There are perhaps no two facets of American pop culture that carry more nostalgia with them than Motown and Christmas. Those two juggernauts of culture and entertainment join together at South Orange Performing Arts Center on Friday, December 16 for “The Motown Experience—Holiday Spectacular,” a concert tribute to the hit-making phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s.
Christmas music drives record sales this time every year, with 2016 seeing new holiday albums from Jennifer Nettles, Pentatonix and “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. But the classics always persist, and atop that heap of musical gifts are the Motown Christmas recordings.
That’s why the year-round touring group The Motown Experience, which consists of vocalists assembled from Motown groups like The Capitols, The Miracles and former members of The Temptations, dedicates December dates to its holiday repertoire.
“Motown music has such universal appeal and it’s timeless,” says Glen Raby, the group’s musical director. “People play Christmas music every year and they’re classics; you sing the songs you grew up with. So the combination of the two together is an unbeatable one.”
Raby, who is 62, founded the group in 2013 after serving as musical director for The Contours for 15 years. That longtime gig had offered him opportunities to work with many Motown artists throughout the years. So when he was forming this Motown supergroup, he reached out to some of his favorite performers and ended up signing all of his first choices. The group consists of George Wilson of The Capitols, Charles Franklin (formerly with Ali Woodson’s Temptations), Condido Lomax and Dave Finley of The Miracles, as well as a six-piece backup band.
“Very few of the younger people understand the effect that this music had on people worldwide,” says Finley, who speaks about Motown with a passion so strong it makes you want to shout, “Do you love me?”
“At the time, Motown was the sound of young America,” Finley says. “And young Americans like Christmas just as much as older Americans do.”
Just as anyone would arrive at a Motown concert expecting to hear the classics, audiences will naturally be treated to seasonal staples such as “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Yet Raby came up with a Christmas twist on some Motown classics that have become a signature of The Motown Experience’s holiday show.
“Through Glen’s genius of music, we’ve turned the old Motown hits into Christmas songs,” Finley says excitedly.
Raby has created a musical mashup of Motown melodies, overlaying them with holiday lyrics. So the group’s members sing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to the tune of “My Girl” and “Away in a Manger” to “Tracks of My Tears.”
“Glen took his love for the Motown music and turned it into a Christmas oddity, if you will,” Finley says, “which has never been done before. That’s why I got on board. I had never been a part of something that was this unique.”
That uniqueness that Finley talks about is exactly what inspired Raby to follow his passion for music – and Motown – in the first place.
“I was in awe of all of these people. They were truly pioneers in the music business,” says Finley, who was just a kid when Motown was first blazing across the airwaves. “They did things that had never been done before and probably never will be done again. Motown was like a family and it was a hit-making machine – the likes of which has never been seen again. I was very lucky to have gotten in on it before they were gone.”
He adds about his nearly 20 years of experience in the Motown universe, “I feel like the kid who ran away and joined the circus.”
Yet just as Raby’s life was inspired by the music of Motown, Finley’s future as well was guided by his passion.
“I come from a vocal family,” says Finley, who is 68. “At my house, it was a staple for me, my mother and my father to sing the older classics from the 40s and early 50s in three-part harmony.”
Finley joined The Miracles in 1978, was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009 and remained with the group through 2012. He says that breaking into the Motown machine made him “a music fan for life.”
However, Motown or no Motown, music was always his destiny. “I would have been doing it in some form for the rest of my life anyway. Certain things are meant to happen.”
Which is why the holiday concerts for The Motown Experience carry special meaning for Finley. The Detroit native was born on Christmas Day. He says each time they sing the Motown holiday classics, it’s a reminder of where he’s been, and the passion for music that’s always been present for him.
“If nothing else, it always reminds me that I’m still here,” Finley says. “I’ve made it another year!”