During his acceptance speech upon receiving this year’s Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song Music, Motown great William “Smokey” Robinson expressed his gratitude saying the honor exceeded anything he could have ever imagined.
Robinson joins an impressive company of songwriters that includes Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and another Motown legend, Stevie Wonder.
“I grew up in a house of music. My mother sang gospel and we had a great dose of music at home,” Robinson said during the award ceremony held at DAR Constitution Hall in Northwest on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
“The Gershwins wrote when the song was king, so to stand here in that company is beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.
Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown who brought a young Smokey Robinson into his family of talented singers, musicians and songwriters, recalled the first time they met in the nascent days of the Detroit institution.
“I remember the first day at Motown when I realized I had a poet and a genius when he ran into my office, excited with a new song,” Gordy said in front of a packed house. “He’s been my best friend for more than 50 years.”
The celebratory concert featured stars such as Esperanza Spaulding, who rendered a spirited version of “Tears of a Clown,” Corinne Bailey Rae who offered a soulful rendition of “Ooh, Baby Baby,” Bebe Winans, who shined on “It’s Growing,” a song Robinson wrote for the Temptations and CeeLo Green who belted out “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” imparting a Mick Jagger-style slide into his powerful performance.
Other artists such as singers Aloe Black, Gallant and Jojo, whose rendition of “Who’s Loving You” moved the audience and the artist visibly, keeping the music flowing as a panoply of stars paid homage to the man who helped create the Motown sound.,
Samuel L. Jackson inserted a litany of off-the-cuff remarks aimed at the recent election cycle in his role as emcee, much to the audience’s delight, during the evening’s all-star tribute concert which will air in February on PBS.
But it was Ledisi’s emotional “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that clearly moved Robinson who blew her kisses as she tore the house down with an arrangement that even featured scatting, reminiscent of the late, great Ella Fitzgerald.
During his stay in the District, Robinson visited the Library of Congress, which annually administers the prize, the day before the awards program and concert, in the company of the newly-appointed Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. Hayden accompanied him during his tour which included a viewing of the piano donated to the Library by George and Ira Gershwin.
Robinson tearfully recalled how Gordy mentored him, helping him to become the acclaimed singer and songwriter that he is today while sitting at the Gershwins’ piano. He also saw a copy of his first song, “I Cry,” registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1958 that’s now housed in the Library of Congress.
Ending the two-day celebration, Robinson serenaded the audience with his hit “Being With You,” before launching into one of the Gershwin brothers most famous songs, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” interspersing his singing with spoken words of thanks to his fans over the years.
“I didn’t think this was going to happen,” he said. “I know my Mom, Dad and my two sisters, who have all passed, are smiling down on me now.”