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Image: Seal performs during "The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House"
Roger L. Wollenberg  /  Getty Images
Seal performs during "The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House" program on Thursday in Washington. Other entertainers scheduled to perform were headliner Smokey Robinson, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, Natasha Bedingfield and others.
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updated 2/25/2011 7:38:50 AM ET 2011-02-25T12:38:50

The White House reverberated like a long-ago basement sound studio in Detroit as the likes of John Legend, Seal, Jamie Foxx, Nick Jonas and Sheryl Crow channeled their inner Motown before Michelle and Barack Obama.

Musical pioneers Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder joined in for the celebration of all things Motown.

Obama on Thursday called Motown's music "the soundtrack of the civil rights era," and credited the pioneering record label's tight lyrics, catchy melodies and deep soul with helping to "blur the line between music that was considered either black or white."

Foxx, Seal, Legend and Jonas launched the East Room concert celebrating the Motown sound with a high-energy medley in which the four took turns as backup dancers, complete with some smooth dance moves to the likes of "Get Ready," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Can't Get Next to You" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."

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The 25 greatest Motown songs of all time

Not to be outdone, the trio of Natasha Bedingfield, Jordin Sparks and Ledisi took a Supremes-esque turn singing "Stop! In the Name of Love."

Legend delivered a soulful rendition of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" that left Foxx, who also served as the program's host, to joke that nowadays the story was more likely to be "heard it through my Twitter."

"I'm going to tweet it right now," he joked.

Motown 'brought people together'
Obama and the singers paid homage to the genuine Motown greats in the lineup: Robinson and Wonder.

And Motown founder Berry Gordy was in the audience to hear Obama recount his record label's modest beginnings in a basement on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, decorated with a banner outside that read "Hitsville, USA."

"At concerts in the South, Motown groups literally brought people together — insisting that the ropes traditionally used to separate black and white audience members be taken down," Obama recounted.

Robinson teamed up with Crow to sing one of his earliest hits, "You've Really Got a Hold On Me."

Video: Smokey Robinson ‘Now and Then’ (on this page)

And then he turned the stage over to "another guy who was here right from the beginning" — Wonder.

Wonder performed "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and kicked off the finale that brought all the artists back on stage for "Dancing in the Street."

Earlier on Thursday, Legend and Jonas performed before cheering teenagers at a workshop in the State Dining Room that served as a tutorial on the history of the genre.

"Times have changed but the amazing thing is that that music is still relevant," Legend told reporters after he had delivered a room-filling rendition of Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today."

'Get the party going'
He said his first exposure to Motown came from hearing his father and uncle sing around the piano, and that those songs were a huge influence on his own music.

"You can still put that music on now and get the party going," he said.

Slideshow: The music of Motown (on this page)

Michelle Obama told the young people that the color-barrier-shattering music of her youth "was so much more than just a soundtrack. It was a heartbeat."

"As Motown rose, so did the forces of change in this country," she said.

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    2. Smokey Robinson ‘Now and Then’

"During that time, it was the time of King and Kennedy, it was a time of marches and rallies and groundbreaking civil rights laws," she added.

The first lady introduced Robinson and Gordy as "true trailblazers," adding: "There wouldn't be an Usher if there wasn't a Smokey Robinson. You know, there wouldn't be an Alicia Keys without a Gladys Knight."

And she confessed to a soft spot for one Motown artist in particular: "Who's my favorite?" she asked aloud.

