MOTOWN is an American musical institution, with dozens and dozens of timeless songs, some of the world’s most influential artists, and a wealth of the most accomplished musicians and songwriters in history attached to the name. Artists like The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and countless others made up Berry Gordy’s legendary roster, and the Motown catalog continues to impact modern music and enthrall listeners decades later.
A testament to the lasting legacy of Motown is the Motown Experience, a group of former Motown stars who tour together and perform some of the most beloved songs of the era. The supergroup features members of The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, The Capitols, and The Dramatics, and is led by musical director and longtime Motown associate Glen Raby.
For the past several years, Raby and the Motown Experience have been performing A Motown Christmas - a wide-ranging show filled with holiday music and beloved songs from the peak of the Motown era. The show has been coming to the Lucas Theatre for the Arts for several years, and this year is no exception. The show is set to swing through Savannah on November 25.
Raby is an accomplished musician and bandleader, who conceived the Motown Experience after his work with The Contours ended in 2012. He’s been involved with the music and the Motown legacy since the 90s.
“I liked Motown music well enough,” he tells Connect of his introduction to the catalog. “Growing up in the Detroit area, I was exposed to it quite a bit. To be honest, I always leaned a little more towards the more raw, grittier Stax stuff growing up. Somehow or another, I ended up performing with a lot of the Motown acts.”
Raby says that he feels like The Contours - the group he worked with the most - were perhaps the most closely linked to Stax stylistically of all the Motown acts.
“They were a little gritter, not quite as polished as, say, The Temptations,” he says.
After his work with The Contours ended, Raby says he took a show he produced for them and adapted it for what became the Motown Experience.
“I’d written a show for The Contours - initially it was going to be a symphony pop tour. We performed it once,” he explains.
“When I left The Contours, I thought the show had a great deal of potential and I wanted to continue doing it. I put the group together in the beginning specifically to do the holiday show.”
The process of putting together the Christmas show was one that included exploring not only the Motown catalog in terms of holiday music, but also standards and Christmas songs that weren’t recorded by Motown acts. And, of course, the show includes the classics that people know and love.
“I tried to, kind of, have a balance of a little something for everyone,” he says.
“About a third of the show is actually just straight Motown classics, and a good third of it is traditional Christmas songs more or less performed in the traditional songs. There are certain songs that would be awfully hard to improve upon - songs like Nat King Cole’s ‘Christmas Song.’
I’m not sure what you could do to it to make it any better than it was! So we perform it fairly straight, so to speak. The rest, I used some of the songs and arrangements that had come before us like the Motown Christmas album. And we came up with a few of our own that maybe they hadn’t thought of.”
For Raby, he gets a sense of accomplishment from seeing his idea come to fruition, but it’s much more rewarding to see the audience’s reaction to the music.
“Depending on the age group they’re in, it varies from it bringing back memories to it being a fresh experience,” he says.
As the Motown legacy continues to grow and stand the test of time, Raby says there are a number of reasons why people still seem to connect to it after so many years.
“If I could quantify it, I guess I’d bottle it and be a rich man. But I think there are a lot of factors - the heartache songs were kind of positive. It was always about love. The lyrics were intelligently written, and the band was phenomenal - the Funk Brothers were an amazing array of musicians,” he says of why he thinks Motown remains so popular.
“It’s interesting to me that the technology was so limited back then - if you couldn’t do it, then you just couldn’t do it. There was no fixing it, there was no pitch correction or time correction. If anybody made a mistake, everybody had to start over from the beginning. The talent that was required to actually produce finished products with the lack of technology that they had was pretty extraordinary.
As I performed with a lot of the Motown artists in later years - even though they weren’t at the top of their game like they used to be - because of the amount of talent they had that was required to produce those records in the first place, they could still get out on stage and make it happen.”
Honing the craft of musical ability, Raby says, is something that set the musicians of the 50s, 60s, and 70s apart from many people working together. Because technology makes it easier to complete a finished product that sounds professional and impeccably performed, there’s less emphasis on musicality than there was with artists like the ones during the Motown era.
“You don’t have to put the time and effort into getting it right because the computer can fix it,” he says. “I guess it’s like that with everything. I recently stopped at a CVS and the guy was mystified about how to make change without being able to punch it into the cash register. Those are things that, because we didn’t have that technology, we learned to do as kids.”
As for his favorite Motown song, and his favorite in the Christmas show, Raby says he can’t possibly decide on just one.
“Some days it’s one thing, some days it’s another,” he says. “I really do have a special feeling about pretty much everything in the show. The Motown catalog is so big, and it’s got so many great songs - I don’t know how I’d pick one.”