There are plenty of reasons Smokey Robinson has remained a favorite through the years — that distinctive feathery voice, the silky stage presence, the unflappably cool demeanor.
But tonight he'll receive one of the nation's most prestigious music honors as the focus turns to the skill at the heart of it all: his songwriting.
The Detroit native will become the ninth recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, awarded by the Library of Congress to distinguish composers whose lifetime work has served “as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.”
Samuel L. Jackson will host a celebratory concert at the 2,500-seat DAR Constitution Hall, where an eclectic slate of performers — including CeeLo Green, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae and Kip Moore — will interpret some of Robinson’s most-loved tunes. The show will be taped for nationwide broadcast Feb. 10 on PBS stations.
In honoring Robinson, the Gershwin committee is making it clear: His body of work stands among the greatest of our time. He joins a winners list that has included Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Carole King and fellow Motown giant Stevie Wonder, all honored in the name of the Gershwin brothers, the songwriting duo who helped set the course for 20th Century American music.
Recipients are chosen by the Library of Congress with input from a board of music scholars and industry professionals.
“I can’t even tell you how I feel,” Robinson said to the Free Press during a Tuesday visit to the Library of Congress. “It's surreal, it’s wonderful, it’s unbelievable. I’m being mentioned in the same breath as the Gershwins' for songwriting? Wow. That’s something I never expected, that’s for sure.”
Robinson was a freshly minted Northern High School graduate when he linked up with Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958, and he remained by the Motown founder's side as the rudimentary family start-up grew into one of the world’s preeminent music operations.
"I wasn’t thinking about being here with the Gershwin award and all of that," Robinson said. "I was a teenager. I was getting a chance for my music to be heard. I could write this music, and this man was going to put my music out."
On Tuesday, the two old friends were together again, upbeat and bright-eyed as they browsed items handpicked by curators from the Library of Congress archives. There were original pressings of vinyl records by Detroit acts such as Andre Williams, the Diablos and Barrett Strong; decades-old Detroit property books opened to maps placing Northern High and the original Hitsville headquarters; the original manuscript of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”
At one point, Robinson summoned Gordy with a “Berry! Berry!” There on a table sat the original hand-sketched sheet music for their dual composition “I Cry” — Robinson’s first copyrighted song, mailed to the U.S. Copyright Office for registration in summer 1958.
After some close inspection and banter, it was settled that the ink work was Gordy’s. After all, he pointed out, he still writes his “B’s” the same way.
“It’s good to know somebody keeps that stuff … and puts it in a place where it can be kept forever and will always be there,” Robinson said later of the Library of Congress mission. “That’s just so incredible to me first of all as a person, but as a songwriter — to think that my music can be around forever, and people are storing and saving it and I don’t even know it.”
Robinson’s recording of “I Cry” with the Miracles failed to take off in '58. But it was the start of what became a vast and towering songwriting legacy. In addition to the material he penned for the Miracles (“The Tracks of My Tears,” “Shop Around,” “Going to a Go-Go”) and his solo career (“Being With You,” “Cruisin’”), he crafted a host of gems made famous by others — from Mary Wells’ “My Guy” to the Temptations’ “My Girl.”
His work has melded sugar-sweetened melodies with lyrics that are often poetically playful but coursing with a heart-on-sleeve sincerity, never afraid to explore the vulnerabilities of romantic love. It was enough to land him the enduring label (rightly or wrongly attributed to Bob Dylan) of “America’s greatest living poet.”
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden grew up with Motown music as a Chicago teenager in the ‘60s. Robinson’s repertoire, she said, resonates with the era of the Gershwins, when great songs became standards and the songwriter was king.
“His songs have that kind of quality,” she said. “There’s something about a songwriter who can create a memory in your mind with the music.”
Tonight's tribute at DAR Constitution Hall has its own built-in significance, Hayden pointed out: It's the venue where black opera singer Marian Anderson was famously barred from performing in 1939 because of her race.
At 76, Robinson remains busy, touring regularly and now tending to Skinphonic, a line of cosmetic products launched this summer with his wife, Frances Robinson, and described as "skin-healing products for people of color." They're named, fittingly enough, after a pair of Robinson tunes. The women's line is "My Girl"; the men's is "Get Ready."
It's been seven years since he released an album of new material, but he said Tuesday that he's continuously writing, and is "anxious to get into the studio and record some of it."
Robinson is likely to get a big kick out of tonight's concert. He has long said that few things are more satisfying than hearing his songs covered by others. When a song can be pulled off in all manner of approaches and styles, that's a testament to what he set out to achieve in the first place: to create something that can live on through the ages.
Surrounded by family and friends this week in D.C., it's been a chance for Robinson to reflect and take stock. Asked how he hopes to be remembered by history, he put the pieces in place.
"The Gershwin Award is part of the answer to that question," he said. "Because if I’m being even mentioned in the same breath with the Gershwins — whose music is everlasting — then that’s a crowning achievement for me as a songwriter. I want to be Beethoven, man. I want to be Bach, Chopin.
"Five hundred years from now, they’ll still be playing Smokey Robinson music: If possible, that’s what I want to be. So this is the first step."
Motown legend Smokey Robinson talks about his songwriting and winning the prestigious "Gershwin Prize" that he is being presented at the Library of Congress in Washington ,D.C., on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press