How do you follow up the success of Beat Bugs, the Netflix animated program that creator Josh Wakely based around insects living their lives to the sounds of the Beatles? The series which quickly became both a merchandising juggernaut on the toy aisles and a painless introduction to the sounds of the Fab Four for younger generations who have never even heard of the term “oldies station”?
Just base your next show on the foundation of what you consider the perfect song, of course.
The show in question is Motown Magic, the highly anticipated animated followup to Bugs from Wakely, who took inspiration for the creation from the Motown catalog of hits. Premiering on Netflix Tuesday, Nov. 20, the series is based in the fictional city of Motown, where eight-year-old Ben follows his heart and imagination — along with a magic paintbrush — to bring the street-art that decorates his building to life, alongside a wide cast of family and friends.
The song in question is the Jackson 5‘s “ABC,” both the answer to a question asked of Wakely often during the production of Beat Bugs, and the theme song for Motown.
“The idea [for Motown] came originally from whenever someone would ask me what I thought was the best song ever created for children, and I would immediately say that it was ‘ABC,'” Wakely tells Billboard. “One of the reasons Motown music was so astronomically successful was because at one level it was extraordinarily simple music, but the lyrics were often about amazingly complex things. I was convinced that it would work well for children.”
The songs that Wakely is working with on Motown may be universal in theme and emotion, but the producer’s latest project may prove to be slower in gaining popularity than his last. Whereas the Beatles’ albums remain perennial presences on the charts decades after the band’s dissolution, Motown appearances are fewer and further between in the years since Detroit became synonymous with pop R&B in the mid-1960s.
It’s the hope of all involved with the animated project that they won’t just be introducing this genre of music to a new generation, but perhaps reintroducing it to their parents as well. In a musical landscape where more people are choosing to listen to only the artists and songs that they want to hear in a given second through their EarPods, fewer kids are being introduced to older music through parents trying to drown out their noise while driving.
The level of importance that televised music education avenues like Motown Magic have gained in facilitating these introductions in recent years isn’t lost on Damian Trotter, managing director of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Australia. “It can be really difficult for older catalogues to reach new music fans, as listening habits change through curated streaming playlists, continued disaggregation of radio, as well as competition from gaming, Netflix, other on demand services, etc,” Trotter says. “To have such an engaging and relatable series like Motown Magic built around these songs is something we felt was going to connect in a big way with kids. As they connect with the songs through each episode, I’m sure they will eventually also go on to discover the original versions, and another generation will fall in love with the music of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas all over again.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by those who worked behind the booth on the recording of the project’s soundtrack. Melodia/Motown Records will release the Motown Magic Original Soundtrack on Nov. 16, a rep tells Billboard, featuring a 13-song collection of classic Motown hits. While the majority are re-recorded versions of older hits by some of today’s top talent — like the Billboard exclusive premiere of Becky G‘s “For Once In My Life,” below — Smokey Robinson stepped into the recording studio to lay down new tracks of “My Girl” and “I’ll Be Doggone.”
Star music producer Don Was, who worked on the show, said that being a Detroit native led to a feeling of responsibility when working in the recording studio.
“There are little things that happen on those [original Motown] records,” Was explains, “many of which we didn’t notice happened at the time, until we were lucky enough to listen to the multitracks and really listen to what was in them. There were always surprises, always a little piano part where Earl Van Dyke was playing some crazy chord on a song that you didn’t know was in there, but without which the emotional content would be different. That was one of the biggest thrills of all time, to listen to these tracks to figure out what was really happening, and to try to capture those little nuanced moments that gave the songs their character. Our recording sessions were built on showing respect to those musicians. I knew those guys, though they were older than me. I felt like I had to get it right.”
The respect Was shows to those original musicians is echoed by Trotter. “As custodians of these amazing catalogues, the responsibility to ensure we always do the best by the songwriters and to honor the cultural importance of this music, weighs very heavily on all of us across the company and is the overriding principle we stick by,” he says. “These are timeless classics that have meant so much to music lovers over the past 60 odd years and so, the other major consideration for us was the idea that Motown Magic would reintroduce these songs to the next generation and in some small way help to preserve the legacy of Berry Gordy and all the great artists that recorded for Motown.”
Track Listing – MOTOWN MAGIC ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK
1. ABC (Zacary James and Motown Magic Cast)
2. For Once In My Life (Becky G)
3. My Girl (Smokey Robinson)
4. Living For The City (BJ The Chicago Kid)
5. Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours (Skylar Grey)
6. Ben (Motown Magic Cast featuring Julia Stone)
7. Superstition (NE-YO)
8. I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Calum Scott)
9. Road Runner (Trombone Shorty)
10. He’s Misstra Know-It-All (Motown Magic Cast featuring Jacquez “Quizz” Swanigan)
11. I’ll Be Doggone (Smokey Robinson)
12. The Tracks Of My Tears (Motown Magic Cast featuring Jacquez “Quizz” Swanigan)
13. Reach Out I’ll Be There (Motown Magic Cast)