Hours before the tribute, as Robinson — who has received Grammy awards, honorary doctorates, two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame for his efforts — prepares to be honored yet again, he seems humbled. “It amazes me that I live a life that I love — totally,” he says. “I’m living my childhood dream.”
If this were a documentary, now would be a good time to insert a flashback. Robinson, along with manager Earl Bryant, is riding in the back of a stretch limo on his way to the Thorne Auditorium, where he’ll share his story and where his legacy will be honored. Robinson stares wistfully out the window as the streets of the Windy City roll by.
“Chicago, man. I kind of grew up here,” he says, reminiscing. Though Robinson was born and raised in Detroit, some of the defining moments of his life and career happened here in this Illinois city. He recalls visits to his mother’s relatives, including an aunt who lived on the same street, Wabash, that we’re cruising down now — albeit miles away, on the South Side. Chicago is also the home of Chess Records, the label that put out early Miracles sides before Motown went national and thrust Robinson and his bandmates into the spotlight. And — along with the Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood — Chicago’s Regal Theater was one of the key venues in which the Miracles performed their early shows outside of Detroit.
“I always wanted to do music,” he says. “I just didn’t think it would be possible from where I grew up, in the hood in Detroit. That was just my impossible dream.”
Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be impossible. In 1959, a watershed year for American history, the civil rights movement was rumbling louder; a young John F. Kennedy was barnstorming the country, with his eyes on the White House; Castro took Cuba; the United States joined the space race; and a producer by the name of Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records, one of the first record labels that was owned by an African-American and featured mostly African-American acts. The significance of these events was not lost on Robinson, though he admits his focus was elsewhere.