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Between 1960 and 1969, seventy-nine Motown records - records by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, the Marvellettes, and Stevie Wonder - made Billboard's "Hot 100" list. It was a turning point in popular music. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the battle for racial equality, Berry Gordy was making history and making money. For several decades, in Detroit, and then in Los Angeles, Motown was the highest-earning African American-owned business in the USA.
Flat Rock Playhouse's Motown Summer Nights opened Thursday to a capacity audience at the Playhouse Downtown on historic Main Street, Hendersonville. For many aging baby boomers, it was nostalgia. The Motown Sound was unique, partly due to electronic manipulation that boosted the high frequencies to sound better over AM radio, partly due to prominent bass guitar lines, but mostly due to the vocal compositional style. The Motown Sound used call-and-response singing and sophisticated melodies. Smokey Robinson is quoted as saying, "...the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It's spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen." These are lasting influences, fifty years after they were introduced.
At 7:30, the band assembled on stage and began playing Marvin Gaye's "Dancing in the Street." The four vocalists danced in from the back of the theater, Martina Sykes and Sha'Leah Stubblefield on stiletto heels, Alfred Jackson and Dustin Brayley in stylish suits. In rapid succession came "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Baby Love," the latter sung by the two female vocalists. That song had been on an early Supremes studio album. A larger-than-life five-panel screen displayed images throughout the program, usually pictures of the group or artist who had historically introduced the song now underway.
One highlight was "Please Mr. Postman," which was the first Motown record to hit number one on Billboard's pop chart. In 1961, it simultaneously was number one pop song and number one R&B song, an indication of how Berry Gordy took historically black music and introduced it to mainstream pop audiences. The audience was invited to use the dance floor, and over time more and more dancers were seen. A couple dancing to "My Guy" even ventured a quick kiss just before a complex chord marked the end of the first set. The second set included such familiar tunes as "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Just My Imagination" (during which eighteen couples were dancing).
All four singers are experienced stage actors and their credits include many roles in musical theatre. Los Angeles-based Alfred Jackson provided outstanding vocal work at this show. In addition to his strong, natural voice, he has wonderful control of his falsetto. His dancing elicited joy, as did that of Martina Sykes. Sykes and Sha'Leah Stubblefield showed that they had fully assimilated the Motown Style. In an April 2016 interview in Jacksonville Magazine, 29-year-old Sykes said, "I've loved Motown music since I was a child because my parents introduced us to it early on." The local instrumental musicians deserve mention, especially the talented drummer, Phill Bronson, who is a member of the Asheville-based jazz-fusion quartet Jonathan Scales Fourchestra.
The second set was over all too fast. The apparent end came with "Just My Imagination" and an introduction of each musician to applause. But then came an obviously planned encore (it was listed in the program), an extended version of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," during which Sykes coached audience members (left section) to sing in counterpoint with audience members (right section) in providing the back-up vocals.
Ain't no mountain high enough,
Ain't no valley low enough,
Ain't no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you babe.
Motown Summer Nights definitely got to us, babe, and they can get to you also. Performances continue through Sunday, August 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
*Edited/corrected 4/21/18 in response to corrections/complaints sent by a reader.