Carrying the Motown Torch
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The Miracles. The Supremes. The Marvelettes. The Four Tops. The Contours. The Jackson 5. Stevie Wonder. Gladys Knight and the Pips. The Temptations. Martha and the Vandellas.
The list of stars who recorded under the Motown label and its early subsidiaries goes on and on, as does the catalogue of hit songs that alternately thrilled, soothed and wooed a generation of fans eager for the kind of soul-pop Berry Gordy made famous when he first founded Detroit’s Tamla Records in 1959. That was the year Gordy, at the time a young and underpaid songwriter, decided to make the leap to producer. He borrowed $800 from his family and started his own label in a two-story house on West Grand Boulevard, recording on the first floor and living on the second.
Soon, Gordy was the man behind such stars as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, and he was boasting of a number of hit records and enviable sales numbers. Originally an offshoot of Tamla Records, Motown, a merging of “motor” and “town,” grew to be the most recognizable of Gordy’s imprints as well as a nickname for Detroit itself. The label pumped out 79 Top 10 Billboard records in less than a decade, and, despite relocating to Los Angeles in the 70s, it was and probably always will be known as the music of the Motor City.
To countless listeners, many of them not even born when Gordy was doing his best work, Motown has become synonymous with groups of talented performers in sparkling attire treating audiences to an infectious and fun brand of soul. If you’re in the mood for a song that will have your feet moving for days, Motown is your jam and the Sounds of Touch, a four-piece tribute act coming to the Foellinger Theatre Saturday, July 23, might be your best bet in seeing that jam performed live and in person.
Often simple referred to as “Touch,” these dudes from Dayton are being brought back to town by popular demand (they performed at the Foellinger last summer as well) for an evening of song, dance and grooves.
Sounds of Touch – Xonerale Freeman, Anthony “Plum” Brown, Arthur “Hakim” Stokes and Floyd Weatherspoon – came together two decades ago with the goal of rekindling a love of Motown among older fans and introducing a new generation to the storied and beloved genre that gave each band member his start in the music industry.
Since then they have racked up an impressive resumé of their own, opening for the likes of Rick Springfield, Al Green, Mickey Thomas and Starship, the Temptations, Night Ranger, Eddie Money and Ray Charles. They’ve also played as part of Ken Griffey Jr.’s Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame induction ceremony and were named a top three finalist on the NBC talent show The Winner Is.
“We have been very fortunate and blessed along the way,” Stokes told me in a recent phone interview. “The opportunities we’ve had to play our music and the people we’ve met, well, it’s been quite a ride.”
A mostly smooth one, according to Stokes.
“Of course, everybody’s personality is different, right? But what makes each of us go is the music and performing and entertaining. We all love that. We’re going to have our differences, sure. Arguments will crop up. I mean, you can argue with yourself, right? So sometimes we disagree about what outfit we should wear, that kind of thing, but we always agree on the music. The music comes first and foremost.”
Stokes has a theory about timelessness in music. He thinks that there are three kinds of contemporary music that people will be enjoying 50 years from now: the music of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the stars of Motown.
But why does this music speak to so many people, year after year, decade after decade, especially considering the changes the industry has undergone, not to mention the world at large?
“Because everyone can relate to them,” he said. “Think about ‘My Girl,’ and ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ and ‘My Cheri Amore’ and ‘Sugar Pie Honeybunch.’ These are the kinds of songs Motown is responsible for, and people have embraced them for years and they’ll continue to do so for a long time to come. Same goes for the Beatles and the Beach Boys. They made great music, fun, upbeat wholesome music you love the moment you hear it.
“We bring it like no other tribute band brings it,” he continued. “There are lots of other Motown cover bands out there, but they don’t do it like we do.”
Perhaps another secret to Touch’s success is their collective Motown pedigree. The members of the group cut their teeth working in the original Motown studios, and Stokes and Weatherspoon have penned hits for Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. They know their stuff, in other words, and they are determined to do justice to the music they grew up listening to and loving.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Stokes said. “Performing the music we love for people who really enjoy it. We’re looking forward to coming back to Fort Wayne. It’s going to be a very good time for all.”