Ryan Shaw isn’t intimidated to take on iconic Motown songs for a Juneau audience.
The New York City-based, Grammy-nominated singer who will be part of the Motown for Our Town concert Friday night said that’s what happens when you twice sing Stevie Wonder songs in front of the iconic singer and get his seal of approval.
“That first time was a life-changing moment,” Shaw said in an interview ahead of Friday’s show.
Shaw played Wonder in the Broadway show “Motown the Musical,” and said the first time he met Wonder was a surprise after a friends-and-family show of the musical.
“After we got done, some cast members said, ‘I think Stevie was in the audience,’” Shaw said, but he was skeptical.
Minutes later, Shaw was called to a fellow performer’s dressing room — Wonder was backstage.
In a surreal moment, Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label who wrote the book for the musical, introduced Shaw to the singer responsible for “Uptight” and “Isn’t She Lovely” and a handful of classic albums.
“During the show in ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’ which is the big Stevie Wonder moment, I sing this riff that he doesn’t do in the song,” Shaw said. “He sang the riff back to me and said he liked it. Then, all the pressure was off.”
Shaw said Gordy was a regular presence during the musical and was generally kind. That also helps when approaching Motown music, too.
“He said some really great things,” Shaw said. “About 30 years too late, but it was cool. He would say, ‘I wish I would’ve met you when I started Motown. We could’ve had some fun.”
Motown was a profoundly influential record label founded in 1959 that draws its name from Detroits Motor City nickname. Artists associated with the label include Wonder, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, Gladys Knight among others.
This is the second time Shaw has performed in Juneau, and he said a pleasant initial experience is part of the reason he’s back.
Last year, Shaw performed at the annual Motown for Our Town show after being invited by the Rev. Bobby Lewis. Lewis leads a week of gospel workshops and a pair of gospel performances during February and Shaw is a member of Lewis’ church in Harlem.
“He was like you got to come to Juneau in the winter,” Shaw said. “Last year was my first time being able to come. My schedule cleared enough to come, and I had such a blast that I came back again.”
Shaw will also perform during the gospel celebrations and said he is charmed by a snow-coated Juneau that’s a lot different from New York and Decatur, Georgia, where Shaw grew up.
“That’s the culture shock — just seeing those majestic mountains,” Shaw said. “I think the thing I love most about Juneau is it’s a different city every 20 minutes depending on where the sun is, so the mountains change and the colors change. You look out the window one time and it takes your breath away, and you look again and it takes your breath away in a different way.”
The Motown for Our Town show starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.
It is a collaboration between the Black Awareness Association of Juneau and Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. The event is a celebration of Black History month and the 60th anniversary of the founding of Motown.
Shaw said to expect to hear songs by Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops and other acts associated with the Detroit label courtesy of a blend of local musicians and singers as well as visiting performers such as Shaw, Lewis and pianist Eustace Johnson, who is also visiting from Harlem.
Shaw said gelling with performers has been a rewarding experience.
“Something about music and musicianship and on a certain level it almost feels like most of your life you’ve known these people,” Shaw said. “You just jump in and that musical connection becomes a thing. The spirit of a musician to another musician is very much a kindred spirit.”
Know & Go
What: Motown for Our Town
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Juneau Arts & Culture Center, 350 Whittier St.
Admission: $30 for general admission.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.