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

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; C01

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.

Playing the role of performer-host, the singer-actor was equal parts hammy and hilarious. After a crack about Vice President Biden, who was in attendance, riding home from the evening's concert in a covered wagon (he's old, get it?), Foxx did his best Secret Service impression: "We didn't know anything about that joke; let's get him out of here."

Earlier in the day, the talk was more austere.

"I lived through the civil rights movement and did the sit-ins and the stand-ins and the dogs and all that," Robinson said shortly after arriving at the White House on Thursday afternoon. "To be celebrating the music of Motown during Black History Month at the White House when, at last we have a black president, is just overwhelming."

An hour later, Robinson joined Gordy, Legend and Robert Santelli of the Grammy Museum in the State Dining Room for an educational workshop with more than 100 students hailing from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington. (Local students were visiting from Alice Deal Middle School, Anacostia Senior High, Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Woodrow Wilson Senior High.)

The first lady hopped up to the podium with the panel - drawing the biggest shrieks of the five - and she reflected on Motown's historical significance.

"It was the time of King and Kennedy. It was the time of marches and rallies," Michelle Obama said of the label's heyday. "Motown's music was so much more than just a soundtrack. It was a heartbeat."

It was a heartbeat that Legend learned to sing along with at an early age. The R&B singer spoke about how his father's love for the Four Tops and the Temptations lead to his own fascination with the work of Wonder and Gaye.

Robinson told stories about growing up around the block from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. He praised Gordy's vision and discussed songwriting, sharing some rough-draft lyrics for "The Tracks of My Tears" that didn't make the cut: "It's easy to trace . . . that you're gone, and I'm here, and that's terrible."

And Gordy revealed the two secret ingredients to Motown's magic: "love and competition."

After a few questions from students, Legend bellied up to the piano to sing "Love's in Need of Love Today," introducing the tune by declaring: "My favorite Motown artist is a man by the name of Stevie Wonder."

"What!?" Robinson shouted in mock-outrage.

Then came some authentic shouts from the audience when - surprise! - Santelli introduced an unannounced performance from Jonas. The curly-coifed singer popped onstage for a thin rendition of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," somehow making a big hit sound tiny. (His performance of that same tune later was a smidge better.)

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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