But you better believe Smokey Robinson, whom Dylan once listed as a favorite poet (though the quote “America’s greatest living poet” appears to have been fabricated) did show up for his 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Two days of events this week culminated Wednesday night in a tribute concert at the DAR Constitution Hall being taped for a Black History Month PBS concert special to air next year.
For most of the 100 minutes, Robinson could sit in what looked like a throne on the side of the stage, beneath a golden replication of the Gershwin Prize, which has been previously given to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel and Willie Nelson (and notably not Dylan).
It wasn’t quite Kennedy Center Awards-level artists who came on stage to honor him by singing his songs. In fact, several warranted a shrug (Country singer Kip Moore? Thirteen year old country singer Tegan Marie?).
And by the time Robinson took the stage at the event hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, he smoothly sang just one of his songs, “Being with You,” infused with a Spanish verse, along with one Gershwin classic, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” before bringing out the night’s cast for a sing-along to “My Girl,” which he had written for the Temptations.
It wasn’t the first time Motown artists have flirted with the Great American Songbook. Label founder Berry Gordy has often tried to bring a sophistication to his roster of stars by having them sing at supper clubs or, in the case of Marvin Gaye, record an album of standards.
But the bulk of the show, performed before a staid Washington crowd in ties and evening wear, and peppered with lawmakers, were tied to Robinson’s early offerings.
The evening began with nine of the invited singers in a line singing – what else? – “Get Ready,” adjusted to suit the different keys taking lead. Then the 13 year old went off on her own “Goin’ to a Go-Go.”
After a Samuel L. Jackson intro that riffed on the TelePrompTer lines, Aloe Blacc was the first to come out to sing a kind of mournful “Tracks of My Tears.” Though it was Greg Phillinganes leading the band, it was like a lot of the performances of the night: pleasant enough, but seemingly unnecessary when you had Smokey sitting right there, who, even at an impossibly youthful 76, could still do it better.
Esperanza Spalding, a kind of fixture at these types of concerts, looked the very picture of mid-60s Diana Ross, a slip of a thing in an oversized Afro. Her vocals to “Tears of a Clown” showed she could just as easily be a pop singer as she is a jazz figure and bassist.
Kip Moore, in a suit coat but a blue bandana looked a little out of place doing “Second That Emotion” alone with his guitar before the band kicked in. And Corinne Bailey Rae (another regular at these types of shows) was just fine doing “Ooo, Baby, Baby.” Nobody was taking a lot of chances, perhaps because the author was looking down on them.
But BeBe Winans took the stage for “It’s Growing,” he was the first to spark the crowd because he could so successfully take apart and put together that song again.
It may have been even topped by Jojo, the young singer who soared on that early Robinson classic that got Michael Jackson his first job, “Who’s Loving You.”
But oh, here were the Tenors, formerly the Canadian Tenors, one of those made-for-public-TV a cappella groups, this time with just three instead of four (because they kicked a guy out for changing the Canadian national anthem at the MLB All-Star game this year to include an “all lives matter” line).
Their corny spot careened from the lesser-known “Special Occasion” to late period “Just to See Her” to the Miracles’ “Shop Around.”
Tegan Marie didn’t quite have the experience to back up her attempt at Mary Wells’ hit “My Guy.” Not only was she too young to remember Robinson at his heights, she was born to late to recall the early work of Britney Spears.
But Ledisi brought things around with her version of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” And after a just terrible version of “Cruising’ by Gallant, with Jojo trying to harmonize with his falsetto, Cee-Lo Green took control in a sparkly tux doing “The Way You Do (The Things You Do).” It was the level of performance the show should have had all along.
I kept wondering why there weren’t any Motown contemporaries to bolster the show. Stevie Wonder perhaps? Diana Ross? — She’ll be in D.C. to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor next week and play three dates with the National Symphony Orchestra the week after.
Truth to tell, many of his his peers of the Motown golden age are gone, from Marvin Gaye to most of the Temptations. Even Marv Tarplin, his longtime guitarist and sometime co-writer, died in 2011 at 70.
But someone who will never die, Berry Gordy, at 86, was there, to sit on a throne one seat over from Robinson on the dais. The last time he was in D.C., he was taking a curtain call at the opening of “Motown the Musical,” the story of his life. Wednesday, he took to the podium to prove “the poetic genius on my hands” by reading the lyrics to “I’ll Try Something New.” His stumbling over it will require some post-production editing.
Robinson was deeply humbled and moved when he finally came to the stage to receive his honor from Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, whose recent installation was cause for almost as much applause every time she was mentioned.
Robinson’s last performance in the District had been five months ago, headlining a rain-soaked “A Capitol Fourth” on the Mall. Wednesday, he soaked instead in the appreciation of the crowd, on their feet.