Many years ago – we’re talking late 70s/early 80s – a friend of mine was crazy for Smokey Robinson. Now I liked Smokey. How could you not? He was Motown – he had been there since the start with Berry Gordy. And in addition to all his own hits, he’d written songs for Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Gladys Knight and the Pips and others. But I wasn’t “he’s gorgeous” crazy for him. So went to see Smokey at the Felt Forum (back then a small theater inside Madison Square Garden) and we were sitting far enough away that it was difficult for my friend to get a decent photo with her Instamatic (with the flash cube – remember those?). So I took the camera, marched down to the stage, stood right against the stage, Smokey saw me, turned, and sang the rest of the song just to me. Those green eyes. I was in love. And I never got the photo because I didn’t want to interrupt the view.
This is Smokey on the Merv Griffin Show in 1981 singing a beautiful stripped down version of “Tracks of My Tears” with just the Miracles’ Marv Tarplin on guitar and three back-up singers. This is what I’m talking about.
After the great Marty Markowitz (Brooklyn Borough President) finished his intros and told us that he didn’t know why the musicians weren’t on stage (Marty’s philosophy is to always say it’s the other guy’s fault) – for about 15 minutes – the band came out. Drummer, two keyboardists, guitarist, bassist, sax/flutist, and three back-up singers were all dressed in white. The two dancers who came out for a few songs were dressed in various costumes. Smokey entered in a blue velvet jacket, jeans with a bit of embroidery/sparkles, sapphire and diamond earring in each ear (think look and size of Diana’s engagement ring), and his skin pulled a little too tightly against his face. But he still has those beautiful green eyes and I spent a lot of time staring at them on the big screen.
He immediately went into the hits like “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Quiet Storm” (for which the dancer’s choice was raincoats and umbrellas). At the beginning he seemed to be struggling a bit vocally but very soon he was on top of it with that lovely high tenor and falsetto and I was getting chills over and over listening to him. Like for the high notes in “Ooo Baby Baby.”
Smokey told stories about how some of the songs came about. “The Way You Do the Things You Do” came to him while driving the van home when The Miracles had just finished a 50 cities in 50 days tour. Stevie Wonder gave Smokey the music for “Tears of a Clown” at the Motown Christmas party and asked him to come up with some lyrics. Smokey did a very funny imitation of Stevie Wonder.
For many of the songs the audience couldn’t resist singing along. Almost every song had a very rehearsed schtick attached to it in a Vegas way but it always sounded natural coming out of Smokey’s mouth. I believed that we sounded great and he had never said that to any audience before. And when he directed us in parts and held himself with glee, I believed that we were special to him.
The show was much too short. He could have sung for another two hours and still not have sung every hit. But Motown is over 50 years old and Smokey is over 70 and it was almost a miracle that he had the energy and the voice to give us what he did. I don’t have to remember Smokey as he was because as he is is pretty damn fine.
By Carene Lydia Lopez