Ryan Shaw didn’t grow up with a lot of the music he now loves.
The Grammy-nominated, New York singer who performed Motown hits Friday night in Juneau was raised in a Pentecostal home in Decatur, Georgia. Secular music was not allowed.
“I’d hear it if I was out at the mall or a grocery store,” Shaw said during an interview with the Capital City Weekly. “I knew a lot of music because I’m a sponge for it, but as far as true exposure from a young age, I wasn’t able until I was an adult to find out who Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were, so I had a sort of late in life soul music education.”
“There were no records in the house like that,” Shaw said. “There was the Mississippi Mass Choir, the Georgia Mass Choir, things like that.”
However, that previously verboten music has had an indelible impact on Shaw’s life.
He counts Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” among one of his few can’t-skip-a-track albums — others include “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” “Jagged Little Pill” by Alanis Morisette and “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.
Shaw also portrayed both Gaye and Wonder on stage for the Broadway production of “Motown the Musical.”
Shaw talked about what it was like to come to popular music later in life, some of his favorite music and more.
I grew up with my parents blasting Motown music in the car, so wonder what it was like to not have that as a childhood bedrock. What was it like you be in your 20s and have all that music dropped on you?
It was good. I had heard it in bits and pieces. I had watched movies. The internet wasn’t a big thing back then. I would always know the voices, and I would remember the songs that I liked, so as a 20-something it wasn’t like super exposure. It was fun actually. I knew the song, but I guess I didn’t know the whole history that people get excited about, the who of the music.
In your opinion does the Motown mythology sometimes overshadow the tremendous music that the people involved made?
At times it really does. It was such a unique part of history. If you think about all the joy and the love that music actually brings to people, it was smack dab across the whole Civil Rights movement. It was probably what helped change the social culture in America. When they went on the first Motown tour, it was one of the first times interracial dancing happened in America without serious repercussions.
Do you have an all-time favorite Motown-era song or album to listen to or perform ?
It’s kind of hard when you have a catalog that massive. I would probably have to categorize it down to male and female. I think my favorite female peak of Motown is actually “Heatwave.” It has so much energy, and it’s so fun, and the vocal arrangement is pretty stellar.
On the male side, I’d probably have to say Stevie Wonder, “Songs in the Key of Life” the whole album. You just live in that world and just be there. Everything was from his perspective, which I enjoy. You see his whole life, his career his vision without having sight unfold before you.
Organizers for the upcoming gospel performance and Motown for Our Town said the shows provide a sound Juneau sometimes lacks. What does it mean to bring Motown to a city you’re visiting?
When it comes to Motown specifically, Motown was the fabric of America at one point. In between albums and stuff, I sometimes do wedding singing, and you still go to these weddings, and these kids at 13 or 14 years old still go out and dance with their parents to these Motown songs, and they still know every word. I think with Motown specifically, it was already here.
What else do you have in the works, what should folks be looking for?
I’m just getting into some concert dates singing with the symphony. I just did my first pretty major concert singing with the New York Pops headlining their Nat King Cole Centennial Concert. It was amazeballs. Now we’re doing it again in 2020 in Houston. Also, I and a friend of mine, Carpathia Jenkins, starting in July with dates for other symphonic shows for an Aretha Franklin tribute show. We’re doing some west coast things, I think some things with the Colorado Symphony. I’m working on more music, a new album, I’m excited about it. Even going on tour again. I haven’t done it in years.