CAN'T FORGET the Motor City: After all, Detroit gave us Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5.
That's a pop pantheon that's never been equaled on a single record label. And just think of it -- all of them were brand-new artists once upon a time, all on Motown Records, the black-owned independent recording company founded by Berry Gordy Jr., a Detroit record store owner and songwriter who built his empire from scratch in the early '50s.
But in 1988, Gordy sold Motown Record Corporation for $61 million to a Boston venture capital concern and MCA Records. So make way for the "new" Motown: Chief operating officer Harry Anger says the label, celebrating its 30th anniversary, is making a renewed commitment to new artists. They've scouted amateur talent contests and recruited a new roster of fresh acts and updated the Motown sound to include rap and hip-hop (as well as accommodating classic soul and R&B).
They're making a summer splash by taking the whole gang out on the road in the Motor Town Revue, a package tour the likes of which hasn't departed Hitsville U.S.A. since 1963, when the tour introduced the Supremes, the Tempts, Little Stevie Wonder, the Miracles and the Vandellas to concert crowds.
Hitting the road this month are the up-and-coming groups the Boys (who already have a platinum album under their little belts), the Good Girls and Today; solo soulster Milira; and rap acts M. C. Trouble and Rich Nice. You may not have heard of most of them yet, but if you go to this Saturday's show at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, you'll be able to say someday that you were among the first to check them out.
Along with its then-unbeatable roster, Motown under Berry's regime was known for International Talent Management Incorporated, an in-house "charm school" which polished, groomed and styled its future stars, instructing them how to sit, walk and talk in a way that would play in the swanky, predominantly white nightclubs.
"Well, we haven't done anything like that," Anger says. "But we certainly try and help them in any way can in creating a family atmosphere. The groups often work together. For instance, at one point during this show, the Good Girls come on and sing backup for M.C. Trouble. Not that that's a significant moment in musical history, but it's that kind of cooperation. It's a family attitude."
It had better be: The six acts, involving some 50 performers and crew members, are playing 19 dates in 18 cities, traveling in five tour coaches. Still, it's more comfortable than the 1963 revue when the groups headed out in station wagons. Meet the boys and girls on the bus:
The Boys, a California quartet of brothers specializing in bubblefunk, are so chipmunk-cheeked cute you might call them the Cabbage Patch Kids on the Block. Though the sum of their ages barely tops 50, the Abdul-Samad brothers -- Khiry, Hakeem, Tajh and Bilal -- are old showbiz pros: Hakeem, 15, has been seen in "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Facts of Life," and 13-year-old Tajh made his TV debut at six weeks as the infant Kunta Kinte, held aloft by his dad at the beginning of the miniseries "Roots."
When they were just plain old boys they used to lip-sync to old Jackson 5 records and mimic Michael Jackson steps, then they'd take their living room act to the boardwalk at Venice Beach, Calif. The Boys' current video "Crazy," one of the funniest of the year, features the four doing adorably wicked impressions of Bobby Brown, Michael and Janet Jackson, Madonna and Milli Vanilli.
Milira Jones, 19, had been singing backup in gospel groups since age 11, but she really got noticed last year at an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre.
"I came in third place, but the second time I won. And the third time they said, 'Hey you -- let's talk,' " she recalls.
The first single off her debut album, "Milira," is "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" a gently hip-hoppy version of Marvin Gaye's worried warning, which Milira warms with her jazzy Sarah Vaughan-ish inflections. Jones also rebuilds Aretha Franklin's "Until You Come Back to Me" from the ground up, and contributed two originals, "That Man in My Life" and "That Four-Letter Word."
Motown likes to call the Good Girls "the Supremes of the '90s," and the young trio obligingly dug into the Motown song vaults for a funked-up remake of "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" on its self-titled debut album. Joyce T., DeMonica S. and Shireen C. all from the Los Angeles suburb of Westchester, met on the set of "Soul Train" where they were dancing with different groups.
Future rap diva M. C. Trouble, a k a LaTasha Rogers, originally intended to be a singer, but she was overheard by a rap station DJ, who rushed her into the studio for a demo. Rogers's debut album "Gotta Get a Grip" features partners in rhyme Full Force and members of Ice-T's production posse -- the single "(I Wanna) Make You Mine" is already charting. Nearly 19, Rogers sings on only one cut, "Thing For You," but says Motown CEO Jheryl Busby has given her the green light for an all-singing project next.
Also on the bill are Today, a hip-hop vocal quartet from Englewood, N.J., whose first hit "Why You Get Funky On Me" appeared on the "House Party" soundtrack, benefiting from production and beats courtesy of Teddy Riley, the king of new jack swing; and Rich Nice, a South Bronx rapper, whose "Information to Raise a Nation" is a good example of "edutainment," a combination of rap music and information about apartheid, drugs and the future of black America.