[25 February 2009]
The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.
Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.
There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.