Motown legends are a rare treat for the UK. Rarer still are legends of this magnitude.
For the final night of the BBC Electric Proms, Smokey Robinson was in town with the BBC Concert Orchestra to perform some of his greatest hits, a smattering of new tracks and a few surprises.
William “Smokey” Robinson was there at the very start of the Motown story and was second only to Berry Gordy in the studio as his vice-president, a title he held as long as Berry was with the company.
His talents ranged from songwriting (My Guy for Martha Reeves And The Vandellas; My Girl and Get Ready for The Temptations and the astonishing Who’s Lovin’ You with Michael Jackson) to leading vocals with The Miracles (Tears Of A Clown, The Tracks Of My Tears).
This music defined an era, influencing everything after it, and became a genre in its own right. But as he approaches his 70th birthday, does he still retain the power to move, entertain and inspire?
It has been 50 years since the company was founded and this event honoured the fact, forming part of a celebration for Hitsville USA’s golden anniversary. It also served notice that Robinson has a new album out, called Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. Thus tonight proved.
He kicked off with Going To A Go-Go, setting the mood for a party. We immediately slipped down into Second That Emotion and You Really Got a Hold On Me, cooling the atmosphere after the high energy opening. Ooh Baby Baby was slowed right down – a trick he would repeat later.
Smokey’s voice is undiminished in its magic. Its sweet, soft, sultry, deep silkiness is richer for his years in the business. Cracks are controlled with finesse and with electric effect, as shown best on Tears Of A Clown. It was sensational.
As well as delivering the classics he also covered Norah Jones‘ Don’t Know Why. Hearing his voice on a contemporary hit, if not entirely convincing or worth the rest of the repertoire, was still fascinating. But his Motown-tinged Fly Me To The Moon swung far higher.
The new songs proved to be a mixed bag. You’re The One For Me, on the album a duet with Joss Stone (who did not appear), was a little weak. But Time Flies was engaging and shone from amongst the unfamiliar choices. The youthfulness and experience that his style and vocalisation conveys produced an effect movingly reminiscent of the late Michael Jackson.
Smokey’s patter was tender, funny and unexpected. He moves from modest excitement: “I get asked: ‘What do you do when you hear your song on the radio?’ Turn it up!” to randy exchange: “We’ve come out to have a good time… Come to be intimate… Touch… Feel… ‘n’ everythin’ else!” He did unexpected dirty dance moves; he strutted and shimmied, gyrated, thrust and ground his way through some songs, sometimes just for the heck of it. Dressed in jeans and shirt accented by his glittering bling it would suggest he is more than a little youthful off the stage as well – a Casanova indeed.
An encore of Tracks Of My Tears was stretched for the audience to savour the nuance and novelty of this first-hand experience. Soaking up Smokey’s voice to the last note, the audience were elated; the long, rowdy applause showed their appreciation.