Eventually, Howard Hewett and Musiq Soulchild join Teena Marie in reprising some of Robinson’s hits, while photographs from Robinson’s past flash across a large screen. We see him with the all-star roster of singers who contributed to “We Are the World,” on an album cover, and onstage, microphone in hand, eyes closed, head cocked back and to the side, clearly utilizing his angelic upper register and driving ladies wild. When the talk is over, Robinson joins Teena Marie, Motown veteran Martha Reeves, and the others to sing “Cruising” and “Quiet Storm.”
Seeing Robinson onstage feels a little bit like a flashback to those days in the 1960s, when he was first hitting it big and his friend Gordy was breaking boundaries. Fifty years later, Robinson is still singing, and things around him are still changing in big ways. This time, though, he isn’t overlooking any of the significance.
“We were held back for so long,” he says, “and now we have a black president. You know what I mean? It’s awesome. I always believed it would happen some day, but I wasn’t sure that I would live to see it. But I have, and it’s a wonderful experience.”
As for where Robinson will go from here, he speculates that he might pen another memoir to add to his candid 1987 debut, Smokey: Inside My Life. And he says he’d love to give film acting a try — not necessarily in a starring role but in a good one. In the meantime, the man who once rode with Gordy to fetch 45-rpm singles from the pressing plant is learning to navigate a vastly different record industry with his own Robso label. He’s got numerous gigs scheduled for this year in the United States and abroad, and he’ll serve as the keynote speaker at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, next month.
But as much as he likes looking toward the future, on a special night like tonight Robinson can’t help but stop and look back in awe at the past.
“It amazes me that I am considered a part of history,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t understand what happened at Motown and what has happened in my career as an artist and as a songwriter and all of that. I do understand that. I wish I’d known we were going to make history when we started Motown, because I would have saved every scrap of paper that I started a song on, every cardboard box, every piece of tape, but you just don’t know. You’re young and you’re making music, and you don’t realize that you are not only making music, but you are making history.”
An Evening with Smokey Robinson airs on PBS stations this month . Check local listings. For more information on the HistoryMakers, an archival project that seeks to record the oral histories of 5,000 notable African-Americans, visit www.thehistorymakers.com.