Fifty years after he debuted on the rhythm and blues scene, Smokey Robinson is still very much a presence in the music industry. He tells American Way how he got from Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Inside the Thorne Auditorium at Chicago’s Northwestern University School of Law, Teena Marie — the 1980s Motown hit maker — is onstage, treating the audience to her rendition of Smokey Robinson’s megahit “The Tracks of My Tears.” It’s one of those songs that have sunk so deep down into our psyches that, when done well, aren’t so much reheard as relived.
“Baby, baby, take a good look at my face,” she sings animatedly and somehow still delicately, with her high notes tapping into the lyrics’ lost-love anguish.
But if the people in the nattily attired audience here at this $500-a-seat benefit are looking at anyone’s face, it’s likely that of the man Marie is singing to. There on the stage is Smokey Robinson himself, dressed in a sharp, three-piece pinstripe suit that resembles the threads of a banker. And when the tribute — An Evening with Smokey Robinson, part of the HistoryMakers series on PBS, which tells the stories of notable African-Americans — airs this month, it’s not likely that anyone will find Robinson’s smile out of place, as is the case with the subject of the song. No, he looks more than contented, maybe a little amused, clearly happy, grinning like — well, like a fan at a Smokey Robinson concert.
Indeed, this gathering isn’t about tear tracks. In part, it’s about the astonishing number of musical tracks Robinson has given us over the course of the 50 years since the founding of Motown Records, the label that first gave his group, the Miracles, a chance. And perhaps most remarkably, it’s about the tracks that Robinson continues to churn out, even on the eve of his 70th birthday. Few artists can claim similar longevity and continued activity in the industry.
Robinson is well aware that he could rest on his laurels and let the past speak for him. But he’d rather stay “in the game,” as he puts it, releasing a new album last year called Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, which cracked the R&B Top 10 soon after its release.