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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)

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Another surprise: That Jonas was invited back to the White House so soon. He performed here alongside brothers Kevin and Joe in June, helping fete Gershwin Prize winner Paul McCartney. Though Robinson's and Wonder's involvement in Thursday's concert was a no-brainer, it's still a bit strange to see so many familiar faces in the East Room.

And when almost any American musician would clear his or her schedule to play Obama's White House, do we really need to pass the mike to Amber Riley and Mark Salling from the television series "Glee"? (Riley fumbled the lyrics of Wonder's "Living for the City," while Salling's gravelly version of "Just My Imagination" was borderline embarrassing.)

The Obamas' embrace of American popular music has been, at times, thrilling and historic. But with a concert series this ambitious comes the responsibility of showcasing truly great artists - something our recession-stricken America will never be short on.

That felt evident during Legend's wonderful read on Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Legend might have been in the presence of the first family and his musical heroes, but he wagged his finger and bellowed the refrain as if that grapevine had just delivered the sour news.

He sang it like a true student of Motown.

The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WETA.


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