Little Kids Rock Benefit: Smokey Robinson, Kenny Loggins & More Perform

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Little Kids Rock
Smokey Robinson accepts the award for Rocker of the Year onstage during Little Kids Rock Benefit 2016 at Capitale on Oct. 5, 2016 in New York City. 

Smokey Robinson, one of the great songwriters of the post-war era, is not pleased about years of cuts to music education programs. "I am an advocate for the arts being in school," he told Billboard backstage before the eight annual Little Kids Rock benefit in downtown Manhattan, where he was celebrated as Rocker of the Year. 

"I grew up in the ghetto, I grew up in the hood, but we still had all the arts in the schools at that time," he continued. "I was in the band, I was in the glee club, I was in the choir, they had drama classes. Now those programs have been cut from so many schools. I think it's a shame, and we need to do whatever we can to re-implement them."

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His concerns led him to lobby Congress about the issue and to connect with Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization with the mission of "transforming lives by restoring, expanding, and innovating music education in our schools," especially in "the most economically challenged school disctricts." On Wednesday, Little Kids Rock put on a fundraiser that included an auction and performances from Robinson, Sam Moore of Sam & DaveKenny Loggins, and Nathan Sykes. The comedian Tracy Morgan praised Robinson's musical career and solemnly presented him with his Rocker honor.

More than 1,700 teachers in 124 school districts across the country are involved with Little Kids Rock, and its programs have reached more than 500,000 kids to date. The organization's goal is to double that number by 2020. "They're bringing music back into schools, and they're doing it independently," Loggins — on hand to accept a humanitarian award — said before the show. "So we're not relying on the government to do it, which probably wouldn't happen. Music was abandoned, jettisoned if you will. Now we're finding another way to bring it back in."

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Wednesday's (Oct. 5) benefit raised over $1 million, which can go towards new instruments and training additional teachers, like Audrey Mullen, who teaches at PS 21 in Flushing, Queens, and has been involved with Little Kids Rock for five years. "If you're willing to use the instruments and work with the kids, they're willing to provide the instruments for you, which is awesome," she explained. "I got acoustic guitars, electric guitars, a bass guitar, and a drum set. I got 12 ukuleles, which I'm gonna use with a special ed class — it's just phenomenal. Without [Little Kids Rock], they wouldn't have those instruments." She suggested demand for the classes is high. "I always get more kids than I can service," she said. "It becomes a lottery. We need more people doing it."

She's seen the benefits of the music classes for her students firsthand. "Four years ago now, a group of second graders started the program. Two of those children stayed with me for second, third, fourth and fifth grade; in fifth grade, they became my leaders of Little Kids Rock, and they taught the other kids how to tune the guitars and play the chords. You could just see the leadership grow, the self esteem."

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These are just a few positive side effects — throughout the evening, speakers were intent on asserting the value of music not only as art, but as a key to communication, a crucial part of human nature, and a cornerstone of democracy. Moore was amusingly succinct about the need for music education. "The music today sucks," he asserted before the show. "We have lost our way. You don't hear good music on the air any more. What you do hear, it all sounds the same. You only thing you hear now is beginning, beginning, beginning, beginning — we need to teach 'em that there is a beginning and an ending."

Loggins didn't offer an opinion about today's musicality, but he remembered the importance of picking up an instrument in his childhood. "The only thing that saved my life was learning to play the guitar," he told the crowd. "When you're a teen and you don't know what to say, music comes in to bridge that gap."

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This dovetailed nicely with a powerpoint presentation by Little Kids Rock founder David Wish, who informed the audience that "every human being is a profoundly musical being. It's what makes us human. It's what makes us whole." It's bigger than us, too: he referred to the U.S.A. as "the song we've been writing together for 283 years."

Other (shorter) songs played an important part in the benefit as well — mostly soul, which was fitting for an evening with Robinson at the top of the bill. Sykes brought gusty force to a rendition of one of Robinson's early tunes, "Who's Loving You," and Moore erupted through a cover of Jackie Wilson's "To Be Loved" and the Sam & Dave standard "Soul Man." Loggins got the crowd out of their seats with his own "Footloose," but not before acknowledging the track's debt to "Devil In A Blue Dress," a petal-to-the-metal pumper made famous by the garage soul band Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. He admitted that the two songs share similar intros, adding, "we call it borrowing, not plagiarizing," before joking, "please don't sue me."

When Robinson hit the stage, he skated through a few selections from his extensive, remarkable catalog: "Second That Emotion," a '60s hit with his group the Miracles, "Being With You," a Quiet Storm radio staple in the '80s, and "Get Ready," which Robinson originally wrote for The Temptations. He was wondrous on an unexpected version of George Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here To Stay:" the band largely fell away, except for a luscious sax solo, leaving Robinson to float above the rhythm section and linger on the delicate edge of his falsetto.

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Robinson was all smiles as he sang, but his words remained urgent as he accepted the Rocker of the Year award and reiterated his commitment to rebuilding arts education programs. "We're not only talking about the future of music," he told the audience. "We're talking about the future of our country."