First, we had the Midtown Men paying homage to the Four Seasons, among others. Then, Tony Kishman rocked Knight Theater a la Paul McCartney. Now, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s series of tribute concerts has peaked with “The Heart of Motown,” a high-energy testament to soulful songs from the late ’50s through the mid ’70s.
The name of the featured quartet – Spectrum – is the clue to the singers’ versatility: They run the gamut from the falsetto harmonies of the Stylistics to the belted ballads of the Four Tops.
They don’t sound (or try to sound) exactly like these groups, of course. Nobody sounds like the Temptations singing “My Girl” on the immaculate 1964 recording. But that’s not the point. They have high levels of energy, fine strong voices and the easy patter and sparkling stage presence that top Vegas groups possess. They’re smooth, and I would guess they deliver the same show night after night down to the monologues, but they’re not slick or formulaic. (Vegas is their home base.)
When David Prescott soars on the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby, Baby,” he doesn’t replicate Smokey Robinson’s ethereal voice. He sounds more like Anthony Gourdine singing one of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ pleas for forgiveness, and he makes his own effect.
Spectrum founder Cushney Roberts handles most of the lead vocals and the unofficial hosting chores, leaping on and off the Knight Theater stage to work the audience. His version of James Brown’s “This Is a Man’s World,” complete with otherworldly final shout, really cooks. But the other three singers aren’t mere Pips: They all take solos, from Pierre Javon’s warm “Up on the Roof” to Darryl Grant’s energized “Get Ready.” They often switch leads within a song, too.
They travel with their own quartet, led by pumping piano player T.C. Campbell, yet the symphony is more than a sonic cushion. Many of these songs had orchestral arrangements to begin with, and it’s a joy to hear a full string section play the trembling lead-in to “La La Means I Love You.” Albert-George Schram conducts with his usual buoyancy, though even he couldn’t make the weird introduction to “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” sound natural. (It came off as the unholy marriage of Rimsky-Korsakov and an electric guitar.)
The quartet did numbers and medleys that weren’t on the printed program, always a happy surprise. I won’t spoil the fun, except to say that Jersey boys will probably like what they hear. And they often did songs associated with white singers, just as the Midtown Men had covered black groups’ tunes.
My favorite moment came during an uplifting version of the film theme “Unchained Melody.” That song was written by two white guys (Alex North and Hy Zaret), sung in the 1955 movie “Unchained” by a black guy (Todd Duncan), covered famously by two black singers (Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton) and finally became a hit for the Righteous Brothers, who were white. In America, real soul has no color at all.
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