Last night, Wednesday, November 16, Smokey Robinson, a rhythm and blues icon whose career has spanned more than 50 years, received the Library’s Gershwin Prize for American Song.
The gala award event, featuring prominent performers and musicians was held at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden presented the award.
Earlier this year, David Mao, then Acting Librarian of Congress declared, “As a singer, songwriter, producer and record executive, Smokey Robinson is a musical legend.” “His rich melodies are works of art—enduring, meaningful and powerful. And he is a master at crafting lyrics that speak to the heart and soul, expressing ordinary themes in an extraordinary way. It is that quality in his music that makes him one of the greatest poetic songwriters of our time.”
Robinson, a Grammy Award winner, has released dozens of Top-40 hits and added more than 4,000 songs to his legacy songbook. His music reads like a playlist of Motown’s greatest hits—”Mickey’s Monkey” (1963), “Going to a Go-Go” (1966), “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (1963), “Ooo Baby Baby” (1965), “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965), “More Love” (1967), “I Second That Emotion” (1967), “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” (1969), “The Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder, 1970), “Cruisin’” (1979), “Being With You” (1981), “Just to See Her” and “One Heartbeat” (1987).
You can listen to Smokey talk about his life and his music in an interview from the Joe Smith Collection. The collection contains over 225 recordings of noted artists and executives. Smith, while president of Capitol Records/EMI, recorded 238 hours of interviews over two years, excerpts of which he compiled and presented in his 1988 groundbreaking book, Off the Record.
In this 1988 interview Robinson shares his thoughts and views on a variety of topics. He talks about starting out at the young age of 17, his 1955 singing group the Matadors, (which became The Miracles when Claudette Rogers joined), working with Motown founder Berry Gordy and being part of the Motown family. First signed to Tamla Records, a label incorporated into Motown, The Miracles were the first group Gordy signed. After releasing the single “Shop Around” in 1960, it became Motown’s first million-selling hit.
On the subject of singing and songwriting, Robinson reveals to Smith that he doesn’t think he’s a great singer, but a “song feeler” and perceives himself a “song lover.” Taking his song writing seriously, he’s critical of his songwriting and confides that Gordy was a great teacher, teaching him how to weave stories and structure into his songs.
These candid and unabridged interviews in the Joe Smith Collection have been digitized by the Library and are accessible in the Recorded Sound Research Center. The Gershwin Prize Award ceremony and celebration will be recorded and broadcast on PBS in early 2017. I’ll be sure to watch.