Shayna Steele. Photo: Anna Webber
Dancing in the Street: The Music of Motown
Bob Bernhardt, conductor
Shayna Steele, Michael Lynche, and Chester Gregory, vocals
Shubh Saran, guitar, Mark Minoogian, bass, and Jacob Navarro, drums
A review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
I believe it safe to say that much of the music that was created under the Motown label has crossed many divides: racial, ethnic, or social. The songs performed by these artists often evoked feelings of want, justice, friendship, and love. While some songs were quite straightforward, others were subliminal in their intent. Such was the empire that Berry Gordy, Jr. built.
For those not familiar, Motown, which is a portmanteau of Motor and Town, was based in Detroit, Michigan and founded by Gordy, who got his musical start by operating a record store. When the store went under, Mr. Gordy was still enamored with the music industry and through a series of events and meetings with musical influencers of the time, such as Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, and Harvey Fuqua, nephew to Charlie Fuqua of the Ink Spots, and collaborating with his siblings and other business partners, Motown was founded and Hitsville, U.S.A. was created, which served as the headquarters until it relocated to Los Angeles in 1968.
Gordy was inspired by the Doo Wop style but eventually found strength in other forms such as Jazz, Soul, and Rhythm and Blues. While those influences certainly were prevalent within the scope of the Motown discography, the genres expanded to other genres such as Hip Hop.
The lineup of artists who worked with the Motown label is literally a cavalcade of the Who’s Who of the 60s, 70s, and 80s: people such as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the writing team of Holland, Dozier and Holland, Diana Ross, and the aforementioned Smokey Robinson.
Saturday evening our Louisville Orchestra allowed a sold-out audience to travel back in time to when Motown was selling out in record stores and could be heard on every radio station. We were treated to 20 songs that were representative of that Motown style and each one sing-able.
Guest artist Shayna Steele, who has a very impressive resume that includes performing on Broadway in the original Hairspray, got the evening started with the high energy Marvin Gaye song, “Dancing in the Streets”. Yes, there was energy, but the vocalization just wasn’t there yet. As she continued singing throughout the evening, her voice certainly got stronger. Her interpretation of the Diana Ross hit “Touch Me in the Morning” had the soulful smoothness I remember. “My Guy” was a lot of fun and when she got to Thelma Houston’s disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way”; she had the audience on their feet.
Something that was noticeable throughout the evening was that some arrangements made it difficult for the performers to feel comfortable. For example, the chosen key for Lionel Ritchie’s “Endless Love” duet, performed by Ms. Steele and Michael Lynche seemed to make them reach a little harder than they should have needed to.
Chester Gregory, who has performed in Louisville three times before as a cast member of the Broadway tours of Sister Act, Dreamgirls, and Motown, where he played Berry Gordy, looked to be having a great time and was in fine voice. His versions of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” and “My Girl” was fun, but he got the joint jumping with fancy footwork and cool vocals on “Higher and Higher”.
Speaking of fancy footwork, one cannot help but think of James Brown’s signature shuffle moves, which Michael Lynche, who was an American Idol Season 9 contestant, was able to faithfully recreate, as well as providing some nuanced singing. “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World” was certainly reminiscent of the James Brown sound as was “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. But the song that absolutely won over the audience was “A Song for You”, written by Leon Russell, that Mr. Lynche dedicated to his late mother and brother.
Part of what makes the Motown sound resonate is the fantastic rhythmic studio artists that would gather in the studio. The trio that we were graced with certainly achieved a high caliber of musicianship, that included Jacob Navarro on drums, Mark Minoogian on bass, and Shubh Saran on guitar (who had a great solo on “I Feel Good”).
Other crucial ingredients for the Motown sound often came from orchestral instruments, such as strings, winds, and brass. Our Louisville Orchestra absolutely added a great dimension to the landscape of the arrangements, most of them by Jeff Tyzik. In performing “How Sweet It Is”, Mr. Lynche called out to pianist extraordinaire Grace as she wailed on the ivories. Similarly, fantastic and funky sax solos were coming from stage left. I am not sure who the sax soloist because his name was not credited in the program, nor was Grace’s.
The evening absolutely delivered on the elements that made Motown the hitmaker that it was and it was fun to hear a new generation of performers give reverence and appreciation to those that came before, but what I enjoyed most of all was looking over the full audience and seeing the multi-generational gathering revel in the sounds that continue to shape our music today.
Dancing in the Street: The Music of Motown
January 25, 2020
Whitney Hall, Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.