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Back To Hitsville: Michael Bolton On Motown's Legacy And The Royal Albert Hall

Tuesday, 06 May 2014 Written by Gavin Rees

Michael Bolton has taken a step back in time for his new record. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ is a celebration of Motown and will form the backbone of his May UK and Ireland tour, which gets underway in Cardiff on May 6 and also includes a stop at the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London.

The collection finds Bolton taking on the title track in a duet with Leona Lewis and versions of How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Tracks Of My Tears and plenty more, along with a couple of originals for good measure.

We recently caught up with the man himself to pose a few questions about the album and the legacy of Motown, as well as his relationship with the songs. We didn’t quite get around to talking Jack Sparrow, sorry.

How did you go about whittling down the tracklist for ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’?

It definitely was not easy. I must have listened to well over 100 songs, 20 of which I played in bands when I was 14 or 15 years old, and many I had later recorded on albums I'd released through the years. As I travelled I would create playlists and make notes and felt how they would fit together as an album. Ultimately, I chose songs that felt rewarding vocally and that I connected to on some kind of emotional level and that I believed would resonate with my audience. Although, there are so many hits from the Hitsville catalogue, and I wouldn't mind visiting it again.

Where do you see the Motown influence in your own music?

The Motown sound was influenced by rhythm and blues, and gospel, and all of those influences are rooted in the way I sing. It's the music I grew up listening to and it's what I connect to both vocally and emotionally. The timeless songs have lyrics that we all could, or one day would, relate to and great hooks and melodies throughout. The bending of notes and play on words, are all characteristics I'm drawn to as a singer and a songwriter.

Were there any nerves in taking on songs like this? They’re considered to be classics.

People have asked me that before, in covering When a Man Loves a Woman, Dock of the Bay or Georgia, which all have definitive renditions that inspired me, and which have been recorded by many other artists as well. But what happens is that as an artist, while you're always respectful to the composition first, you also celebrate and pay homage to those great artists - Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Ray Charles - and to their families.

I sang with Percy and Ray, and Zelma Redding blessed my rendition of her husband's classic. You are simply perpetuating the legacy. When I started choosing songs and recording for Hitsville, I went to Detroit to visit the studio where the songs on this project were created, and met with the songwriters and some of the artists. Barrett Strong, who first made Money a smash, so much so that the Beatles covered it, was thrilled I was recording the first hit that Motown ever had.

Martha Reeves, who originally recorded Nowhere to Run, loved the project. Valerie Simpson, who wrote Ain't No Mountain High Enough and Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing as duets for Marvin Gay and Tammi Terrell, thought the idea was wonderful. Lamont Dozier, and the Holland brothers, who penned the hits Keep Me Hanging On and How Sweet It Is among their 54 number ones for Motown, encouraged me on. Smokey Robinson and I shared the stage performing his classics. There was unanimous support and love coming from the creators of this music because they too want the legacy to continue.

In writing the new songs, how did ensured that they fitted the record’s tone?

One of the new songs, Somethin Out of Nothin’ I co-wrote with Lamont Dozier, of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the pinnacle of the Motown sound. The other, Keep on Dreamin' was created as a kind of anthem for Detroit and the glory of the music and artistry that was born in Hitsville. Instrumentally, rhythmically, in its arrangement and production, we were feeling some gospel, while lyrically we are recalling a place in time that was so full of promise and the song is about the need to find and embrace that sense of "promise" again. The song is definitely in the spirit of the Motown tradition, but it's meant to be a very current message and simultaneously nostalgic .

You’re over in the UK and Ireland in May, including a date at the Royal Albert Hall. What are your past experiences of the place? It’s pretty special.

The Royal Albert Hall is my favourite venue to perform in, in the world. And I have had the privilege of performing in many, many venues. But the Albert Hall has a specific beauty and acoustic quality that I absolutely love. It's a majestic, visually spectacular venue, but the audience never feels reserved in it. They're alive and vital and that's the real win for us on stage and in the seats. On top of that, I love being in London.

How does the new album work live? Is it a good fit with your older material?

One of the extra benefits of exploring this particular body of music is that, although in concert I introduce the songs being on my "newest" CD, this music is already in our DNA and beloved to us all. The songs from Hitsville are meant to be performed live, because everyone knows them and you can't help but want to get up and dance and sing along. My set list might vary a little depending on what country, city or venue I'm playing, but it's always meant to be a wide musical journey, so there is no material that doesn't fit in. We definitely bring the greatest hits, we do some standards and classics, pop, rock, R&B, blues and even classical.

Michael Bolton Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue May 06 2014 - CARDIFF St Davids Hall
Thu May 08 2014 - WOLVERHAMPTON Civic Hall
Sat May 10 2014 - LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Mon May 12 2014 - BRISTOL Colston Hall
Wed May 14 2014 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE City Hall
Fri May 16 2014 - GLASGOW Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Sun May 18 2014 - MANCHESTER Lowry
Tue May 20 2014 - SOUTHEND Cliffs Pavilion
Thu May 22 2014 - LONDON Royal Albert Hall
Sat May 24 2014 - BOURNEMOUTH BIC
Mon May 26 2014 - DUBLIN Olympia Theatre
Tue May 27 2014 - DUBLIN Olympia Theatre

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