Toby Allen reflects on the human nature of Motown’s classic hits

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Toby Allen.

Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on your local PBS station without seeing the Australian vocal group Human Nature performing faithful renditions of songs from the Motown songbook. The quartet’s latest release, “The Motown Record” (Ume) finds the dudes from down under teaming up with Smokey Robinson on “Get Ready,” singing a cappella on “Ooo Baby Baby” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” They apply their natural brand of humanity on classics such as “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Dancing in the Street” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” — among others.

I spoke with Toby Allen, the out gay member of Human Nature, in early 2012.

Gregg Shapiro: Why the name “Human Nature”?

Toby Allen: We were actually a vocal group singing together for a number of years before we changed our name. We were called The Four Trax, which was actually a nod to a lot of the Motown groups, such as The Four Tops. But when we were starting our recording career, we started thinking that people were really not going to get into a group called The Four Trax in this day and age. So we felt we had to change our name. We brainstormed, and we had pages and pages of names. I think there was human-something and something-nature. We were trying all sorts of different combinations. It might've been Mike, I think, who suggested putting the two together. At first we thought it was probably a bit obvious, because it's such a well-used term, but then the more we lived with that we realized that it suited us. We were singing a cappella at the time, and it represented what we were about: Singing was our human nature.

GS: Prior to recording your latest album of Motown hits, had you and your band mates ever been to Detroit, the Motor City?

TA: We didn't before the first album. We've actually recorded three Motown records in Australia. There were so many songs to choose from. We did the first one and it ended up being the highest-selling album of that year in Australia. There were so many songs that we weren’t able to fit on that first record that we did a second, and it was also very successful. So we decided to try and approach a third. But we were thinking, ‘How can we possibly do this in a different way, to excite people again about us doing Motown?’ We thought, ‘Let's try doing duets with some of the original (Motown) artists.’ The people we asked all said yes. Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Martha Reeves, and Mary Wilson from the Supremes. In doing that we took a trip over to the states, and went to Detroit. Martha Reeves was our tour guide through Hitsville, which was very cool (laughs). She told us amazing stories about doing backing vocals for Marvin Gaye, singing into the same mic as him.

GS: Why do you think the music of Motown endures in Australia?

TA: The music was global. It was a huge hit all around the world. The music’s intention was to be for everybody. That's what Smokey said to us about when he and Berry Gordy originally started Motown. They didn't want to make black music. They wanted to make music for everybody. To think that that music spread all around the world and 30 years later this vocal group from Australia was inspired by that music is a testament to how great and timeless the music is. It's written with such integrity and quality that it's bound to endure.

GS: What’s your all-time favorite Motown song?

TA: It probably changes daily. But I think “Reach Out (I'll Be There)” is a classic Motown song. When it came time to do our first Motown record and we were thinking of songs to include, it was an obvious one. It's the very last song that we do in our show at the moment. It gets people on their feet, singing and doing the moves. It's so infectious.

GS: I’m glad you mentioned “doing the moves,” because I have to ask you if there are specific challenges to dancing in tuxedos?

TA: (Laughs) Yes! It’s probably not the ideal thing to wear. When we’re wearing the tuxedos at the start of the show, we’re also wearing ruffled shirts, so there’s like an extra layer there as well. It gets pretty hot. But that was part of the appeal of Motown. They took such pride in their presentation and how they presented their music. One of their biggest aims was to perform for the Queen … and they did. I think it was through doing the moves, and at the same time doing it in a very stylish, well-manicured approach.

GS: Human Nature has become quite popular with the American PBS – public television – audience. Why do you think that is?

TA:  It’s because we went after it (laughs). We arrived in Vegas as complete unknowns … and somebody suggested to us that we seriously consider getting onto PBS. We knew they were very supportive of the arts and supportive of new talent. The people from PBS came and saw our show and loved what we were doing. The music is such a great match for them and their audience, because they have such a broad audience and Motown has such broad appeal.

GS: Are you aware of a gay following for Human Nature?

TA: Not so much here, at this point. I know back in Australia we had a gay following. We’ve done a number of things to support that. We performed at the huge party Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, back in 2000. From our pop days, we had quite a young female following. So we were used to screams and cheers. We came on stage at this (Mardi Gras) party, there was this mighty, manly roar. We performed "I'm Your Man." It was a lot of fun.