"Stevie Wonder, yes indeed."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The music of Motown

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  1. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

    Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White were Motown's Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Known for hits such as "The Tears of a Clown," "Love Machine," "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Ooo Baby Baby," the group had 26 songs on Billboard's R&B top 10, including four No. 1 tunes. Sixteen of the group's songs made the top 20 of Billboard's Hot 100, with two No. 1 songs. Smokey Robinson left the group in 1971 and was replaced by Billy Griffin. In 1978, Griffin and Moore retired. Today, the group is comprised of Rogers, Dave Finley, Tee Turner and Mark Scott. They continue to perform. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

    Betty Kelly, Martha Reeves and Rosalind Ashford made up Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Kelly replaced original member Annette Beard in 1964. They were known for hits such as "Dancing in the Street," "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave)," "Nowhere to Run" and "Jimmy Mack." Ten of the group's songs reached Billboard's R&B top 10 and 12 charted in the Billboard Hot 100's top 40. Kelly was fired from the group in 1967 and replaced by Lois Reeves. Martha Reeves was briefly institutionalized after an acid trip in 1969. Ashford retired shortly afterward. Reeves reformed the group in 1970 with Sandra Tilley replacing Ashford; the group disbanded in 1972. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stevie Wonder

    Stevie Wonder signed with Motown at age 11. He's recorded more than 30 top 10 hits and has won 22 Grammy Awards -- the most ever by a solo artist. His hits included "For Once in My Life," "I Was Made to Love Her," "Superstition" and "Isn't She Lovely." He's won an Academy Award for best song, been inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mary Wells

    Mary Wells was known for hits such as "Two Lovers," "You Beat Me to the Punch" and "My Guy." She's been called both "The Queen of Motown" and "The First Lady of Motown." Smokey Robinson wrote many of Wells' hit songs, including "My Guy." She left Motown in 1965 and retired from singing in 1974 to raise a family. She had a brief comeback in the 1980s with the disco hit "Gigolo." In 1990, she was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer and she died July 26, 1992. She was 49 years old. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Marvin Gaye

    Called both "The Prince of Motown," and "The Prince of Soul," Marvin Gaye is known for hits such as "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," "What's Going On," "Let's Get It On" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Gaye worked with many female artists, including Tammi Terrill, with whom he recorded songs including, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "You're All I Need to Get By." Terrell died of a brain tumor in 1970 and Gaye went into seclusion for nearly two years before recording "What's Going On." During his final tour in 1983, Gaye was plagued by depression and health problems. When the tour ended, he moved into his parents’ house. After trying to intervene in an argument between his parents, Gaye's father shot and killed him. Marvin Gaye Sr. was sentenced to five years probation after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Contours

    The Contours were one of the early African-American soul singing groups signed to Motown Records. The group is best known for its singular Billboard Top 10 hit, "Do You Love Me." Joe Billingslea, Billy Gordon, Billy Hoggs, Leroy Fair and Hubert Johnson made up the group. Fair was replaced by Benny Reeves (Martha Reeves' brother). The group's lineup changed a lot through the years. Today Billingslea performs as Joe Billingslea and The Contours. (Motown) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Four Tops

    Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo "Obie" Benson made up The Four Tops. They went from 1953 to 1997 without a single change in personnel and were known for hits such as "Reach Out I'll Be There," "It's the Same Old Song," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." Payton died on June 20, 1997. Benson died on July 1, 2005. Stubbs died on Oct. 17, 2008. Fakir is the lone surviving member. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gladys Knight and The Pips

    Gladys Knight, Merald "Bubba" Knight, Edward Patten and William Guest were known for hits such as "Midnight Train to Georgia," "The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me" and "Neither One of Us." Knight and the Pips recorded together until the late 1980s. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Jackson Five

    The Jackson Five were brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael Jackson. Gladys Knight was impressed by the group when she saw them perform at the Apollo Theater on Aug. 13, 1967. Knight told Motown founder Berry Gordy about the group. In early press kits however, Gordy decided that Diana Ross would be the one who "discovered" the group. Known for hits such as "I'll Be There," "ABC," "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "The Love You Save," the group became marketing gold with products that included stickers, coloring books and even an animated Saturday morning cartoon. Michael started his solo career in 1971. The brothers occasionally produced albums and toured together up until 1984. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Temptations

    Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Otis Williams made up The Temptations. Ruffin replaced original member Eldbridge "Al" Bryant. And later Temptations included Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Damon Harris, Ron Tyson, Ali-Ollie Woodson, Theo Peoples and G.C. Cameron. The group was with the Motown label for 40 years and their hits included "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do." The group went from a Motown sound to a psychedelic period to funk to adult contemporary. Paul Williams died in 1973, Ruffin in 1991, Kendricks in 1992 and Franklin in 1995. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The Supremes

    Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong and Diana Ross were one of The Supremes' many lineups. Florence Ballard, Ross, Wilson and Betty McGlown were the founding members. Barbara Martin later replaced McGlown and Birdsong replaced Ballard. Ross eventually left and was replaced by Jean Terrell. Post-1972 members were Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene. The group was known for hits such as "Where Did Our Love Go," Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." The group had 12 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making them America's most successful vocal group. The group officially disbanded in 1977. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Berry Gordy

    On Jan. 12, 1959, a boxer, assembly line worker and songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. used an $800 family loan to start a record company in Detroit. Fifty years later, Motown Records Corp. and its stable of largely African-American artists have become synonymous with the musical, social and cultural fabric of America. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Smokey Robinson ‘Now and Then’

  1. Closed captioning of: Smokey Robinson ‘Now and Then’

    >>> depending on your generation, smoke where i rob boinson meaning will vary he may win you over on " american idol " and he may have mended a broken heart to shop around. you better shop around oh yeah you better shop around

    >> smoky hasn't stopped. over the years he's had 37 top 40 hits and numerous awards. now he has another cd , this one called "now and then." i happened to see him about a month ago in stanford, connecticut.

    >> exactly.

    >> how do you know what songs to put on this cd , given you have so many terrific classics? it must have been tough to choose.

    >> "now and then" is a compilation of my current cd called " time flies whethn you're having fun" and six of the vintage songs tha recorded in concerts this year. i picked six of those songs to go on this special cd for cracker barrel . it can only be found at cracker barrel . they wanted a special cd all their own. it's six new songs and six of the older son eer songs.

    >> i love cracker barrel .

    >> di do, too.

    >> great. i don't know if it's too much of it. i stuff myself every time i go there.

    >> what's your favorite of the oldies?

    >> come on.

    >> how about your baby?

    >> just pick one.

    >> i can't do that.

    >> just say something.

    >> there's no way i can do that, though. if i can tell you my favorites, i'm a song lover. if i told you my favorite song, it would be a song i had nothing to do with. i grew up hearing music all my life.

    >> we loved how a whole new generation learned about smokey through " american idol ." you and josh stone did that.

    >> " american idol " is probably the greatest musical platform they've had in history, because even the people who do those auditions who don't make the show are seen by millions of people at once all over the world. it's a great platform.

    >> you were with jennifer hudson in another duet, right? didn't you sing with jennifer hudson ?

    >> i sang with jennifer hudson at the white house .

    >> that was a great moment. we were snowed in. nobody could go anywhere anyway.

    >> so make the music.

    >> do a show, exactly.

    >> how many dates do you do a year?

    >> it varies, kathie. my agents call me a year in advance, and say we have so-and-so and it sounds good notice. i contractually have to show up. this year i've done 80 dates all over the world.

    >> is it golf that keeps you sane on the road?

    >> sometimes it keeps me sane. if i'm playing good it keeps me sane.

    >> what's your handicap?

    >> i don't know what it is right now.

    >> you won't tell us anything today.

    >> i injured my left shoulder and could not do like this until january. i'm just starting back in now. it's probably about 12 now.

    >> of the current stuff out there, smokey, what do you like? is there an artist where you say that person has potential and could be great?

    >> unlike most people would think, i listen to everybody out there. they have great, young talent out there and a whole lot of them will be around for a long time.

    >> anyone special?

    >> i like maxwell and carrie underwood and jennifer hudson and mariah carey and alicia keyes . there's a lot of them out there that i really love, you know. they're making great music. people have given new music a negative vibe or connotation. it's not like that at all. a lot of people are making great music.

    >> we wish you luck.

    >> great to see you.

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