Motown meets White House: Concert celebrates storied record label through song

Generations: At a workshop for area students Thursday, John Legend spoke about how Smokey Robinson, right, and other Motown artists influenced him.
Generations: At a workshop for area students Thursday, John Legend spoke about how Smokey Robinson, right, and other Motown artists influenced him. (Charles Dharapak)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011

The lyrics that populate the Motown songbook are chiseled into America's cultural marble, but that didn't stop Jamie Foxx from bending a few lines Thursday night at the White House.

"We won the election," he sang, tweaking the Temptations' "Get Ready" for the East Room audience. "The White House, baby, so much fun!"

It was the jubilant opening number of "The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House," a concert celebrating the music and impact of one of America's most storied record labels.

It was also the first performance at 1600 Pennsylvania this year.

Since arriving at the White House in 2009, the Obamas have hosted concerts celebrating individual strands of American music: jazz, country, Latin, classical and Broadway. But for the second straight February, this year's Black History Month event welcomed a genre-blind swath of artists: Motown original Smokey Robinson, genre jumper Sheryl Crow, R&B singer John Legend, heartthrob Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, country quartet Gloriana and a surprise performer whom the president announced in his opening remarks: Stevie Wonder.

After the cheers died down, President Obama gave an eloquent Motown history lesson, explaining how a team of singers from Detroit dissolved America's racial barriers with the power of melody.

"At concerts in the South, Motown groups literally brought people together, insisting that the ropes traditionally used to separate black and white audience members be taken down," he said. "More than 50 years later, that's the Motown legacy."

Once the music started up, the spectrum of artists failed to take advantage of the elasticity of these songs. British pop cutie Natasha Bedingfield, "American Idol" alumna Jordin Sparks and R&B singer Ledisi sang the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love" incredibly straight, right down to the hand motions.

Gloriana's read on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was twang-free. And as if she had traversed time, race and gender, Crow didn't sound like herself singing the Jackson 5 hit "I Want You Back" - she sounded like a tweenage Michael.

But those faithful renditions were a reminder of the supernatural hit-making powers that defined Motown - a label that introduced the world to the likes of Wonder, Jackson, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Gladys Knight and scores of others.

Motown royalty was in the audience, too. Label founder Berry Gordy sat a few seats from the Obamas, and Martha Reeves jumped onstage for a grand-finale singalong of "Dancing in the Streets," inspiring the crowd to its feet.

Foxx accomplished that same task at the onset of the concert. "I know you ain't gonna sit down on me!" he shouted, after a medley performance with Jonas, Legend and Seal.

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