If nothing else, CBS’ “Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration” special alerted America to the continued vitality of Smokey Robinson as a contemporary performer. Ten months from turning 80, the singer’s performances were focused and controlled as he weaved his sultry vocals through classics he wrote — the ballads “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby,” chief among them. Producers aim for vocal-chemistry magic when they pair artists form different genres or generations, and the union of Robinson and a cappella stars Pentatonix on “Shop Around” provided one of the show’s highlights. It’s been 20 years since his last recording for Motown. Might it be time for a return?
The latest Grammys/Ken Ehrlich tribute special —The Beatles, Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra were covered in previous editions — went deeper than those other specials in providing historical context, smartly using interviews with songwriters and the label’s artists from its 1960s heyday in Detroit in tandem with historical footage to detail the label’s approach to race relations, segregation and developing talent. Unfortunately, the special also took a hokey approach to the history, casting host Cedric the Entertainer in short skits as a radio DJ/TV host in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Little surprise that Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder provided show-stopping moments, though it was a bit of jaw-dropper when Thelma Houston, a Motown veteran from the disco era, vigorously delivered “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to close out a girl group medley highlighted by Meghan Trainor’s letter-perfect “You Can’t Hurry Love.”
Attempting to balance education and entertainment is a tricky prospect, not the sort of thing one sees on CBS during primetime. To drive home label founder Berry Gordy’s admonition that a record has “gotta get ‘em in the first 10 seconds” — the first four bars — bandleader Ricky Minor had the band demonstrate multiple superb intros of Motown records. Having individual audience members sing the songs, however, quickly grew stale.
On the other hand, having Robinson detail what went into the creation of “Shop Around,” Motown’s first million-seller, and Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier discussing songwriting provided illuminating segments. It would have been a smart addition to have a segment focused on the label’s great studio musicians, the Funk Brothers, or the label’s finishing school instead of a repeat of Jennifer Lopez’s nicely choreographed but soullessly sung medley of hits performed on the Grammys two months ago.
As always happens in these tribute shows, viewers learn how hard it can be to top the bar set by an icon. As studied performances go, John Legend’s straightforward approach to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (‘s The Ecology)” and “What’s Going On” was spot-on, though it lacked the original’s ease of delivery. Ciara’s take on Rick James was devoid of James’ trademark libidinal nastiness.
The two-hour special certainly demonstrated the empire that sprang from Gordy’s vision, the ventures into film, television and theater and how the word Motown has become synonymous with northern soul music’s finest. The system Gordy created, based on production lines at automobile factories, is thriving in modern pop music today via the Max Martins of the world. And there was barely a song in “Motown at 60” (see Variety‘s deep dive into Motown’s 60 greatest songs here) that hasn’t resiliently stood up to changing tastes and passing decades — that’s a tribute in itself.