Musical history has never been as accessible as it is in the streaming era. At the same time, it’s remarkably disposable: A recent study by the British Phonographic Industry revealed that music from the Sixties accounted for just 6.4% of all streams in the U.K. in 2017. Streamers prefer the recent past by a stunning margin: Music from the 2000s accounted for 60.4% of listening.
Numbers like that add urgency to the imperative to preserve the oldies, and that’s part of what drives the new Netflix show Motown Magic, which uses classic-era Detroit soul music as the basis for an animated children’s adventure series. “I want to make sure that in 10, 20 years, kids are still talking about this music,” says creator Josh Wakely. “It’s Shakespeare; it’s Dickens; it’s Tolstoy. It’s that good, and that’s the reason it stuck around.”
This is not Wakely’s first foray into merging classic baby-boomer tunes and children’s visual content: In 2016, Netflix premiered Beat Bugs, which wove Beatles songs into stories about insect characters. Both Beat Bugs and Motown Magic fit into Netflix’s growing library of original content aimed at younger viewers. “We have been a smaller division,” explains Melissa Cobb, VP of kids and family content for Netflix. “But over the last year, we’ve had a lot of growth because we recognize that so many of our members, about 60%, are watching what would be considered kids and family content. We want to make sure we have high quality shows for them.”
The presence of the retro tunes doesn’t only help preserve the pop canon: the music also serves to attract parents. “They’re not necessarily songs that preschoolers know already, but they’re songs that parents really love and connect to,” Cobb says. “And it’s catchy music that the kids then love dancing and singing along too.”
Wakely had planned a Motown show as long as he planned a Beatles one. (He’s got something in the works with Bob Dylan’s music as well.) “I had success with Beat Bugs, [which won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Preschool Animated Program], and I didn’t have to do another show,” Wakely says. “But I was passionate about this music. The theme of the show is that creativity is magic. It sounds trite, but Smokey [Robinson] and Berry Gordy transformed their community with creativity. And that’s in contrast to some other children’s shows that are more simplistic in their message.”
Putting together a program like this involves jumping formidable logistical hurdles. “The Beatles’ catalog is legendarily hard to get,” Wakely says. “But Motown it turns out is a little harder.” And in addition to the legal wrangling that is required to obtain the rights to the music, he wanted to have some of history’s greatest singers on his side. “We didn’t initially have Stevie Wonder’s songs,” Wakely says. “So we had to go get his blessing.”
Wakely was also determined that he wouldn’t do the show if he didn’t have Smokey Robinson’s approval. “It was a big limb to go out on because I had spent a bunch of my money already, and I wasn’t going to do it unless he signed on. He came in, sat down, said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and we watched a bunch of animation. After he turned to me, gave me a big hug, and said, ‘This really matters to me.'” Robinson, who wrote, produced and sang on numerous Motown hits, also took the role of executive music producer.
In a typical episode of Motown Magic — like with most pre-school shows — the characters are presented with a challenge, something to overcome within an episode. Then, as Cobb explains, “through the magic of the music and the storytelling, they’re able to conquer that.”
In one episode, the character Angie, whose parents are divorced, tries to figure out how to go back in time to a happier period when her family was still together. Her attempts prove unsuccessful, but that’s OK — she comes to realize that time travel is not necessary, because, “I’m still their girl, and I always, always will be.” That happy sentiment ties loosely to the Temptations’ sunny hit “My Girl,” which vamps frequently throughout the episode.
Wakely assembled a fearsome band to recreate “My Girl” and other Motown hits, a group that included former Motown session guitarist Ray Parker Jr., Michael Bearden (onetime musical director for Michael Jackson), Don Was, a veteran bass player as well as a producer for Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, plus contemporary artists signed to Motown (Ne-Yo, BJ the Chicago Kid).
“The challenge was that [old Motown songs are] so iconic and perfect already, it’s hard to embellish on that,” Bearden says. “So we didn’t really try to. The great thing we had at our disposal was access to the original sessions, so we were able to hear, singled out, what the guys actually played. And Ray played on a lot of Motown records as a kid. He was able to talk about the original sessions.”
At the same time, the cover versions couldn’t be exact replicas of the oldies since the music must ultimately be in service to Motown Magic’s visuals. According to Bearden, there were moments in the studio when, for example, “maybe a bridge in the [recorded] song is only eight bars, but Josh needs it to be 32 bars because of action in the animation.” “You just don’t loop it,” Bearden cautions. “If you’re going to extend it, certain things have to come into play to fit exactly to how Motown songs should go.” In addition, some arrangements needed to be softened to appeal to the show’s target demographic: “It’s animation geared towards children, so you want some sounds more childlike and not harsh, not scary.”
Even with all the musical firepower in the studio, there were were still taxing moments during recording. “At one point we got a little lost trying to work out a chord transition in ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me,'” Wakely remembers. “Don went to redo the chord charts, but I said, ‘hang on a second, I think I know a person who’s gonna know how to do this quicker.’ And we just turned to Smokey [who wrote ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ more than 50 years ago], who was sitting there very politely. He was like, ‘I was wondering when you guys were going to ask me!'”
Bearden sums up the excitement of helping to introduce Motown’s catalog to a new generation. “The more they discover it young, the more they’ll pay it forward to their next generation,” he says. “That’s how music lives forever.”