It’s amusing and amazing to see a line of 30-something and middle-aged women holding their cell phones and cameras high in the air, aided by the tippy toes of their high heels, to snap pictures of a 71-year-old man in a sparkling purple jacket, tight jeans, and black cowboy boots, while he slowly shakes his hips and sings “tu me besas muy rico” (“you kiss me so good”).
The sight becomes easier to understand when you realize that the elderly sex symbol is also among America’s greatest songwriters and singers, and a monument of musical history – Smokey Robinson. The performance – one of many that earned him approving screams from the multi-generational women of the audience at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan on August 31st – was his new, recently recorded, soon to be single from a Spanglish album set for winter release.
Smokey rode its sensual rhythm smooth and slow as his body shook and he crooned in his trademark falsetto for six minutes. He delivered a hot-off-the-press love letter, and the audience swooned with every line. The song had the unmistakable soulful, sexual groove of his earlier hits, “Ooh Baby Baby” and “Quiet Storm” When Smokey returned to the microphone after a false ending, clutching his fist tightly to his chest, to sing the smoldering Spanish chorus once more, the audience gave him a standing ovation out done only by their response to “Ooh Baby Baby”, “Tracks of My Tears”, and “Cruisin’”.
Robinson wrote and performed 26 top 40 hits for his band, The Miracles, and wrote many more for Mary Wells, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross and The Supremes. As a solo artist, he would go on to have even more top 40 singles. He is a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honoree, and a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. It’s difficult to imagine what Robinson feels he has left to prove. For nearly two-and-a-half hours, however, he performed with the energy and passion of a 20-year-old touring the country in a used van.
Before performing three of the songs he wrote for The Temptations – “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “Get Ready”, and “My Girl” – he took the audience back to his days of less than luxurious rides cross country. “The Way You Do The Things You Do” came to him while he was driving a van in the wee hours of the morning, while the rest of The Miracles slept. He fondly reminisced about The Motor City Revue – a bus full of talent from Detroit that included The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and The Miracles that toured the nation to support the now legendary Motown Label. Eventually, Stevie Wonder would join them. A music lover could see the entire show for five dollars.
Motown won the heart of America, united its black and white youth, and continues to communicate fun and romance to anyone who catches its flirtation on a radio or in a movie theater. The remake of Sparkle, starring Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston, is largely a tribute to the Motown sound, and several contemporary R&B artists – from Cee Lo Green to Mayer Hawthorne – have scored hits and built audiences by injecting their music with the Motown chemistry of love, joy, and melodic accessibility. Robinson was not only there for it all, but he helped create it.
He no longer charges $5 for admission into his concert, but his $70 ticket price is relatively reasonable when compared to Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo’s double headlining tour that carries a $200 price tag, Neil Young’s $250 ticket, and Bruce Springsteen’s $125 entry fee.
At one point during Robinson’s show – possibly during his pitch perfect rendition of “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” – I wondered why anyone without embarrassingly large amounts of disposable income would pay those outrageous ticket prices. Robinson’s show was sold out, and for $70 each audience member received two and half hours of first class entertainment. If he wasn’t so emotive and intimate with his fans, I would believe that Robinson is some complex cyborg constructed in Berry Gordy’s basement. His voice is in nearly perfect condition – sounding just as did on his records in the ’60s and ‘70s – and, likely with the aid of some cosmetic surgery, he looks like he’s in his mid-50s. The man who helped originate the soundtrack of American youth, apparently, is incapable of aging.
Perhaps Robinson is charging the maximum amount that the market will tolerate. Regardless of his motivation for keeping ticket prices affordable, it ruins any desire to break the bank for other touring acts. Much of musical taste, if not all of it, is subjective, but I’m skeptical that anyone charging hundreds of dollars for admission can put on a better show than Robinson, and the “privilege of seeing a legend” argument doesn’t pass the comparative challenge met by the Motown master. Even rock legends such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen cannot come close to Smokey Robinson in terms of hit making, influence, or cultural importance. Is there anyone in right mind who believes “Born to Run” or “Heart of Gold” will outlive “My Girl” and “Tracks of My Tears”?
There are two groups of musicians who the winner of 2012’s Presidential election should, by executive order and legal dictum, force to attend a Smokey Robinson concert.
The first is the aforementioned touring “legends” who think so highly of their obsequious fans that they treat them with the same respect an ancient king gave his servants when they stood silently in single file line to kneel and kiss his ring. Regardless of genre difference or stylistic divergence, they should have to sit and study Smokey until they leave feeling three feet shorter, acknowledging that if this man – with his nine member band – will not or cannot charge over $100 per ticket, they shouldn’t, either. At dozens of years older and at half the cost, he shows them all up. Exciting and moving performances of classics like “Going to a Go-Go”, Just to See Her”, and “Tears of a Clown” reintroduced the audience to the gospel spirit and pop muscle that makes so much of the black American music tradition sound magical. Those hits and others, along with some new songs, also prove educational for the second group of future Smokey Robinson concert captives.
