LOS ANGELES – Theirs is one of the most beautiful, enduring friendships in music history.
Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, pillars of Motown, brilliant musical minds and, on Friday, the first dual recipients of the MusiCares Person of the Year honor (rechristened Persons of the Year for 2023).
Back at the Los Angeles Convention Center after a two-year COVID-related absence – last year’s soirée toasting Joni Mitchell took place, like the Grammy Awards, in Las Vegas – the Persons of the Year gala highlighted an all-star roll call of musicians eager to pay tribute to these two titans.
Surprise appearances by Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie augmented an already weighty and generation-spanning lineup including Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick, Molly Tuttle, Samara Joy, Valerie Simpson, Jimmie Allen, Rita Wilson, Sebastian Yatra and Mumford & Sons.
Though Elton John was spotted in the crowd, sitting with his arm around former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they swayed to The Temptations’ “It’s The Same Old Song,” his presence was merely as a fan, not a performer.
But along with nearly three hours of deft musical tributes, some of the show’s tenderest highlights came with frequent cuts to Robinson and Gordy sitting side by side at their table of honor, both often grinning at each other, singing along to the Motown classics being presented onstage and leaping to their feet to cheer in appreciation.
Robinson, 82, took the stage late in the show to talk about “The best friendship in the world…you are so precious,” he told Gordy, 93, before offering the sweet piano ballad written for Gordy, “Did You Know.” As he sang, Robinson never broke eye contact with his mentor (“When I first met this man, it was the beginning of my dream come true,” Robinson said).
Gordy, meanwhile, seemed at a loss for words as he accepted the MusiCares statuette with Robinson.
“I’m happy to be here with my best friend,” Gordy said with a smile. “I mean…damn.”
In addition to the music, the importance of MusiCares, the foundation of the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammy Awards, and provides health and human service aid to the music community.
In between recorded segments of musicians extolling the outreach of MusiCares, clips of previous Person of the Year recipients, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith and Fleetwood Mac, played on video screens throughout the room.
But the night belonged to the mega-catalog spearheaded by Gordy at Detroit’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” and Robinson, whose songs helped define the Motown sound.
Some of the most memorable performances:
The quintet of Terry Weeks, Tony Grant, Ron Tyson, original member Otis Williams and Jawan Jackson, who starred in the Broadway jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” and joined the group last summer, proved a fitting opener.
Clad in matching red satin suits, the group worked their coordinated dance moves and perfectly harmonized vocals for a medley that included “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “My Girl.” During their performance, the camera caught Gordy putting his hand on Robinson’s shoulder and exchanging a smile.
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The 1969 hit for The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back” – was an ideal match for Crow’s voice, which was locked into its upper range as she gleefully sang over the song’s dancing bass line. In her short dress – a creation of feathers and sparkles – and stilettos, Crow bopped along as she unfurled the effervescent classic.
Before delving into Mary Wells’ signature 1964 bauble, “My Guy,” Warwick addressed the honorees.
“Thank you very much for allowing me to be your friend and for me allowing you to be mine,” Warwick said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Though “My Guy” seemed almost too saccharine a choice for Warwick, she infused it with some glorious Dionne sass and personality as she delivered the lyrics and vamped through the closing.
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Flanked by longtime musical partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile glided through “The Tracks of My Tears.” The trio, sporting matching silver jackets and black pants, harmonized effortlessly throughout Robinson’s 1965 hit. Carlile’s flawless voice soared as the song escalated and she jabbed the air with her finger to emphasize the lyrics.
The Four Tops
Duke Fakir is the only remaining original member, but groupmates Ronnie McNeir (1999), Lawrence Payton Jr. (2005) and Alexander Morris (2019) adeptly aided one of the peppiest sets of the show. Their outfits – mustard yellow suits with glittery lapels – and footsteps both coordinated, The Four Tops rolled through a medley of “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” an easy sell to this crowd that was already primed to dance.
Always gracious and always smiling, Richie took a few moments before a sublime singalong of “Easy” to address Robinson and Gordy.
“It has been an amazing journey to even think about how in the world did I get to be in the Motown family. To get a chance to sit here in front of two of my amazing mentors … I don’t know if I’m more excited to be part of the Motown family or having Berry and Smokey as my dear friends,” Richie said.
“It’s more than a pleasure to be here,” Wonder, in his trademark beret, said from behind his unique stringed instrument, an harpejji,” on which he played “Try Something New.” But first, he teased Gordy who, “didn’t think I could sing” as a young man climbing into the Motown family. Wonder thanked Robinson – “If it weren’t for you and The Miracles, I wouldn’t be here” – and shared an intriguing reggae rendition of “The Tears of a Clown,” which he wrote with Robinson in 1967.
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Story Credit: usatoday.com