Your Kind of Motown
In The Motown Album, a hefty scrapbook-style volume published in 1990, boldface names Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and The Four Tops are easy to locate because they’re all listed prominently in the table of contents.
Want to find them all on the same page? Look no further than NJPAC’s season brochure.
With the vocally rich addition of The O’Jays, who team up with Knight on Friday, Aug. 23, the R&B lineup is a Motor City music fan’s dream machine. It begins on Friday, Aug. 16 with Ross and continues with Robinson on Friday, Oct. 11, concluding with the double bill of The Temptations and The Four Tops on Saturday, Nov. 2. It’s almost like Newark’s elongated version of the Motortown Revue.
“Motown is the heartbeat and root of much of today's popular music,” says David Rodriguez, NJPAC’s Executive Producer. “To sample Smokey, Diana, Gladys, the Tempts and the Tops on the same stage essentially brings the current hit Broadway show to NJPAC – except with its ‘original cast.’"
In her return engagement at NJPAC, Ross performs selections from scores of hits released during her years with The Supremes and longtime solo career. Now the undisputed goddess of the Hitsville U.S.A. pantheon, she and her high school singing partners started out by hanging around Motown Records studios, where they caught the attention of founder Berry Gordy. Beginning in 1964, The Supremes struck gold with a string of hits: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” (just to get rolling). Ross and the group split in 1969, when she decided to pursue film work (Lady Sings the Blues, The Wiz, Mahogany) and record new chart-busters, such as “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”
Along the way, she picked up a Special Tony Award for An Evening with Diana Ross in 1976, a Kennedy Center Honors in 2007 and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Supremes in 1988. Last year she received her first Grammy Award, for lifetime achievement.
Smokey Robinson, another lead singer under Gordy’s guardianship, knew Ross as a Michigan neighbor from the time she was a child. Accompanied by The Miracles – Gordy’s first signed vocal group – Robinson recorded “Tears of a Clown” and “Love Machine.” His flair for poetic, romantic songwriting produced memorable records for himself and other artists, to name a few: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and “I Second That Emotion.”
The Temptations, a five-man vocal ensemble with the smoothest dance moves and hand jive at Motown, had Robinson to thank at least twice (as songwriter) for their first smash recording in 1964, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” followed a year later by “My Girl,” then others. In the late Sixties, they collaborated on an album with Diana Ross and The Supremes and closely rivaled that girl group in spinning out Top 40 discs. Later, more ruminative songs appeared in their repertoire, such as “War” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” Despite artistic strife and fall-outs among members throughout the decades, The Tempts are still stand-outs, powered by tight harmonies, a slick fashion sense and that snappy line choreography.
Their NJPAC stage mates, The Four Tops, first came together in the mid-‘50s, also out of Detroit, and did not undergo a change in lineup until 1997. Originally led by the late baritone Levi Stubbs, the quartet’s musical styles encompassed R&B, disco, jazz, Broadway tunes and doo-wop. During The Tops’ time at Motown, they performed backup for groups like the Supremes (“Baby I Need Your Loving” was their breakthrough recording) and placed their focus on singing over dancing. Their chart-toppers for Motown, and later other labels, included “Bernadette,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
A wispy girl when she pooled her talents with family members to form The Pips, Gladys Knight hadn’t even signed with Motown when her group shared a bill with the very impressed Temptations. In 1967, with the ink was still fresh on their Motown contract, they released “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and later were an opening act for Diana Ross and The Supremes.
Their catalog of top singles grew with “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (the last two on Buddha Records). After the group disbanded in the late 1980s, Knight’s solo outings produced “Men” and “I Don’t Want to Know.” Knight, who was credited for first bringing The Jackson Five to the attention of Motown Records and toured England with Tito Jackson in 2009, sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral the same year.
Knight appears at NJPAC with The O’Jays – who are not out of Detroit, but rather Philly soul royalty by way of Canton, Ohio (“Back Stabbers,” “I Love Music,” “Love Train”). The group formed in the 1950s and continued to produce hit songs well into the 1970s and beyond; in The Fighting Temptations, a 2003 film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles, The O’Jays portrayed singing barbers. Their R&B smash from 1974, “For the Love of Money,” fast-tracked again recently as the theme song for Donald Trump’s reality TV series The Apprentice.
Through the decades, these artists’ career paths crisscrossed each other from Motown to tours abroad, from The Ed Sullivan Show to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Soon they’ll converge on stage at NJPAC.