The second group that should see Smokey Robinson on stage are young musicians – especially those working in contemporary R&B and hip hop.
In his golden years, Robinson is more convincingly and excitingly sexual than nearly every young performer who will join the parade of sensationalistic imagery on the MTV VMA awards. He always understood and continues to understand that sexuality is best enjoyed when it is playful, romantic, passionate, and generous.
The most fun and productive ethic of sexuality is the exact principle that infuses Smokey’s songs with carnal chemistry: reciprocity. Early in the show, he performed a seven minute version of “Quiet Storm”, and with silky smoothness complimented his lover: A power source of tender force generatin’, radiatin’ / Turn me on, turn me on / You short circuit all my nerves / Promising electric things / You touch me and suddenly there’s rainbow rings / Quiet storm / Blowin’ through my life
“Being With You” was especially funky. Two keyboards battled with a jazzy saxophone over a syncopated beat, as Smokey dueted inches away from his woman backup singer: One thing I know for sure is really, really, real / I never felt before / The way you make me feel
His velvet voice provides the perfect serenade for thoughts about reciprocal pleasure – not conquest, not commands, but the tender expression of loving and lustful desire culminated in the vulnerably ecstatic embrace of the climactic moment. Smokey Robinson gifted his audience with a sexual education when he performatively paralleled the process of tender desire’s transformation into playful unity, when he consecutively sang two songs from his 2009 album, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.
The first, “Love Bath”, had a dance beat that echoed throughout the theater, and gave Smokey the opportunity to dance with one of his backup singers as he sang in sensitive plea: Hot as love can be / We got all the time we need / I don’t want to end this night / Soft candlelight, everything’s right
Robinson’s gyrations verged on comical at certain moments, but his smirk betrayed knowledge of the audience’s reaction. Laughter was mixed with cat calls, and as the performed sexuality became intense, it also became fun. Rather than violent, abusive, or pathetically macho, Robinson stayed in a space of romance – romance that, like a leisurely afternoon spent by a couple in love – shifts and tilts from fiery to funny. Love and sex should be fun, and should cohabitate without self-consciousness. So much of the sexuality in popular culture is self-consciously cool, tough, and above the partner’s concern that one wonders when it becomes fun. Smokey Robinson had the women cooing and the men smiling.
America is arrested in adolescent when it comes to sexuality. It loves vulgarity and turns sexuality into an easily understood and non-threatening cartoon so that it can remain at safe distance, while it simultaneously condemns any serious discussion of a sexual issue and maintains loyalty to its puritanical streak in its refusal to grow comfortable with adult sexuality in entertainment, depictions of same-sex love, and any expression of sexuality that empowers women.
When Smokey Robinson followed “Love Bath” with “That Place”, he leapt into the rewarding world of adulthood. Over smolderingly slow rhythm, Smokey moved to the front of stage to express pleasured gratitude for a satisfying sex life with his lover: That place deep inside you / That special place you gave me / That you say is mine exclusively / Ooh, it’s my paradise / Ooh, it’s my comfort zone / Ooh, it’s so very nice / It comes flowing down like summer rain / Before the feelings over / Here it comes again
As the song reached a dramatic conclusion Smokey sang, “I wanna say thank you baby / You make me call your name / You make me say, ‘baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, ooh baby’…”
The performance was beyond suggestive. It was a replication and embodiment of the spiritual joy of sexuality. Smokey Robinson moved in the same territory as his Motown brother Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, and D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. These are songs that thrive in the borderline of reverie and reality – the fantasy of sexual stimulation and presence of its real possibility – all the while imbued with an investment of not only physical and emotional expectation, but also spiritual hope.
Smokey Robinson – as a young man in the Miracles and as an aged man on stage – uplifts the beauty of sexuality, makes it sacrosanct, and presents it far more dangerously than Rhianna, Drake, or Trey Songz. Modern sexuality might give you a good night. The sexuality Smokey sings about will change your life.
He closed the show with a ten minute marathon of “Cruisin’”, in which he emphasized the most sexual lines repeatedly and powerfully. The performance was great, but more punctual than anything, because by then, the seduction was complete.
As the audience danced, “I love it when we’re cruisin’ together” became a statement of philosophy – one that needed only slight elaboration. Before Smokey Robinson swaggered off stage, he turned to the crowd and asked, with both simplicity and profundity, “Doesn’t it feel good to feel good?”