Viewers who tune into the upcoming TV special celebrating the 45th anniversary of Motown Records might find themselves asking “What’s going on?”
Two decades after Michael Jackson caused a sensation by moonwalking across the stage during the venerable label’s 25th anniversary special, the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” and many of his former labelmates will be absent from the ABC show.
The concert special, celebrating the greatest hits of the Detroit hitmaking factory founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr., tapes Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles and is set to air in May.
Motown is a shadow of its former self, having never fully recovered from Gordy’s decision to move the label to Los Angeles in 1971. It is now a small part of Universal Music Group, with few contemporary acts on its roster.
Jackson and most of his brothers in the Jackson 5, who acrimoniously left Motown in 1975, will be no-shows at the tribute, as will Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. An ABC spokeswoman said Ross and Wonder were invited but apparently had scheduling conflicts.
The spokeswoman had no information on the status of Jackson. Back in 1983, he stole the show when he unveiled his “moonwalk” dance during a performance of “Billie Jean.” This time, the Gloved One will be keeping a relatively low profile as a grand jury in Santa Barbara, California, investigates child molestation charges lodged against him.
The show was originally set to be co-hosted by Justin Timberlake, but he pulled out shortly after his infamous Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson.
The former ’N Sync star cited scheduling conflicts, but his planned appearance had drawn protests from some in the music business who accused him of letting his partner-in-scandal take the fall by agreeing to apologize for his actions in order to appear on the Grammys.
He has been replaced by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who will share hosting duties with Motown alumnus Lionel Richie. His former band, the Commodores, will perform, but it was not known if Richie would join them.
The sole Jackson 5 alumnus to appear will be Michael’s lesser-known elder brother, Jermaine. He is expected to perform a duet with Nick Lachey, the former 98 Degrees frontman now better known as Jessica Simpson’s better half.
Former Supreme Mary Wilson, a charter member of the Motown trio, will reunite with Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Florence Ballard in 1967) and Kelly Rowland of the contemporary R&B threesome Destiny’s Child for a Supremes tribute.
Martha and the Vandellas will also perform. Smokey Robinson will be there, too, but without the Miracles. And Gladys Knight will perform with one of her original Pips and some substitute ”celebrity Pips,” the ABC spokeswoman said.
The Temptations will appear with lone charter member Otis Williams and four stand-ins for his deceased cohorts. The Four Tops are down to two original members — Abdul Fakir and Renaldo Benson. Co-founder Lawrence Payton died of cancer in 1997, and lead vocalist Levi Stubbs is too ill to perform.
Present-day Motown will be represented by Brian McKnight and Michael McDonald, who will perform alongside non-Motown acts as Macy Gray and the Backstreet Boys.
The show will shine a belated spotlight on the surviving members of Motown’s crack session musicians, known as the Funk Brothers. The group’s legendary bass player, James Jamerson, had to scalp a ticket to attend the 25th anniversary show, and he died in obscurity a few months later.