we’d get there just in time for the show,” says Heard. “We’d be washing up in buckets in the back room because we’d been on the road all night, put on our uniforms, and do the show. Then we’d hit the road the next day.” 

Victoria "Vickie" Wilson. Photo by Steve Koss.

As time passed, life began to bring new adventures for the group. Heard married Leslie Wilson of New Birth and went to California with him to pursue making albums. She says she would sometimes step in and sing if the band needed an extra person. While Heard was in California, Wilson became a mother and joined the singing group The Sisters of Identity.

In the 1980’s, the group came back together and changed their name to Sista Luv. 

Preparing for DCPA’s upcoming luncheon has been a walk down memory lane for Wilson and Heard to a time when things were simpler, and their lives were filled with dreams of things to come. As performers who experienced the Motown phenomenon firsthand, the cousins have vivid memories and history to share with younger generations. 

“I hope this event expands because people love Motown, even the little kids,” says Wilson. “Come on out and see what it’s about, have a good time. Be there or be square.”

Bringing people together 

Eloise Lewis, 67, originally from Buffalo, New York, came to Detroit in the 1950s as a toddling 2-year-old. While growing up, she and her family loved listening to soul music’s leading ladies. When Lewis’s mother would have friends over, Lewis would perform songs from her favorite artists for them.

“We used to sing Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. They would give us money and stuff, asking us to sing some more," she says. "We thought we were in Motown.”

In the 1970s, Lewis performed in Detroit as part of a vocal trio. In the area known as Midtown today, she and her group participated in talent shows for the chance to win cash prizes.

“We were teenagers at the time. I can’t remember the name [of the group], but it was me, Kathy, and Tina. We would be singing around the Inner City Sub Center and Wayne State University,” she says. 

Eloise Lewis. Photo by Steve Koss.
Lewis has fond memories of attending the Motortown Revue while growing up, singing at various churches in Detroit, and participating in contests against some of the day’s serious talent.

“We were against a lot of good people like “Little [Carl]” Carlton and Destination Five, who were popular at the time,” says Lewis. “We won first place for singing "Friendship Train” [Gladys Knight & The Pips].

Today, Lewis says she's thrilled to be able to participate in an event that'll take her back to her childhood. She hopes that attendees will capture the joy by just being around others and singing together.

“Times are different now. Back then, people just used to sing on the corner all day. Now, the streets aren’t safe,” she says. “I want this event to take me back to the days when I would have fun at the Revue and enjoy listening to the music.”

"Making people feel"

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Loney Scott, 53, visited East Grand Boulevard and Belle Isle in the 1980s. To Scott, Motown is a reminder of his family and the uniqueness of Detroit. 

“I grew up in the 70s; I didn’t grow up in the 90s where rap was playing in the house,” says Scott. “We had soul, gospel, and Motown, songs that you could play at picnics and family reunions, and that’s what I remember when I hear songs like that.” 

Scott grew up listening to the music by The Temptations and Stevie Wonder, and he remembers when music videos were an influential part of musical culture. 

“Music videos were in back in the 80s and 90s because of things like MTV and VH1,” says Scott. “Music reached all over the world. It was culture. It brought happiness and sadness and just made people feel.”

Scott decided to participate in the luncheon simply because singing brings him joy. When Sutton asked him to sing for the event, he thought about how much joy could be spread by listening and singing to Motown music with peers. 

“I like singing. Everybody likes singing; it brings joy to me and others,” says Scott. “When the opportunity was brought up to me, and when I found out it involved Motown music, I had to return the favor and sing.”

He says he looks forward to the music stirring up pleasant times for people and good memories they can share. 

“Music calms down the savage beast,” he says. “It calms people down. I want people to let go of whatever they’re holding onto at this luncheon, have a good time, and have fun.”

The Motown Holiday Party will be held from 12 to 3 p.m. on December 13th at the Sacred Heart Church Activities Building, 3451 Rivard. St. The event is limited to the residents of the Van Dyke Center and the Gratiot Woods Co-op Center and their plus ones. Sutton expects this event to bring great cheer and connectivity to attendees.

“One thing I want to tell people about the event is just because we’re seniors doesn’t mean we have to stop living,” she says. “It’s the old ways of the community coming back together again.”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series examining how Detroit residents and community development organizations work together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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