This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, the Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.
When I wake up my children in the morning to get ready for school—I admit it—I sing.
Most days it’s “Good Morning” from the 1952 MGM film Singin’ in the Rain. But on cloudy days, the only song that gets my daughter to rise and shine is “My Girl,” written and produced by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White of The Miracles. Beginning with the lines
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it’s cold outside
I’ve got the month of May
I guess you’ll say
What can make me feel this way
My girl (my girl, my girl)
Talking about my girl (my girl)…
it became the first number one single of the Temptations in 1965. So, when I learned that Smokey Robinson would be the next recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, I was thrilled.
The Gershwin Prize honors a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations. Robinson has certainly done that—and his lyrics have the ability to wake up sleepy middle schoolers!
The Grammy Award winner has released dozens of Top-40 hits including, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (1963), “Ooo Baby Baby” (1965), “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965), “I Second That Emotion” (1967), “The Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder, 1970), “Cruisin’” (1979), and “Just to See Her” (1987).
As a producer and songwriter, Robinson was the creative force behind many Motown classics performed by other artists—not only “My Girl”—but also “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” and “My Guy.”
In the late 1980s, retired music executive Joe Smith interviewed Robinson, along with more than 200 other celebrated singers, musicians and industry icons—across all musical genres. He asked about their lives, music, experiences, motivation and more; and in 2012, he donated his recordings to the Library of Congress. These candid and unabridged interviews have been digitized by the Library and now 87 of them are available online as streamed audio in the Joe Smith Collection. Among them is the interview he conducted with Smokey Robinson on February 5, 1988.
In this 16 minute “Off the Record” interview, Robinson discussed writing songs in high school, the influence that Barry Gordy had on his life, the early years of Motown Records, the importance of loving one’s work, and his spirituality. In the first minute of the interview, when asked whether his success came easily, Robinson responded, “First of all I feel very blessed. . . I think that my life is a blessing.”
As a teaching tool, the recording has potential in a history class during a unit on the Civil Rights Movement; in a journalism class focused on interviewing strategies; in a music class conversation about elements of the recording industry; and in a discussion about character in any class. In all of these instances, the recording also provides an excellent opportunity for students to practice listening skills. (You might find the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Sound Recordings to be useful).
Let us know in the comments how your students responded to Robinson’s interview—or whether this post prompted you to sing one of Smokey Robinson’s songs to your students.
Later this week, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden will present Smokey Robinson with the Gershwin Prize. The event will be recorded and broadcast on PBS in early 2017.