A few days ago I caught the replay of last year’s Gershwin Award ceremony. This year’s honoree was Smokey Robinson. We’ll leave aside that he was the ninth recipient. I don’t want to get into the mindset that found eight people more deserving of an award devoted to recognizing of excellence in popular songwriting.
Let’s just talk about the show.
I caught it a few minutes in. For what seemed like the next seven hours or so, I listened to a bunch of contemporary artists killing it.
One after another, they dragged out the Greatest Living Poet’s signature tunes and ritually stomped them to death right there in front of God, Smokey and everybody. By the time CeeLo Green closed down that portion of the program, he sounded like a genius just by failing to embarrass himself.
Then Smokey’s best friend, Berry Gordy, gave a nice, short speech.
When he finished I was left seriously wondering if even Smokey–who I wasn’t sure was going to sing–could redeem the hour those other fools had stolen from my life.
What was remarkable was not that he managed it–I have learned to expect miracles from him–but that he did so even before he sang a note. By the time he finished his speech, I didn’t even think he needed to sing.
Of course, that idea only lasted until he started singing. After a luminous “Being With You” he took on “Love is Here to Stay” and proved the heartfelt tribute he linked to his childhood memories of hearing Gershwin tunes growing up in a now-vanished upwardly mobile black Detroit was not confined to words.
Then the Poet–the one music man of the rock and roll era who was among the dozen or so greatest as a vocalist, songwriter, producer, arranger, band leader and live performer–showed a talent I didn’t know he had. He turned Conductor of Souls and humanized the Beltway crowd they always have for these things.
Trust me, it’s not a quality they could ever give themselves.