Robinson still treats every gig as if it were his first audition for Motown founder Barry Gordy. Robinson, a Detroit native who actually met Gordy before Motown even existed, still has that inimitable high tenor, and still aims to please. Robinson's got nothing left to prove. But he still thrives on bringing joy to others.
I've seen this charming musical genius numerous times in concert over the years, but the most memorable performance for me came a few years ago at a makeshift "theater" in the parking lot of a Southern California casino that I'll not name (because the venue was so bad). It was a dark and stormy night - yes, really - and while the show was sold out, fewer than half of the folks who bought a ticket showed up (another glaring example of So-Cal's fair-weather fan base).
But we loyalists weren't about to let some chilly, damp air get in the way of enjoying the man that Bob Dylan once called America's "greatest living poet." And Smokey did not disappoint. Undaunted by the harsh conditions, Robinson hit the stage sans umbrella but wearing a big smile and we roared our approval. Smokey could have greeted the half-empty "theater" with a cynical, short, by-the-numbers show. But instead of perfunctory, he was extraordinary. He clearly saw the place as half-full and gave a masterful, joyous performance that lasted nearly two hours. He rewarded us for showing up, and we gave the love right back.
There's a sweetness and warmth in Robinson the performer that few other artists possess. Sure, he has a star's ego. He was a record company executive for many years, after all. He's just as tough as his voice is soft. But even under the weight of worldwide fame and great wealth, Robinson's heart never shrank. It was a memorable night, an intimate affair in which the crowd and the performer established a very real connection. Everyone was soaking wet but happy. We all knew we'd been a part of something special.
The weather is expected to be a lot nicer this Friday night, June 20, when Smokey graces the Heineken Grandstand Stage at the San Diego County Fair. It promises to be another great show. Robinson is responsible for far too many classic songs to sing them all on Friday, but you're pretty much guaranteed to hear I Second That Emotion, You've Really Got a Hold on Me, Ooo Baby Baby, The Tears of a Clown, and Cruisin, as well as a gems like Quiet Storm.
You also might hear Just to See Her, a Grammy-winning tune written by my buddy Lou Pardini, a gifted singer-songwriter-keyboardist who recently joined the band Chicago. And you may hear some of the classics Robinson wrote for other artists such as The Temptations (Get Ready, My Girl).
Smokey will also probably mention during the show that he has a new record coming out in September, Smokey & Friends, a duets album featuring such artists as James Taylor and Elton John. Meantime, the grandstand on Friday night is expected to be filled with graying, nostalgia-hungry boomers. There will probably even be a few rocking chairs. Maybe it's not such a drag getting old!