“As we come to the end of Black History Month, I can’t think of a better way to do it than by honoring the legendary sound of Motown.”
And so President Barack Obama kicked off “The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House,” a concert on Thursday night paying tribute to the legacy of the illustrious record label.
Actually, the evening started with a reception in the White House Grand Foyer, dressed up with a swanky bar and the red-jacketed Marine Corps playing R&B covers — Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and a jazzy rendition of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love.” As part of the press pool, I was hurriedly escorted past lingering guests into the East Room.
Although the East Room is the largest space in the White House, it was tightly packed with about 200 cocktail attire-clad guests seated around a brightly lit stage. A few notables spotted: Motown founder Berry Gordy (no relation…but I get that a lot), singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, BET CEO Debra Lee, Senator Carl Levin, Sharon Malone (the ob-gyn wife of Attorney General Eric Holder), First Lady Michelle Obama and “First Grandma” Marian Robinson.
But when Stevie Wonder was led to his seat, a hushed silence went over the crowd. Everyone knew it was show time.
“Over the years, this room has hosted some of the most talented musicians in the world, from classical to country. But Motown is different,” said President Obama as he took a podium at center stage, giving opening remarks on the record label’s 50-year history. “No one knows exactly when jazz began. Nobody knows who the first person was to sing a freedom song. But we know where Motown came from. We know it was born in the basement of a house on West Grand Boulevard in the Motor City — Detroit.
“And we know it started with a man named Berry Gordy, who is here with us tonight,” he said, prompting a standing ovation from the audience.
After a few more words on Motown's legacy of bringing Americans of different races together and serving as the soundtrack of the civil rights era, out rushed the first act: John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Nick Jonas and Seal performing a high-energy medley of Temptations songs (complete with loosely coordinated old-school dance moves). The quartet did justice to “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Get Next to You, “ and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”…and then the press was ushered out.
Unfortunately, we were only allowed in for one song. But there’s good news: the concert, which also featured Sheryl Crow, Ledisi, Amber Riley and Jordin Sparks belting a range of Motown favorites, will air on PBS stations nationwide on Tuesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. (ET).