Written by Josh Jackson
In January of 1959, entrepreneur Berry Gordy borrowed $800 and began the independent record label, Motown. The rest, as they say, is history.
On the heels of the 50 year anniversary of Motown, the producers of the PBS television series, ‘In Performance At The White House,’ thought it would be a great idea to pay tribute to ‘The Motown Sound’ – and I couldn’t have agreed more.
The event brought together some of the great names in music, all claiming Motown’s influenced on their career. Perhaps the most important man in the room on this evening was not a musician at all, but the President of the United States himself, Barack Obama. The President started off the night by proclaiming his love for the music of Motown and welcoming everyone to his home, the White House.
Then, the show was off to the races beginning with a medley of Temptations hits by host, Jamie Foxx, Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, Seal, and John Legend. Backed by an incredible band led by music director Greg Phillinganes, the group really got the audience going. Even Nick Jonas, who quickly found himself outmatched vocally by the rest of the group, proved himself a top-notch performer. The audience stood and sang along to ‘Get Ready,’ ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do,’ ‘Can’t Get Next To You,’ and ‘Ain’t To Proud To Beg.’
I have always found Jamie Foxx to be one of the funniest men in comedy. And this night was no different. After the performance, he set up the night in his own comedic way, leaving the audience in stitches. It is a shame that much of his ‘schtick’ found it’s way to the cutting room floor for the TV special because he really was funny. After this short opening, the rest of the show was musical hit after hit.
First up, Sheryl Crow channeled her old days as Michael Jackson’s back-up singer performing a spot-on version of ‘I Want You Back.’
Next, Nick Jonas returned to the stage to sing ‘I Can’t Help Myself.’ Once again he really struggled vocally and seemed visibly bothered by it.
Ledisi nailed Mary Wells hit, ‘My Guy’ with author Smokey Robinson sitting right in front of her. I can only imagine the nerves!
John Legend then came to stage for a haunting rendition of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ While most people are familiar with this song as one of Marvin Gaye’s signature hits, it was first recorded in 1966 by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and then later by Gladys Knight & The Pips before becoming a hit for Gaye. John Legend stayed true to the well-known version and performed it wonderfully. I worked with John one other time and have consistently been impressed with him as a vocalist.
Singing the Supremes biggest hit ‘Stop In The Name Of Love,’ was a lovely trio of Ledisi, American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks, & Natasha Bedingfield. Each lady brought her own flair to the song and was a big hit with the audience.
Seal’s 2008 album ‘Soul’ was a great cover album of Motown and other soul hits and his version of ‘My Girl’ was just different enough from the original to give it a fresh, modern spin. While on set, I found Seal’s work ethic to be far and above many of the other artists as he was super-eager to rehearse and practice his parts.
Natasha Bedingfield returned to stage for Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks Of My Tears.’ She was another artist who proclaimed her love for Smokey and recalled after the show how nerve-wracking it was to perform the song while he watched from his seat.
Glee’s Amber Riley performed Stevie Wonder’s ‘Livin’ For The City.’ At one point in the song, the band modulated into a verse and she got confused and dropped a couple of lines. At the end of the song, the producers came to the stage asking her if everything was okay. She said she just opened her eyes and there was Stevie Wonder and then she went blank! I don’t blame her! On the 2nd take, she completely nailed it, proving that some TV actors really can sing. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for her co-star Mark Salling, whose lack-luster performance of ‘Just My Imagination’ did not make the TV show.
Country artists Gloriana performed next, singing ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’ While they have received tons of great publicity as Taylor Swift’s opening act, I found their performance very average.
Jordin Sparks returned to the stage with a near perfect version of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’ Not only can she sing wonderfully, she was a very kind individual, taking the time to talk with anyone who wanted to meet her.
What a treat the next performance ended up being. Smokey Robinson and Sheryl Crow blended together on the Miracles most covered hit ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.’ Everyone from the Beatles to the Supremes and The Temptations have recorded this song and you would have thought Smokey and Sheryl had been singing it themselves for a long time. It was a great moment in the show. However, the biggest moment of the night was about to take place. At the end of his performance, Smokey introduced Stevie Wonder who was to say a few words and introduce the finale. Instead, he ended up stealing the spotlight by performing an unrehearsed version of ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.’ It’s moments like these that I really love my job! While unrehearsed elements sometimes send things into chaos, you couldn’t help but sit back and enjoy this classic being sung by one of the best in the business.
Then, just as planned, the rest of the cast joined Stevie on stage for the finale, ‘Dancing In The Streets.’ Martha Reeves was in the audience and she even ended up on stage to sing some of her hit.
All in all it was an incredible night of music, one that I will remember for quite some time to come.
Written by Josh Jackson
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Tags: Amber Riley, Barack Obama, Berry Gordy, blog, concert blast, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Gloriana, Greg Phillinganes, Jamie Fox, John Legend, Jordin Sparks, Josh Jackson, Ledisi, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Motown Records, Natasha Bedingfield, Nick Jonas, PBS, president, Seal, Sheryl Crow, Smokey Robinson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Supremes, Temptations, TV Special, White House