The Thrill on the Hill

Motown-themed show has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition for soul enthusiasts.

By Chris Abshire May 22, 2014

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Clarence Whitmore Sr. has been around Houston soul music for more than 50 years and is now the artistic development coordinator at BACE, is staging the 19th annual Dancin' in the Street: Motown & More Revue this Memorial Day weekend.

Even after 19 years, Clarence Whitmore still can’t believe it. For someone who made the rounds in the Houston soul scene back in the 1960s and '70s, Whitmore never imagined he would see something on the scale of Houston's long-running Dancin’ in the Street: Motown & More Revue. Whitmore isn't just the artistic developer at BACE (Black American Cultural and Educational Programs), which organizes the long-running show; he also sings in it. “It’s something you look at with so much pride and see how much this community embraces this kind of music,” Whitmore said. 

The show now averages more than 10,000 attendees a night and has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition that organizers have branded the “Thrill on the Hill.”

It’s all dedicated to continuing the legacy of the oft-forgotten soul boomtown Houston once was. While most may think of Detroit-based Motown Records when they think of R&B music, Houston’s soul roots run deep. Whitmore remembers the days of the legendary Duke-Peacock records and clubs in the Fifth Ward that used to feature artists like B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He played, sang, and worked in various capacities at those clubs.

“You had clubs all over town where you could hear live soul just about every night,” Whitmore said. “We weren’t deprived at all here in Houston.”

Dancin' is in the tradition of those club performances, or “full shows,” which included dancing, a full band, multiple groups, and individual singers.

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Whitney Houston was among the artists celebrated in previous revues.

For this weekend's shows, a 23-piece orchestra with six string players will back up a rich talent pool of 25 singers and dancers performing soul classics, covering everyone from The Supremes to Marvin Gaye to Tammi Terrell. Most of the performers are from Houston, though a few are from Little Rock and New Orleans.

This year, the show's centerpieces are a tribute to the Jackson 5 and a 50th anniversary rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Whitmore said the show features music that parents remember and many children were raised on.

“You’ll immediately recognize most of what we play,” Whitmore said. “You know these songs.”

Though the Jackson 5 segment is ostensibly about the family band, it’s mainly a tribute to its most famous member, featuring a medley of six Michael Jackson songs—though Whitmore did say there’d be a surprise for devoted Jackson 5 fans.

For the Cooke segment, show staple James Greathouse will sing the King of Soul’s classic anthem.

“[Greathouse] has embraced that song to the point that it truly does move the audience, such that you can’t help but feel it deeply,” Whitmore said. “It’s one of our showstoppers.”

Though Whitmore, one of the founders of BACE, has seen a similar show with minor changes each year, there’s always something specific that sets each season apart.

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Most of the singers, dancers, and performers in Dancin' hail from the Houston area.

For example, this year features the show's first female musical director (Stephanie Blue) and the first female arranger (Kollett Duncan). More than anything, though, the show has become a family event. Whitmore says he routinely sees people from far-flung states like Pennsylvania, Alabama, and California at the event. Some families even plan vacations and family reunions around the weekend. People sing and dance throughout the theater and even out on the hill, where actually seeing the revue can be challenging.

“We can usually hear people joining us and singing their favorite songs all the way from the back,” Whitmore said. “That’s just how the show is. We don’t have anyone telling you to sit down.”

The show is free, with tickets available at the Miller Theatre box office between 10:30 and 1 on the day of performance for covered seating and general admission on the hill. To cover the cost of the show, the organizers rely on audience donations and corporate sponsors. On each of the four nights, the singing and dancing get underway at 8:15 p.m, almost as soon as it gets dark outside.

“We’ve been lighting up this city for quite some time now,” Whitmore said. “And this weekend will be no different.”

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