Recalling Detroit’s hit factory

A bunch of super-talented teens shooby-doo-wopping and shaking their tail feathers to great Motown hits? No, this isn’t some kind of “dancing to the oldies” night courtesy of 104.3 WOMC-FM.

It’s Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre’s new show, Now That I Can Dance – Motown, 1962, and it looks back to the days when singers were singers, before slick studio tricks and frilly voice work would dilute beautiful pop songs.

Now That I Can Dance is an original work for Mosaic, written by the troupe’s founder and CEO Rick Sperling, along with some collaborative help from the youth ensemble. The play follows the rise of Motown through the story of the Marvelettes, the all-girl group from Inkster that brought the label its first No. 1 hit on the pop charts with “Please Mr. Postman.”

Richard Tucker, 17, a senior at the Detroit School of Arts who portrays Marvin Gaye in the show, says he and other cast members studied Motown history to learn all they could about the label’s heyday and the real people they portray. They wrote papers, made presentations to each other and visited Hitsville USA. Tucker says that in preparing for the much-coveted role, he watched old clips of Gaye performing, read books about him and, of course, listened to a whole lot of his music.

“I got him pretty good,” Tucker says. He croons “Mr. Sandman,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” in the show.

Tucker and the rest of the cast had the opportunity to perform in front of some of the original Vandellas and the Contours, groups chronicled in the show. “The Vandellas said, ‘That’s the reincarnation of the Contours.’ It really felt good,” Tucker says. “We replicated their words and their moves, and they said that we did it just how they did it. It was extraordinary to hear.”

Sperling and his young artists also interviewed Motown greats, including Marvelette Katherine Anderson Shaffner and Bobby Rogers of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

The performers, none of them over 18, are about the same age as most of the Motown artists when they got their start. Rogers says he remembers the thrill of being young and on stage performing those great songs: “I think it is going to be a great time in their lives. They get a chance to be little legends.”

Rogers says the Miracles’ own debut at the Apollo involved less fanfare than these young singers will likely receive. “We were horrible. We were on the show with Ray Charles, and we thought we had a little routine. We clapped our hands, but we didn’t know how to dance. The owner of the theater said, ‘Don’t ever bring these guys back.’”

A lot of hard work, some dance lessons, and countless hit singles and gold records (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Tears of a Clown,” and so on) later, Rogers still performs about 50 shows a year with the Miracles. He says he’s glad young people are learning about Motown’s music and experiencing its sound firsthand. “It feels good just to see them take an interest in Motown,” he says.

Tucker says he’s proud of the music Rogers and other Motown artists made. “The singing of it was so pure. But now you get singing groups of girls and guys who have the look but really don’t have the talent,” Tucker says.

As for the history lesson, Tucker says he’s excited to do a show about his city. “It’s about people who made this city what it is. You can go anywhere in the world and say ‘Motown’ and people think Detroit. I’m really proud of that.”


Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m. Runs May 13-15 and May 20-22 at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-4005).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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