Age & Hometown: 37; Decatur; GA
Current Role: A Broadway debut as Stevie Wonder in the smash hit Motown the Musical.
Born to Sing: Southern charmer Shaw has been thrilling audiences since he spontaneously began singing harmony in the church choir at age five. His mother, a Pentecostal minister, nixed top 40 at home, but Shaw listened to Aretha and Michael Jackson at the supermarket. “I never sang pop music until I moved to New York,” he recalls, “but my first gig here was at the Motown Cafe, which is kind of full circle.” After touring in Tyler Perry’s I Know I’ve Been Changed (“before he was big”), Shaw returned to NYC and joined a doo-wop group called the Soul Shakers. His powerful voice attracted the attention of superstar producer Jimmy Bralower, and the singer’s 2007 debut album, This Is Ryan Shaw, earned two Grammy nominations and inspired Ellen DeGeneres to dub him “the next Stevie Wonder.” Laughs Shaw, “She was a prophet!”
A Wonder-ful Life: In spite of glowing reviews and the release of a second album, Real Love, Shaw found the recording industry “very difficult” to navigate. “Markets change, technology changes—it’s not just about the music, it’s about people finding the music and recognizing your name,” he explains. “The radio response wasn’t the same for the second album.” In the meantime, Shaw’s performance of Motown tunes at a benefit won him an audition with Berry Gordy, and by the time Motown the Musical opened on Broadway, Shaw was singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for Stevie Wonder himself. “I wasn’t nervous until they rolled me off stage after the song, and then my knees got weak,” he says. Luckily, Wonder approved, complimenting a riff Shaw added to the song. “Stevie gave me his blessing, which was awesome.”
Jack of All Trades: “I’ve never seen audiences like this,” Shaw says of Motown’s rabid fans, particularly matinee-goers who have “taken buses from D.C. and Philly and Chicago and Detroit—they’ve had their Junior’s Cheesecake and they are ready!” To keep in touch with his own fans, Shaw is headlining a soul music showcase every second and fourth Monday at the Cutting Room. He also apprentices in the Motown wig shop making mustaches and beards. “I do all kinds of crazy stuff,” he says, including sewing a dress for co-star Valisia LeKae, building a bookcase for Brandon Victor Dixon and remodeling a kitchen for a friend from his church. But marriage? “Who has time?” Shaw says with a laugh. “I’m very independent and a bit of a control freak, so that makes relationships difficult. The cast of Motown is like my family.”