Leave it to the legendary Smokey Robinson to provide a much-needed salve in the contentious wake of the presidential election. A humble and hopeful Robinson graced Washington D.C. to receive the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Wednesday night (Nov. 16) at a soul-stirring concert at DAR Constitution Hall packed with politicos.
“If we’re going to bring the country together… we can start with the music of Smokey Robinson,” host Samuel L. Jackson quipped midway through the show. “It’s like bipartisan karaoke over here.”
It was hard not to sing along, as artists spanning generations and genres took the stage to celebrate Robinson, whose songbook includes more than 4,000 songs. On hand were Aloe Blacc, Gallant, Berry Gordy, CeeLo Green, JoJo, Ledisi, Tegan Marie, Kip Moore, Corinne Bailey Rae, Esperanza Spalding, The Tenors and BeBe Winans. The concert will air on PBS stations on Friday, Feb. 10.
The prestige of the occasion was not lost on 76-year-old Robinson. Speaking with Billboard before the show, he was still beaming from his previous day’s visit to the Library, which houses among its collections the sheet music to the first song, co-written with Motown founder Gordy, Robinson ever submitted for copyright in 1958.
“Gershwin music was always on in our house. So for me to be even mentioned in the same breath as the Gershwins is just unbelievable,” Robinson said. “They have the sheet music to ‘I Cry’ right next to some sheet music from Beethoven. Can you imagine that? It’s so incredible to think that they have people who actually collect that stuff, and have the wherewithal to save it for our future generations.”
The ensemble of singers set the bar high with opening number “Get Ready,” and the following two hours didn’t disappoint. “There’s no other songwriter I can think of with the catalog of hits that Smokey has,” Blacc said. “And it’s not just the hits, it’s the quality of the songwriting.”
Among standouts were Ledisi’s powerful, playful rendition of “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” and Winans’ (perhaps the coolest in a room full of cool) version of “It’s Growing,” made popular by the Temptations, that managed simultaneously to understate and soar.
CeeLo got the crowd clapping along to “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” accompanied by a little soft-shoe. “This is the third time I’ve honored him this year, so I am a humble servant when it comes to Smokey Robinson,” he told Billboard. “I would be at his beck and call whenever it is upon me.”
Gallant and JoJo delivered big on a duet of “Cruisin,” where she went low and he went high in perfect harmony, and JoJo packed a vocal punch of her own on an attention-commanding rendition of the Miracles’ “Who’s Loving You?” Moore showed Robinson’s songs can go a little bit country with his take on “I Second That Emotion.”
“Smokey is one of the only legends we have left,” Gallant told Billboard. “It’s just impossible not to have one of the songs he was a part of be really close to your soul.”
Jackson — who told Billboard, “When the request came there was no thought; I had to do it, it’s Smokey” — kept pace and humor for a house that included close to 100 of D.C.’s inner sanctum. Among them, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (who, after Robinson, got the biggest applause), Senate Democratic whip Richard Durbin, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.
The evening’s soul belonged to the music, but its heart shone through the ultimate bromance when Gordy took the stage to introduce the man he called “my best friend for over 50 years… In the beginning, he wanted to learn, and I wanted to teach. As we worked together it wasn’t long before he became the teacher – mine.” After extolling the virtues of Robinson’s songs, Gordy said, “Those who really know him know his true power lies in the strength of his character. I love you, man.”
A beaming Robinson then hit it home, performing his own “Being With You” — sounding every bit as smooth and breezy as decades ago — and the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here To Stay,” before the ensemble joined him for show-closer “My Girl.”
“The Gershwins were writers back in a day when the song was king. When they wrote a hit song everyone recorded it,” he said, thanking the crowd for sharing the night with him. “My mom, my dad and my two sisters, who have all passed on, are smiling and are very happy.”
The mood was infectious. And happiness — especially in D.C., even if just for an evening — goes a long way right now.