Detroit is back on the White House agenda. And this time it’s got a backbeat.
Motown Records will be in the spotlight this Thursday February 24th as President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome Berry Gordy Jr., Smokey Robinson and more than 120 students for a tribute to the record label that gave the city its nickname.
An East Room concert that evening will feature Robinson, Sheryl Crow, John Legend, Jamie Foxx and several other musicians playing Motown classics for the first couple and a student group, including 10 metro Detroit high schoolers handpicked by the Motown Historical Museum.
The students also will participate in an afternoon workshop hosted by Michelle Obama, to include a question-and-answer session with Gordy and Robinson.
Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, will speak about the social and cultural influence of Motown and Detroit music.
Produced by the Grammy Museum and timed to Black History Month, the Motown tribute is the latest in a series of music events hosted by the Obamas.
The concert will be taped for airing March 1 on PBS stations, including WTVS-TV (Channel 56) in Detroit.
While Motown music has been no stranger at the White House — artists such as Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops have played for several presidents — next week’s event is unique.
“I don’t think the company and genre have been recognized in this way by any administration,” said Audley Smith, CEO of the Motown Historical Museum, which will transport several items from its collection for display at a pre-concert reception.
“I think it kind of says it all, that this administration has seen fit to honor this music that is unique to Detroit,” Smith said.
Barack Obama — who was born two years after the label’s 1959 inception — has long shown a fondness for Motown: Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)” was a major theme song during his 2008 campaign, and he has described Wonder as his “one musical hero.”
In a video message taped for the label’s 50th anniversary gala in November 2009, the president paid tribute to Motown’s cultural impact, saying the music “defined a style, lifted up a city and moved an entire generation.”
The Detroit group, which includes students from Mosaic Youth Theatre and the Sphinx Organization, will spend an extra day touring Washington, D.C. They will also meet with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Motown fan who was treated last year to a private tour of the Motown museum on West Grand Boulevard.
Santelli said his lecture will emphasize Detroit’s broader role as a music capital and what “the city has given over the years to the American music legacy.”
“I want the students to realize this wasn’t a one-shot deal — that Detroit music was serving American culture for many years before and after,” he said.
(Courtesy: Detroit Free Press)