Detroit singing talent gets an old-school Motown experience as 'Amplify' competition airs

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There were few ingredients more critical to Motown’s success than the system Berry Gordy dubbed artist development.

At the Detroit label’s eight-house headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, the company’s young talent was put through a finely tuned process long before getting unleashed into the whirlwind of touring, photo shoots, interviews and other duties. Artists were trained in singing, choreography, even the public poise taught by charm-school instructor Maxine Powell.

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It’s an approach that has been purposefully revived by the Motown Museum as it devotes increasing energies to the program called Hitsville Next, established to find and nurture aspiring metro Detroit artists and entrepreneurs.

Hitsville Next’s latest fruits can be found in “Amplify: The Sound of Detroit,” a singing competition whose fourth edition was taped in November at Cliff Bell’s and airs at 7 p.m. Thursday on YouTube and Comcast Channel 900. (The show will then be available permanently on YouTube.)

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The final round features 10 diverse singers putting their own spin on classic Motown songs for a panel of judges, with cash prizes, studio time and mentoring opportunities on the line. Sponsor Pepsi is also offering the grand prize winner a slate of performance opportunities, including festivals such as Arts, Beats & Eats and River Days.

The show that will be broadcast Thursday, hosted by WDIV-TV’s Evrod Cassimy, sports a wide-ranging lineup of local singers — from a 17-year-old high school student to a 32-year-old single mom.

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Detroit singing talent gets an old-school Motown experience as 'Amplify' competition airs
© Motown Museum The 10 finalists for the latest edition of “Amplify.”

Their song selections and musical approaches are just as varied, including personalized and sometimes modernized takes on material such as the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” the Temptations’ “Get Ready” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” The program also features latter-day Motown songs by the likes of Boyz II Men, DeBarge and Teena Marie.

The judging panel comprised the Miracles’ Claudette Robinson — piped in from Los Angeles — along with artist manager Toya Hankins and producer-songwriter Che Pope, on hand at Cliff Bell’s.

But the 90-minute show viewers will see was just the culmination of a lengthy process that called on Motown’s tried-and-true artist-development philosophy.

Nearly 100 initial submissions were winnowed down to 52 semifinalists who were judged in virtual sessions and narrowed to 10 finalists.

Those 10 singers then embarked on two months of training and master classes, including weekly vocal coaching sessions. There were classes in entertainment law and artist branding, with tutoring from industry figures such as bassist Kern Brantley and veteran professional singers Cherri Black and Curtiss Boone.

On the day of the November taping, contestants got personal master-class time with singer Beth Griffith Manley (“The Voice”), along with bassist Nate Watts and singer-songwriter Keith John, both known for their long work with Stevie Wonder.

“Artist development was the cornerstone of Motown,” says Robin Terry, CEO and chairwoman of the Motown Museum. “That was the way Berry Gordy took raw talents and transformed them into superstars. So we were very intentional about creating experiences for these emerging singers that not only can help them advance their careers but help them evolve as artists.”

With “Amplify” and Hitsville Next, the museum has added new elements to the artist-development process, intended to help up-and-comers manage the modern showbiz landscape.

“What we’ve layered onto it is learning about the legal side of music-making. They’re talking to folks in the industry to help them better understand their pathways and how to navigate them,” Terry says. “That’s very deliberate. It’s what Hitsville Next as a community is about — better arming these artists on their career pathways.”

Hitsville Next is a key feature in the Motown Museum’s $55 million expansion project, and the program will be based in a newly renovated space adjacent to the main Hitsville, U.S.A., building. The latest phase of construction began in the fall, with work including an outdoor plaza that will be unveiled this summer with a community event.

“Seeing the way ‘Amplify’ has evolved, the level of talent, the level of the production — all of that is just positive growth,” Terry says. “And what it confirmed for us is that the months we poured into artist development for this emerging talent paid off. It made a difference. It showed up in their performances, their comfort levels and just their appreciation for the ‘Amplify’ experience.”

Launched in 2018 as a live event in front of audiences, the “Amplify” finals have been tweaked to accommodate the pandemic. In 2020, contestants were taped inside Motown’s Studio A, and the recent Cliff Bell’s edition included only contestants and staffers.

Terry foresees a post-pandemic “Amplify” that will carry on as a hybrid event, expanding its role as a broadcast program while welcoming back audiences.

As she assesses this year’s show, Terry says she’s proud that “Amplify” has taken on another distinctive trait of the old Motown days: a spirit of togetherness among those involved.

“Hitsville Next is all about creating a space, a community, for creatives — whether artistic or entrepreneurial — to tap into for support, collaboration and development,” Terry said. “One of the beautiful things we saw with the ‘Amplify’ contestants this year was they did exactly what we hoped: collaborating with each other, even after the competition, and leaning on each other for support. It’s that sense of community that harks back to Motown. It’s creating that authentic sense of community.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or

‘Amplify: The Sound of Detroit’

Motown Museum singing competition

7 p.m. Thu.

Comcast Channel 900 and YouTube

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit singing talent gets an old-school Motown experience as ‘Amplify’ competition airs

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