The Los Angeles Convention Center was transformed into Hitsville U.S.A. on Friday night (Feb. 3) when the 32nd annual MusiCares Persons of the Year benefit gala honored Motown Records icons Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. The two-and-a-half tribute elicited a raft of standing ovations thanks to dynamic performances from a lineup of Grammy winners and current/past nominees that included Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, John Legend, Dionne Warwick, Sheryl Crow, Chloe x Halle and Jimmie Allen, among others.
Musical director Greg Phillinganes and the house band formally kicked off the proceedings with rousing versions of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and “Going to a Go-Go” by Robinson’s group the Miracles. Then the evening was off and running as the Temptations took over the stage with their signature dance routines and a rousing medley of several classics: “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “My Girl.” Their performance drew the first of the evening’s multiple standing ovations — as well as boisterous singalongs — from a star-studded audience that included Elton John, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and her husband Paul, Tom Hanks, Gayle King, Nile Rodgers and Richie Sambora, among others.
Also lighting up the stage and audience memories were performances by former Motown acts the Four Tops (“Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out [I’ll Be There],” “I Can’t Help Myself [Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch]”), the Isley Brothers (“This Old Heart of Mine”), Richie and Wonder. Before segueing into fan fave “Easy,” Richie noted, “I don’t know which means more … To be part of the Motown family or having Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson as my very dear friends.”
Wonder soloed on an early Miracles song co-produced by Robinson and Gordy, “I’ll Try Something New.” Then he teamed with the band for a reggae-vibed take on a song he co-wrote with Robinson, “The Tears of a Clown.” Recalling his early years at Motown, Wonder said, “All of my appreciation, respect and love go to you, Berry Gordy — who thought I couldn’t sing. Let’s keep it real … he said, you can play but you really can’t sing.” As the audience laughed, Wonder added that he once told Robinson, “I can sing better than you.” Ending on a serious note, he told both Gordy and Robinson, “Thank you, I love you. Thank you, I love you.”
Upping the tribute’s magic quotient even further was the diverse group of artists chosen to put their own spins on the sound of Motown. Crow mesmerized the audience with her vocals on the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back,” while Legend and a trio of female singers sweetly harmonized their way through another Jackson 5 gem “I’ll Be There.” Legend talked about being the son of Motown-loving parents. “When my dad wanted to flirt with my mother, he’d start singing.” At this point, Legend mimicked his dad singing ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” — the first line to “My Girl.”
Songwriter/producer Valerie Simpson partnered with Allen on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” one of the many hits that she and late husband Nickolas Ashford crafted at Motown. Mumford & Sons turned in another crowd-pleaser with their slowed down, bluesy interpretation of the Barrett Strong gem and Motown’s first hit “Money (That’s What I Want).” Warwick wowed with “My Guy.” Additional performances included Trombone Shorty (“Shotgun”), Michael McDonald (“Lonely Teardrops”), Rita Wilson and Sebastian Yatra (“It Takes Two”), Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth Twins (a riveting “The Tracks of My Tears”), PJ Morton and Lalah Hathaway (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”) and Chloe x Halle (“Baby Love”).
A trio of performances by three current best new artist nominees rounded out the performance slate: DOMi & JD Beck (“All I Do Is Think of You”), Molly Tuttle (“The One Who Really Loves You”) and Samara Joy (“Ain’t That Peculiar”). Joy’s jazzy, smoky version of the Marvin Gaye classic, coupled with her velvety vocals, sparked another rollicking ovation led by John who was the first to stand up. Also co-signing the performances throughout the evening were Gordy and Robinson themselves as the camera caught them singing along, smiling broadly and raising their arms at various intervals.
The most emotional moment arrived when Robinson walked onstage to pay tribute to his longtime mentor and best friend Gordy. “In my life I’ve been blessed enough to get a few awards,” he began. “But this one is really the most special to me because I’m getting this award with my very best friend in the world. I’m standing here tonight because when I first met this man, it was the beginning of my dream come true. I wanted to be a singer, to be in show business, write songs and make music. I never thought it would be possible for me from where I grew up. But he took me under his wing … I love you man; you are so precious.”
After Robinson performed “Did You Know,” a ballad he wrote about Gordy and their friendship, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. presented the Persons of the Year award to the pair — the first duo to be so honored. The spry, 93-old Gordy — who could be seen dancing to “Get Ready” as all the performers returned for the finale, said simply, “I’m happy to be here with my best friend.”
MusiCares’ annual benefit gala salutes musicians for their artistic achievements in music and dedication to philanthropy. Proceeds from the gala, which included a silent auction of various music memorabilia and other items, will provide essential support as MusiCares continues to provide music professionals with health and human services across a spectrum of needs.