'Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration': Inside the Emotional, Star-Studded Tribute

Roger Catlin
Preview Cliff Lipson/CBS

Motown's distinctive sound rings with the joy of eternal youth. But a poignancy underlies the latest star-filled salute to the label-cum-genre, Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration.

Unlike in 1983, when the epochal Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever revived label stars and supercharged Michael Jackson's career — or even in 1998, with the documentary Motown 40 — today's pool of classic '60s performers is greatly diminished: no Michael, no Marvin Gaye, no Four Tops, just one original Temptation. 

(Cliff Lipson/CBS)

The hardy survivors remain touring powerhouses, though. Expect big contributions from Smokey Robinson, 79, who cohosts with Cedric the Entertainer and sings a medley; Diana Ross, 75; and Stevie Wonder, 68.

Contemporary acts include John Legend, channeling Gaye with "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "What’s Going On," and a squad of singers such as Meghan Trainor, Tori Kelly, and Fantasia honoring Motown women.

Through it all, founder Berry Gordy, 89, beams from the front row.

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"Motown 25 was epic," says 60 executive producer Ken Ehrlich. "There was no way we could match that show in terms of talent."

Still, the losses hit hard in an all-Motown "In Memoriam," which is accompanied by Wonder's tearful "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," cowritten by his former wife, the late Syreeta Wright.

(Cliff Lipson/CBS)

Emotion also pervades 60 when Ross approaches former love Gordy, performing tracks from the Motown films Mahogany (1975) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972). "You realize this was a lot more than a record company owner and an artist," Ehrlich says.

Revelations from the recent incendiary HBO documentary Leaving Neverland meant a lesser focus on Jackson, though Ne-Yo sings the Jackson 5's "I’ll Be There" in a medley. Jennifer Lopez also included "ABC" in the Grammys' Motown salute from February, which is replayed in full — despite controversy over whether she was the right choice to embody the history of Motown.

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From the Dolly Parton tribute to surprising collaborations like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Post Malone.

"J.Lo asked, 'Will I get any blowback on the fact that I'm doing it?'" Ehrlich recalls. His answer matched Gordy's ethos: Motown music is "not just for black people, not just for white people, but for everybody."

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, Sunday, April 21, 8/7c, CBS