Motown Comes to Beverly Hills

On Oct. 1, “Motown: Celebrating the Music, the Magic and the Love” graced the Bram Goldsmith Theater at The Wallis. Through concert performance and critical conversation, the show honored and acknowledged Motown’s influence on popular music throughout history. The show was created, produced and directed by Beverly Hills Arts and Culture Commissioner Karla Gordy Bristol. A roster of performers that included Thelma Houston, Brenda Holloway and “Scherrie, Lynda, and Susaye Former Ladies of The Supremes” took to the stage in honor of the record label that made them famous.

A 12-piece band accompanied performers. Photo Courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho

Motown Records is one of the most recognizable brands in music, but the legendary-hit powerhouse first began operations in a small home in Detroit. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958, the label is credited with signing some of the most prominent acts of the 60s and 70s, including Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and more. Together, the label and its artists pioneered the R&B genre through a disco-dominated musical landscape. Bristol has a special connection to the label and the work it has produced because she is the great-niece of the Motown founder, who was in the audience for the show.

“I can’t believe how many people responded so positively and wanted to be here tonight,” said Bristol on stage. “[Motown] is about uniting, celebrating and enjoying each other, so let’s do a lot of that tonight.”

Scherrie, Lynda and Susaye, Former Ladies of The Supremes Photo Courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho

The “Former Ladies of The Supremes” were the first to perform, opening with the rousing rendition of “Stop! In the Name of Love.” In 1986, Scherrie Payne, Lynda Lawrence and Susaye Greene united to become a reconstituted ensemble of the legendary trio. Having a total of eight members in its lifespan, the original group began with Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard as the vocalists. It went on to make music history.

The “Former Ladies” returned later in the evening to perform “You Can’t Hurry Love” after making an outfit change from one matching shimmering set to another.

The musical lineup was accompanied by a 12-piece band that rejuvenated each song with a powerful instrumental. The eclectic piano keys layered over the blaring brass, soft wind chimes and driving bass lines tastefully remastered the glamorous productions of the classic tunes. Lead pianist Herman Jackson directed the band. The show, a world premiere, did suffer from occasional technical difficulties. The band, however,  was always ready to draw the crowd’s attention back to the music.

Karla Gordy Bristol with Berry Gordy and his great-great nieces Morgan Ashley and Kiarra Michaux Photo Courtesy of Juliette Hagerman

In between performances, Motown artists, producers, writers and executives provided the audience insight into the music they were reliving. As part of a panel moderated by four-time Grammy nominee Patrice Rushen, the group of speakers disclosed the details of what made their job so difficult and what made it worth it. 

The panel included Claudette Robinson of the Miracles, Former Motown Vice President Iris Gordy, hit songwriter Janie Bradford and record salesman Miller London. All the panel members celebrated Motown and shared why it is an honor to be a part of the Motown Family.

“When I came on, it was still the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the year before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. People were looking for something to unify the country,” said London. “Motown was that unification that I think the country needed at that time to help ease the pain and the unrest that we were going through.”

Additional highlights of the evening included performances by Holloway and Houston. Holloway gave a touching and intimate performance of “Every Little Bit Hurts.” Houston performed her high-energy ballad “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” singing along to the thundering claps of the audience.

The show closed with a grand finale, welcoming all the performers and singers to step out on the stage together for a heartwarming rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the hit by the late Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.