Covering Washington politics. From our vantage point. One day a time.

Friday, February 25, 2011

First Lady Presents Motown Legends At The White House

Yesterday at the White House, media and students from around the country were treated to a workshop and forum on Motown Legends as part of the White House's celebration of Black History Month. In attendance:  Smokey Robinson, Motown founder Barry Gordy, and artist John Legend.

Mrs. Obama speaks to high school students during Motown student workshop.
The event was not only an oral history lesson for the students, but for the media as well. 

Where else could you learn that Smokey Robinson credits shows like American Idol for helping today's talented individuals live their dreams?

"When I was starting out, we didn't have that.  Thankfully, I had Berry Gordy", said Robinson.  "He was a man that I could trust."

Gordy, who created Motown because he "wanted to be heard, wanted to make money, and wanted to get girls", created his empire with a $800 loan from family members that helped catapult the universally indelible Motown sound.  The sound would come from Detroit's finest African American youth:  Dianna Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and others, all who lived within blocks of each other growing up. All friends.

Their sound would permeate American culture.   So much, that even the 'British Invasion' of the Beatles credits the artists of Motown as their inspiration.

"Even though they were British, they were gaining their musical influence from Motown", explained the forum's moderator, Bob Santelli, Executive Director of the Grammy Museum.

Motown legends John Legend, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy.  Photo/ CD Brown.
"The real answer was Motown", said Santelli.  "And I know that because in interviews with the Beatles and other members of what was then called the British Invasion, I would ask, who were your influences?  And they would say "Motown, of course:  Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops."

In a society where the lives, and society at large, of African Americans and whites was separate, the brilliance of Gordy would be credited with bringing the races together, at least musically.

"It was fun for me", said Gordy."  "I wanted to be great like Joe Louis", the former boxer turned Hitsville, USA music maker said.   But the one piece of advice he offered to the young people who may be pursuing a career in music, "Be yourself. I know that anything I felt, I could write about it, and know that you all could feel it too, whether you're white, black."

"That's why we got to make music for all people", Gordy added.

We asked Lina Christine Stephens, chief curator of the Motown Museum in historic Detroit, Michigan, if she thought there would be a Motown II: i.e.; 'a second version' of the original Motown.

"I don't think there will ever be a Motown like the original Motown", said Stephens.  "I think there will be other artists who will be equally as talented, but there was a naiveté that was going on at that time where they were just making things work, and they were improvising, and they were all young people who had this hard trying attitude. 

Stephens told us her favorite artists of the time were Gladys Knight (Gladys Knight and The Pips), and Levi Stubbs ( The Four Tops) for their "strong" sounding voices.

"I don't think there will ever be a Motown like that again."

 Nick Jonas performs at Motown workshop. Photo/ CD Brown.
In a surprise performance Nick Jonas, one-half of the Jonas Brothers, came out and wowed the young student audience with his version of the Motown classic, Sugar Pie. Honey Bunch.

While Gladys Knight and Nick Jonas where on the guest list to attend the White House Motown appreciation event later in the evening, it was another Motown artist who still remains the favorite of the First Lady.  After naming off several other Motown greats Mrs. Obama asked the young students:   And one of my personal favorites, "I say this all the time, who?  Who’s my favorite?  Stevie Wonder, yes, indeed."

While Motown artists originated in Detroit, Smokey Robinson noted that "even today, there's a Motown in each city. There's somebody in every city that can sing."

Later in the evening, indeed, singers from every city convened at the White House for a live performance with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Seal, and Nick Jonas who help sing a melody of Motown songs with Foxx singing "Get Ready", Jonas singing "The Way You Do the Things You Do"; Seal singing "I Can't Get Next to You"; Ledisi with Jordan Sparks singing "Stop In The Name of Love", and John Legend singing "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."

The evening's performance, The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House, was aired live, but in case you missed it, here's a quick review, with performance video below.

Other In Performance at The White House events include A Broadway Celebration, a Tribute to Paul McCartney, A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement, a Tribute to Stevie Wonder, and Fiesta Latina.  (See them all here, on the a station that proves funding for public broadcasting should NOT be cut).



John Legend (center), with high school students, speaks to media after Motown workshop event. Photo/ CD Brown.
Sixteen year-old student, Jared Carr (pictured above, left) is engineer bound, not music bound. Wants to design and build cars. Worked at Motown museum. Described White House event as "inexplicable".

Legend "frustrated" over budget cuts, and "discord" coming out of Washington."

"As an artist, and someone part of community choirs, and arts councils and thing of that nature, those are often the things that get cut first, and I know how big of an impact they had on my life, and how important they were to me", said Legend. "I hope our politicians won't think they're expendable, and just get rid of them, and that nobody will feel the pain.  Society will feel the pain."

Student quote:  "If you can't appreciate the music of the past, you can't appreciate the music of today." 

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