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John Legend channels Motown at White House

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 5:58 p.m. MDT

From left, singer John Legend, singer Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.  hold a discussion hosted by First lady Michelle Obama for students, highlighting Motown artists, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.  (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press) From left, singer John Legend, singer Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. hold a discussion hosted by First lady Michelle Obama for students, highlighting Motown artists, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Singers John Legend and Nick Jonas channeled their inner Motown before cheering teenagers at the White House on Thursday as Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated the sounds that were a powerful part of the soundtrack of their youth.

"Times have changed but the amazing thing is that that music is still relevant," Legend said after he sat down at a piano in the State Dining Room and delivered a room-filling rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love." 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.

Legend and Jonas performed at an afternoon workshop for teens from around the country that served as a warm-up of sorts for an evening concert in the East Room paying tribute to music that delivered not just a great beat but an important message.

First lady Michelle Obama holds a music discussion for students, highlighting Motown artists, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. From left are: singer John Legend; singer Smokey Robinson; Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.; Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli, and Mrs. Obama.  (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press) First lady Michelle Obama holds a music discussion for students, highlighting Motown artists, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. From left are: singer John Legend; singer Smokey Robinson; Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.; Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli, and Mrs. Obama. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

Michelle Obama got the tutorial going by telling 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. "During that time, it was the time of King and Kennedy, it was a time of marches and rallies and groundbreaking civil rights laws."

The first lady introduced Motown luminary Smokey Robinson, 71, and label founder Berry 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."

Singer Smokey Robinson, right, and John Legend talk at a music workshop for students, highlighting Motown artists hosted by Michelle Obama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.  (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press) Singer Smokey Robinson, right, and John Legend talk at a music workshop for students, highlighting Motown artists hosted by Michelle Obama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

Gordy and Robinson traded stories about the founding days of the record label, with Gordy confessing he started the company to make some money, create some music and meet some girls — "not necessarily in that order."

Robinson told about growing up in Detroit with neighborhood friends who included Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and others who would become Motown mainstays.

The key to their success, he said: "We had Berry Gordy. We had a man who had a dream."

At the end of the workshop, Jonas popped in for a "trial run" of his evening performance of the Four Tops' hit "I Can't Help Myself," which had the school kids clapping along to the lyrics, "sugar pie, honey bunch."

The evening concert promised an impressive lineup of stars, including Legend, Jonas, Robinson, Jamie Foxx, Seal, Sheryl Crow, Natasha Bedingfield and more.

First lady Michelle Obama holds a music discussion for students, highlighting Motown artists in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. From left are: singer John Legend; singer Smokey Robinson; Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.; Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli.  (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press) First lady Michelle Obama holds a music discussion for students, highlighting Motown artists in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. From left are: singer John Legend; singer Smokey Robinson; Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.; Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli. (Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

Fans who didn't make the guest list can see it Tuesday on PBS' "The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House."

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