IT’S BEEN almost 60 years since the iconic record label Motown was founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy – launching the careers of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 along with many others.
Now the story of the record label’s success is told in West End show Motown The Musical, which arrives in Woking this month on tour.
The show was created after getting first-hand advice from Michael Lovesmith, who worked alongside Mr Gordy at Motown for years, coached the Jackson 5, produced the likes of The Temptations and The Supremes, and performed himself. As creative consultant, he worked alongside director Charles Randolph-Wright.
“I was basically born and raised in music,” says Michael. “I was on the road as a child, singing in churches as a trio with my brothers. Then at the age of 11 I was introduced to Holland-Dozier-Holland, who signed me to a song-writing contract, and I wrote my first song for them, to be performed by Dionne Warwick.”
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was a good thing I had a good song! I met Mr Gordy at age 17, and by that time I had produced about 12 artists.
“Motown wanted me to work with the Jackson 5. I was their age, so I could relate to them in a way that not everybody could. They were so used to working with older people who didn’t quite understand their energy!
“I ended up becoming Berry Gordy’s protégé, and started producing and vocal coaching Michael and his brothers. Then soon after that I started recording with The Supremes and The Temptations. That’s pretty much how I got started.”
Motown The Musical tells the story of Mr Gordy’s life and the development of Motown Records in Detroit, which soon became known as Hitsville USA.
Michael explains: “The funny thing about Motown is, I think Motown could have been anywhere, and in a sense it was.”
“Every city had a girl group, a guy group, a kids’ group and a lead singer but the unique thing that Detroit had was Berry Gordy. He was this beacon of light, showing you what you can do and what you could be. There were musicians and singers all over the country, but Detroit had Berry Gordy, so it became a magnet for them.”
With such an iconic sound that audiences have loved for almost six decades, how do you begin the process of faithfully recreating that on stage? Michael says: “We searched high and low for someone who understands the need for the show to sound like Motown.
“One person came to meet us and gave us his idea of how he would find a Stevie Wonder, a Michael Jackson, a Smokey Robinson, which we didn’t think was possible, and that person was Charles Randolph-Wright.
“Charles walked into the room and knew what Motown is, who Motown is and what Motown looks and feels like. He grew up on this music.”
Charles adds: “Motown is all we ever really listened to growing up.” But he did find directing the show tough. “Oh yes, I felt pressure,” he explains. “It was so important to me because Mr Gordy is one of my idols, so I wanted to create the show that he wanted to see.
“I approached it the way that Berry Gordy approached it – I needed to find artists that would evoke a certain thing. What I never wanted to do was find people who would just impersonate those performers, I wanted them to make me feel the way Diana Ross made me feel, an actress that would actually make me put my hands up and sing Reach Out and Touch.
“It’s finding that energy, sometimes it’s such raw performers and sometimes it’s people who have been in 10 shows. It’s an instinctive thing – they’re Motown. Working closely with Mr Gordy and Michael I’ve been able to ask, what is that thing that Stevie Wonder has, what is that specific thing that Smokey has? We find that in someone that is authentic in them, rather than make them pretend to be that.”
Motown The Musical will be at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre from Tuesday 20 August until Saturday 24 August.