Smokey Robinson Returns to the Apollo Theater in Fine Form: Live Review


Although he’s a member of the soul canon, Smokey Robinson is often treated as a a light counterweight to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or James Brown. But that’s hard to understand after hearing him sing at New York's legendary Apollo Theater, where he performed Monday night as part of the series “Legends: OWN,” which will be broadcast in October on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Smokey is of seminal importance to American pop. He wrote fundamental hits for himself -- “Tracks Of My Tears” -- and others, including Mary Wells’ “My Guy” and The Temptations’ “My Girl.” There’s a famous myth that Bob Dylan once declared Smokey “today’s greatest American poet.” Like many myths, this one persists because there’s plenty of truth in the statement.

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Who can match his gift for melody? (Sometimes The Beatles, who covered “You Really Got A Hold On Me;” maybe Prince, because he’s Prince.) The singer’s first decade is his best known -- he met Berry Gordy early and helped put Motown on the map with tender ballads like “You Can Depend On Me” and “Second That Emotion.” But Smokey’s post-Miracles work might be even more astonishing and inventive than the ‘60s classics. He invented a genre with his 1973 album Quiet Storm, helping to push the sonic boundaries of R&B with whirlwinds of lush sound. These songs were heavily orchestrated but somehow feather-light, never in danger of collapsing under their own weight.

The pure sweetness of his voice distinguishes him from his peers and prevented him from sinking to the saccharine depths that occasionally drowned Gaye and Wonder, his former Motown comrades. For any performer of his stature, history is crucial -- especially at a storied venue like the Apollo. Accordingly, Smokey sprinkled lessons about his story throughout his set. “I grew up right here on this stage,” he declared.  While that’s surely a slight exaggeration, his jokes about being nervous the first time he performed at the Apollo retain their charm.

And that was just one of many anecdotes. He told the crowd that “Ooh Baby Baby” developed from a mistake during a medley of love songs -- a surprising origin story for one of pop’s greatest odes to heartbreak. And he introduced “Tracks Of My Tears” by saying he originally debuted the song live with the Miracles at the Apollo. That’s remarkable if it’s true; even if it isn’t, the myth is worthy of the song, which is a cultural touchstone.

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The biggest history lesson, though, is the music, which still make an entire intergenerational crowd burst into song half a century after it was composed. These are foundational songs, imbued with inimitable sweetness, poignant melancholy, and easy grace. Smokey could play a four-hour set and still be working his way through the hits; on a tight schedule, he stuck to the biggest smashes: “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Second That Emotion,” “Being With You,” and “My Girl.”

Unsurprisingly, Smokey’s voice does not possess the tensile purity it once did. But that hardly mattered, since three able backing singers and 80% of the crowd were belting the lyrics at any given moment. Some songs remain well-suited to his current vocal powers. “Quiet Storm” is full of loping, fluttery highs; buttressed by sustained synth chords, Smokey sank into the tune, firmly defining its contours. And he mastered “Ooh Baby Baby” -- which the critic Nik Cohn complimented as “likely the most lung-pumping ballad in pop” -- maintaining its bracing quality. Throughout Smokey played with phrasing, dancing around his band. His backup singers guided the song with steady repetition of the refrain, serving as tragic ballast and grounding the boss’s flights of fancy.

Live, Smokey permitted himself a few indulgences. When he moved into “Tracks Of My Tears,” he looped the opening riff four times. This is the opposite of his economical studio approach -- rarely have pop songs arrived at their point more efficiently than those from Motown. But that was nothing compared to what he did with “Cruisin,’” from 1979, which turned into an epic, part call and response, part sensual ritual, part funk vamp. No other poets mattered.

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