In a recent interview with Smokey Robinson, recipient of this year‘s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the songwriter told the Music Division about the birth of Motown, which he co-founded with Berry Gordy, Jr. Asked about the crossover appeal of the label, Robinson passed on something that Gordy had said to him: “I’m going to start my own record label and we’re not just going to make black music. We’re going to make music for the world.”
Wednesday night the Library of Congress and the music world gathered together to celebrate Robinson, and the show’s opening number spoke to the wide range of his music. A sparkling array of young and veteran musicians performed a medley of two of Robinson’s most spirited songs, “Get Ready” and “Going to a Go-Go.” The Tenors were joined by JoJo, Gallant, Aloe Blacc, Esperanza Spalding, Corrine Bailey Rae, and finally 13-year old Tegan Marie, who revealed to the audience early that she has a voice bigger than her years.
Emcee Samuel L. Jackson echoed the crowd-warming opener: “Like the song said—get ready.” Jackson explained that the first 45 he ever bought (he clarified that it was a record, not a gun), was the Miracles’ “Shop Around.” “Almost anything I needed to learn about life and love and being a man I got from Smokey.” The host was also impressed that Robinson’s music united a diverse audience, singing along in what Jackson admiringly called, “bipartisan karaoke.”
Robinson, who Music Division Chief Susan Vita called, “the nicest person on the planet,” exudes a warmth that you could feel all the way in the concert hall’s nosebleed seats. After that uptempo opening medley, much of the show was given to a Smokey specialty: R&B ballads. Aloe Blacc crooned “The Tracks of My Tears,” Corrine Bailey Rae cooed “Ooh Baby Baby,” Ledisi belted “You’ve Really got a Hold On Me.”
It wasn’t all dreamy. Esperanza Spalding took on “The Tears of a Clown,” whose boisterous classic arrangement belies its tale of woe. JoJo and Gallant performed Robinson’s solo ballad “Crusin’” with an unusually pronounced beat, and CeeLo Green swung a lively “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” From his box seat in Constitution Hall, Robinson clearly enjoyed teenaged Tegan Marie’s rendition of “My Guy,” originally written for Mary Wells.
With all the talent on display, the highlight of any Gershwin Prize event is always the guest of honor. To present the award to Robinson, Librarian of Conrgess Carla Hayden was joined by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Rep Gregg Harper (R-MS), Rep Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep Candice Miller (R-MI) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Hayden expressed a sentiment that was true of many in the audience when she said that Robinson’s music was “the soundtrack to my teenage life.”
Robinson was grateful to God, his friends and family, and his many fans for blessing him with the life he has led. In his acceptance speech, the songwriter told us that there was music in his house all the time when he was growing up, all kinds of music: from gutbucket blues like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King and Little Walter (“there were a lot of Littles around”), gospel, classical and jazz. Robinson took special note of the men for whom the prize was named. “The Gershwins’ music was prevalent in our home…For me to be standing here tonight in that company is beyond my wildest dreams.”
So while the Gershwin Prize event is held to celebrate a living songwriter, Robinson was modest and gracious enough to perform not just one of his own songs, but a Gershwin standard, transforming “Our Love is Here to Stay” into the kind of quiet storm ballad that defined his solo career.
The night closed with an all-star performance of “My Girl,” a song Robinson originally wrote for the Temptations, and that has become one of the most beloved of all pop hits. Even Samuel L. Jackson sang a bar. The Music Division congratulates Smokey Robinson on his well-earned reward. Thank you for all the music!