SMOKEY ROBINSON: The Way He Does the Things He Does

Smokey Robinson: Motown living legend.

Smokey Robinson: Motown living legend.

Have you ever belted out a heartfelt rendition of “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to your sweetie when that Motown chestnut popped up on the radio? Did you dance to “My Girl” with your daughter at her wedding?

Whenever you watch “The Big Chill,” do you sing along to “The Tracks of My Tears” and “I Second That Emotion”? Ever take a stab at “Cruisin’ ” on karaoke night?

Let’s admit it: For some of us, it’s all of the above.

And for that, let us thank Smokey Robinson . . . if we can catch up with him.

A yearlong commemoration of Motown Record Corp.’s 50th anniversary kicked off last month, with Robinson — singer, songwriter and producer extraordinaire — positioned front-and-center as one of the living legends of that musical phenomenon.

Days later, Robinson was again well-situated — literally — in a VIP section outside the U.S. Capitol as President Barack Obama took his oath of office.

On Sunday, he was looking good, sounding great and stepping lively as part of an all-star tribute to the Four Tops at the Grammy Awards ceremony.

And today, five days shy of his 69th birthday, he’ll be in Louisiana.

America’s “poet laureate of love” will headline a Valentine’s Day concert at the Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville. In a phone call last week from his home in Los Angeles, Robinson spoke about Motown’s 50th anniversary, his current tour and his affinity for New Orleans.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - Shop AroundAfter Berry Gordy borrowed $800 to launch Motown in 1959, the Miracles — Robinson’s group — were the record company’s first big-time success, topping the R&B charts with the million-selling “Shop Around” in January 1961. Within a few years, the label’s influence on popular culture would grow exponentially with the success of the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and their stablemates.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever dare to dream that it would become what it has become — to the world, not just to the United States but to the world,” Robinson said of the Detroit record company that would become known as “Hitsville U.S.A.”

“It always freaks me out that I can be in an airport someplace, and someone will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, brother Smokey, I am from Gambia and I love your music!’ ”

Robinson was a mainstay at Motown for almost three decades as a performer, a company executive and composer of some of the era’s most enduring songs.

In addition to his own hits, his songwriting credits include “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” for the Temptations; “My Guy” for Mary Wells; “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye.

His concert this weekend might showcase a few songs from a soon-to-be-released CD of mostly new material, but he won’t get away without revisiting such Motown anthems.

“Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history,” Robinson said. “But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music.

“I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands. It was a wonderful thing to witness.”

This weekend’s tour stop won’t bring him all the way to New Orleans, but he has been a regular visitor here, more so than many stars of his stature. Robinson has wowed ’em at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and at the Essence Music Festival. He has been a grand marshal of Endymion. He even once headlined the Zoo-To-Do.

“I love New Orleans. I always have, ” Robinson said. “I’ve run into a lot of nice people there, a lot of great people, and it’s such a spectacular place. I love stuff like that — I love history. And I’ve always been treated well there.”

. . . . . . .

Originally published in The Times-Picayune, February 14, 2009.

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