SOUNDS OF YESTERYEAR: Wilmington Symphony highlights Motown sounds with Spectrum by JS Carver, LOL contributor

Motown’s signature bee-bop, do-wop, catchy upbeat sound traces its roots back to Detroit’s very own Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy started the Motown American record company in 1960, which went on send performers like Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson Five, among others, to superstardom.
In its almost 60-year wake, we are left with nostalgic memories of perfectly choreographed and styled artists, who pay tribute Spectrum to legendary performances of yesteryear. The four-person group, Darryl Grant, Pierre Jovan, David Prescott, and group founder Cushney Robert, have moved their well-known Las Vegas show off the strip and on the road. They’ll be coming to the Wilson Center on Mar. 24, 7:30 p.m. ($55-$65)—but audiences will see more than a run-of-the-mill American Legends-style performance. Spectrum will be joined by 55 musicians from the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra to present the orchestra’s annual Symphony Pops!.
Livin Out Loud interviewed Cushney and WSO conductor Steve Errante about what audiences can anticipate.
Livin Out Loud (LOL): Steven, tell me why you wanted WSO to do a Symphony Pops! around Motown?
Steven Errante (SE): In the last couple of years, the Wilmington Symphony has been appealing to the baby-boomer demographic with music from the ’60s and ’70s. Two years ago, we featured a Beatles tribute called “Classical Mystery” tour, and so the music of Motown represents another theme from that ear.
LOL: Would you say it’s easy to translate Motown into symphonic standards?
SE: Many of the Motown hits featured string and brass groups, and so the arranger for Spectrum was able to build on those by expanding them to the sounds of a full
LOL: Cushney, What’s it like having the sound of a full orchestra married with Motown tunes?
Cushney Roberts (CR): It is a particular thrill for the singers, musicians, and audiences to perform and hear this iconic music with full orchestration. Many originals had full orchestra accompaniment, but we have paid particular attention to enhancing the arrangements to make them fun and interesting for the orchestra musicians to play and for the conductors to conduct—without distorting the original intent or feel of the songs.
The special treatment given to “Break Up to Make Up” in our Stylistics medley is a wonderful, totally original arrangement, which wows the audiences and is representative of the combination of formal musical training, and love and understanding of the material presented in our shows by our primary arranger and orchestrator, the late Tex Richardson.
LOL: Compared to today’s pop music, how would you say Motown holds up? Do you think we’ll ever see a sort of resurgence with that style of sound?
CR: I feel the combination of musicality and storylines found in most of Motown and Motown-era music will continue to outshine today’s and tomorrow’s pop music because it stands alone—whereas today’s music is more homogenized.
LOL: What can you tell us about the process of choosing, learning and then uniquely executing songs for this production?
CR: Our process stems from researching what material was ranked in the top 10 on the pop charts, as well as knowing what song’s impacts were, having lived through the era. The Four Tops only had two number-one songs on the pop charts, “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Those were included as opposed to “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” because “Baby…”, despite its catchiness and popularity, didn’t reach similar heights.
LOL: While these Motown and R&B hits are recognizable, does Spectrum put their own spin on them—so to speak?
CR: Spectrum only puts the types of spin on the classics that one might find more entertaining for a live audience—for example, musical intros and endings. Even the original artists do this when performing their songs live. Although we don’t try to impersonate the original artists, our renditions are virtually always reminiscent of the sounds and styles of the original artists. Our medley arrangements are totally original in the songs orders and musical transitions.
LOL: What are some of your favorite songs currently in rotation?
CR: Our Four Seasons medley and our Jackson 5 medley. The Four Seasons material, due to it being outside the Motown family, while simultaneously being inextricable from its direct and indirect ties to the Motown sound. You’ll have to attend the concert and pay attention to some of the background information shared to fully appreciate that.