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2016 Gershwin Prize Goes to Smokey Robinson

Jul 21, 2016

Smokey created many an enduring song for other artists, both within and outside of the Motown stable.

The 2016 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song will go to William “Smokey” Robinson.

About time.

The award is administered by the Library of Congress. It was started in 2007, and the first seven were awarded to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, and Willie Nelson.

I feel like Smokey has always been just a little bit under-appreciated. Yes, he was one of Motown’s brand names from the beginning, and within the business he has long enjoyed A-list status, but his star has burned a bit less brightly than perhaps it should have.

This might be partly because Smokey is not, let us acknowledge, a natural performer. A little bit herky-jerky up there, he lacks the grace and electricity of a Diana Ross, or the raw soulfulness of a Marvin Gaye. And he certainly never summoned the elegant physicality of tightly choreographed units like the Four Tops.

But leaving all that aside, as a songwriter he is a member of that blessed (and, it seems, not particularly expanding) roster of practitioners who have created not just one or two standards but dozens.

Just his songs for his own group, the Miracles, would be sufficient to place him in the profession’s top tier: “I Second That Emotion,” “Shop Around,” “Ooo, Baby Baby,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” “Tracks of My Tears,” and, in the exquisitely rarefied sub-category of rock-era tunes that feature a bassoon, “Tears of a Clown.”

But as fewer people seem to realize, Smokey, now 76, also created many an enduring song for other artists, both within and outside of the Motown stable. Melodist as well as lyricist (he did sometimes have collaborators, but you get the feeling they tended to perform tidying-up chores), Smokey has often knowingly pushed the boundaries of the songwriting craft.

His Gershwin prize could have been awarded for this lyric alone:

Next time I'll be kinder,

Won't you please help me find her?

Someone just remind her,

'Bout this love she left behind her.

'Til I find her I'll be tryin' to,

Every day I'm more inclined to….

That inspired trope is, of course, from the bridge to “Since I Lost My Baby,” a 1965 hit for his Motown colleagues the Temptations (covered nicely 18 years later by Luther Vandross). It is, not to get too technical here, a great song.

As we salute Smokey, I find myself thinking about the future of the Gershwin Prize.

I gather this is one of those deals where the recipient has to (1) be alive, and (2) has to agree to show up and sit there through the PBS television show that furnishes the main public forum for the award.

That means that the awarders -- there is some kind of informal panel -- have to keep one eye on the actuarial tables.

So awarders: not to put too fine a point on it, but -- just to throw a few names out there -- Bob Dylan is 76, Brian Wilson is 73, Joni Mitchell is 72 (and not well), Leonard Cohen is 81, and Stephen Sondheim is, ahem, 86.

Virtuoso Philanthropy

Speaking of the famous bassoon lick in Smokey’s “Tears of a Clown:" That solo was played by the distinguished Charles R. Sirard, who for more than 25 years was the principal bassoon player of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Too bad Mr. Sirard, who passed away in 1990, couldn’t have been around for an amazing thing that recently happened to the musicians of that proud, at times beleaguered orchestra.

Last week the DSO announced that one of its longtime benefactors, Marjorie S. Fisher, had bequeathed $5,000 to each and every full-time member of the orchestra. There are 78 of them.

Ms. Fisher, who died a few weeks ago, had along with her late husband Max Fisher been a devoted supporter of the orchestra for decades. The Fishers’ contributions to the DSO totaled in the tens of millions.

Responding to her bequest, the DSO orchestra committee issued a statement saying that the musicians were “overwhelmed by gratitude and emotion.”

I, along with many others, I’m sure, second that emotion.

Tanglewood as Melting Pot

I had a chance to drop up to Tanglewood last Sunday. I was, among other things, curious about pianist Yuja Wang, the young Chinese superstar whom I had never heard in person.

Yuja Wang
Credit Fox Wu / Creative Commons

It was also a chance for me to see the young Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno, who was making his debut in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and by extension his Tanglewood debut.

Wang played the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, and then, after intermission, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” in Ferde Grofe’s big-orchestra instrumentation.

Wang was everything her recordings suggest: intense, poetic, fearless, and a little wild interpretively (meaning that as a compliment).

But as I listened to the Rhapsody, the main thought that came to me was that we were witnessing the now-virtually total globalization of classical music: a Chinese soloist, under a Spanish conductor, playing music by an American of Russian-Jewish heritage who was incorporating elements of African-based jazz -- and all of it arranged and orchestrated by a man of French extraction who got his musical training in Germany.

Steve Metcalf can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.