Is Motown a place? An era? A style? A frame of mind?
It's all those things and more, according to Terry Weeks of the Temptations, the Motown group that will be in concert Friday at the Stranahan Theater.
Music recorded as many as four decades ago in Berry Gordy's little Hitsville USA studio in Detroit continues to delight audiences around the world because of a unique convergence of factors, Weeks said.
"I think it's really the melodies. It's the writing, the music, and what they're singing about. It's a part of the history of our country. It'll never happen again. You'll never re-live it," Weeks said in a recent interview from a tour stop in Oakland, Calif.
Motown songs recorded by African-American singers and musicians in Detroit soared to the top of the U.S. charts in the 1960s with an uplifting, positive sound, helping to soothe a nation torn apart by racial strife and civil rights struggles.
"There was a whole lot of turmoil within our country, and it's amazing to me how powerful a medium music is," Weeks said. "It breaks down all racial barriers. It doesn't matter about color. You forget all your differences for whatever amount of time you're listening to that music."
Originally called the Elgins, the Temptations were formed by members of two Detroit vocal groups, the Primes and the Distants. The group was signed by Gordy in 1961 and the sole surviving band member, Otis Williams, suggested the name change.
In addition to Williams, the group's legendary early lineup featured Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams (no relation to Otis), Melvin Franklin, and David Ruffin.
The singers worked with Motown's famed choreographer Cholly Atkins to develop the flashy, synchronized dance steps for which they would forever be known.
In 1964, the Temptations' scored their first chart hit, "The Way You Do the Things You Do," with Smokey Robinson producing and Ruffin singing lead vocals.
It was the first of 44 Top 40 R&B hits for the Temptations, including 15 No. 1 tunes. Among the timeless favorites, marked by chugging rhythms and tight vocal acrobatics, are such hits as "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," "Psychedelic Shack," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "My Girl," and "I Can't Get Next To You."
"Years ago, I used to be surprised at how popular the songs are today," Weeks said. "But now I'm not. I understand that this music has just permeated American society. It seems like it has no expiration date to it. I look out at audiences and I see four generations. It's new to some of them. Even 40 years later, these songs are still in demand. It's a testament to the music of this era."
Williams, 66, a native of Texarkana, Texas, makes sure the "new kids on the block" live up to the Temptations' legacy, Weeks said.
"He's pretty demanding because our fans are pretty demanding. We know what an audience expects from this group: a high-energy show with choreography and slick vocals," Weeks said.
Weeks, who joined the band 11 years ago, is its youngest member at 42. A native of Arkansas, he was born one year before the Temptations broke into the national charts.
Hanging out with Otis Williams is like being with a living encyclopedia of modern American musical and cultural history, Weeks said.
"When we're on our tour buses during the summer months, doing lawn dates, those are the best times," he said. "We sit on the bus and talk about different stories that happened to us, and Otis relates it to the original five. They were teenagers and they had to deal with fame. Fame can be a double-edge sword. There were no guidelines to tell you how to deal with things."
The group's long and successful career has been tempered with great sadness. Paul Williams committed suicide in 1973, Ruffin died of a drug overdose in 1991, Kendricks died of lung cancer in 1992, and Franklin succumbed to heart failure in 1995.
"On the one hand, you had such great success in the music business, and on the flip side there was so much personal tragedy," Weeks said. "It makes for such an interesting story. I think that's one reason the public relates to this band. They know these guys are still human beings."
In addition to Williams and Weeks, the lineup now features G.C. Cameron, Ron Tyson, and Joe Herndon.
The Temptations, who have recorded more than 60 albums over the years, recently released a collection of classic hits called "Reflections," on the NewDoor label. It features their own interpretations of hits by such R&B greats as Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye.
The Temptations will be in concert at 8 p.m. Friday at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., with the Marvellettes opening. Tickets are $27.50 to $39.50 from the box office, 419-381-8851, and all Ticketmaster outlets.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.
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