I don’t really enjoy nor appreciate tribute bands and rock musicals so I was apprehensive last night about The Magic of Motown. It was a dedication to the great Motown artists of the sixties and seventies, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. Six black American vocalists and dancers paid tribute to these immortals. The obvious difficulty is of course they are not them. I got over this as they were accomplished enough but had more problems with the fact that I could not see one black person in the audience. Tamla Motown put black music commercially on the map was not to be meant thus. It did reach out to a wider audience and obviously still does but its appeal is primarily to a black music audience who had their totems and legends.
There were some technical difficulties too. The stage at the Theatre Royal is small and the troupe and quartet of 2 guitarists, drummer and pianist were all rather cramped on it. Secondly the vocalist could not sing above the music. This created a noise rather than a sound as the acoustics in the old theatre were poor. After 10 minutes a group of elderly white ladies filed from their seats. Give the show a chance I thought, it’s not that bad. In fact they were using the aisles to dance. Soon the whole audience was up and clapping but again I found this contrived and uncomfortable.
A singer with a mass of wigged hair and a sequinned dress gave a convincing impersonation of Diana Ross but another could not capture the deep soulful tones of Gladys Knight. They all got the outfits right, those bright starry jackets and robes, but I never felt they replicated the voices and presence.
The slick packaging of the show was reflected in a £7 glossy programme. This had no mention of Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown sound, their greatest songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland, and the biopics of the legends were rather scanty. I suppose all original successful music is going to be commercialised and sanitised but the impact of a sound that created a street cred for black musicians as white ones could not replicate this sound convincingly and was lost.