By Fran Holuba
February is a time to celebrate Black History Month and for the White House, it’s a time to get a little funky. As part of a series of musical tributes, President Obama and the First Lady hosted a day dedicated to the legacy of Motown Records. The festivities included an afternoon workshop for over 100 students from California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington D.C. On the panel of entertainers and educators was Berry Gordy, the father of Motown Records, music greats Smokey Robinson and John Legend, and Bob Santelli, the Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum. Celebrating Motown was also a chance to reflect on the music that paved the way for racial integration of pop music in the 1960s.
As Michelle Obama explained at the daytime student workshop, “as Motown rose, so did the forces of change in this country. During that time, it was the time of King and Kennedy, it was a time of marches and rallies and groundbreaking civil rights laws. And Motown’s music was so much more than just a soundtrack. It was a heartbeat.” Providing context for the birth of Motown, Bob Santelli educated the crowd on the history of the soul-filled pop sound and even gave his own interpretation of its unprecedented success adding “it just sounded so good on car radios!”
John Legend, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson then fielded some questions from Santelli and the students in the room. When prompted to explain his creative process for songwriting, Smokey Robinson told the crowd of eager youngsters that it’s about delivering your message in a new way. He explained that since there are no new words, no new chords, or new ideas really, it’s about trying to say, “I Love You” in a different way. For Smokey Robinson, his hit “Tracks of My Tears” was his way of telling the story of love and heartache in his own poetic voice.
To top off the afternoon, John Legend hopped on a piano set against the marble fireplace and performed a riveting version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” We later learned it was the
virtuoso’s White House performance debut. When Legend explained to the crowd that Stevie Wonder was his favorite Motown artist, a good humored Smokey Robinson cried out in surprise, only to then laugh heartily with his best friend, Berry Gordy, beside him.
As if the crowd pressed into the dazzling State Dining Room wasn’t already impressed with the lineup, a surprise performance by Nick Jonas had the young girls shrieking in delight. Crooning along to an acoustic guitar and the steady claps of the students, Jonas sang his favorite song, “I Can’t Help Myself” originally recorded by the Four Tops. Some female voices in the crowd quietly provided the “sugar pie
honey bunch” chorus.
Continuing the celebration later that evening, the President and his family were joined by music legends and contemporary artists, to hear performances by Smokey Robinson, Natasha Bedingfield, Sheryl Crow, Jamie Foxx, Gloriana, Nick Jonas, Ledisi, John Legend, Amber Riley, Mark Salling, Seal and Jordin Sparks with Greg Phillinganes. The mix of performers reflected the First Lady’s sentiment that the Motown legends were trailblazers, adding, “you know, there wouldn’t be an Usher if there wasn’t a Smokey Robinson. You know, there wouldn’t be an Alicia Keys without a Gladys Knight.’
As the students in the workshop demonstrated, love for the Motown sound lives on and at least for a time, the White House has Marvin Gaye on repeat.