Singing the Praises of the One and Only Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson performing on June 28, 2013, at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California
Smokey Robinson performing on June 28, 2013, at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California

Smokey Robinson and I go way back. When I was a kid growing up in L.A., I listened to the Boss Jocks on KHJ and Humble Harve on KRLA. But then, I also did the semi-forbidden and listened to KGFJ, the so-called "Black" station. (Actually, I'm so old that when I first started listening to it, it was the "Negro" station.) KGFJ played a lot of Motown and the harder-edge stuff from Stax and Atlantic.

Despite growing up in The Projects deep in the ghetto, my friends and I had some activities that would seem absolutely quaint by today's standards. We would sometimes have parties on Saturday nights. Since we were all athletes, there was no alcohol, no smoking, no drugs. We'd drink punch or soda, eat some chips and dance with the girls. The first hour of the party, we'd dance to fast songs, working up a sweat as we showed off out latest moves. The second hour, there would be a mix of fast songs, with Smokey's "Ooh Baby Baby" mixed in every third or fourth song. No other slow song; just "Ooh Baby Baby."

As the party was winding down in the third hour, it became make-out time, with "Ooh Baby Baby" just playing over and over again. I got really good sitting next to the record player, lifting the arm and placing the needle back down at the start of the record. I don't recall ever making out at one of those parties, but there was that one time that I was sitting on the couch and a romantic couple, in a frenzy, sat down next to me. I reached over and tried to grab the napkin I had left on the couch cushion, but before I could retrieve it, the girl sat down on my hand. As it happened, it was just as Smokey was singing, "Mistakes, I know I've made a few, But I'm only human; you've made mistakes, too."

Yeah, like sitting down without looking first.

They kept going at it, mackin' and slobberin', with my hand all kinds of ways in the wrong place. I tried to determine if there was a rhythm to their writhing, maybe attuned to Smokey's crooning. But no. Every now and then, I would try to extricate my hand, but it would just make her moan a little bit louder and press up on the dude a little bit harder.

By the time Smokey sang, "I'm just about at the end of my rope, but I can't stop trying. I can't give up hope," my hand was falling asleep. When he got to "'Cause I feel that one day I'll hold you near"...well, that ship had sailed. I finally got my hand out. The girl turned around and looked at me, but she and I never spoke about it. Ever.

My favorite moment tied to that song (from a safe distance of time) was when I first slow-danced with my friend, Barbara. She was one of those young ladies who was blessed/cursed by looking 15 when she was 12 and 22 when she was 16. She was also smart as hell and she and I had AP classes together. We were the rarest of high-school unicorns—a girl and a boy who were really good friends. One night, at a school dance, we decided to dance together to "Ooh Baby Baby." I remember that she smelled like vanilla and butterscotch and popcorn and fried chicken and cinnamon and everything else in the world that smells great.

About halfway through the song, I suddenly felt the need to back away a bit from her. Not to make room for Jesus, but for that other reason. She knew what was going on and, being strong for her age, she held me close enough to make that last minute of that dance most uncomfortable. And then I had to leave the dance floor walking sideways.

I always loved his singing voice. Some of my friends didn't want to go through puberty because they knew that they would lose the ability to sing like Smokey. (They quickly came to accept the trade-off.) But I really liked the way he put words together. "Take a good look at my face, You'll see my smile looks out of place, If you look closer it's easy to trace...the tracks of my tears." That's crazy good. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson "America's greatest living poet."

Over the years, Smokey Robinson has won just about every award possible. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. He's in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was honored by the Kennedy Center and on and on and on...

Every morning, the first 20 minute segment of my workout is accompanied by Rare Earth's live version of the Smokey-penned "Get Ready." And I have found that one of the very few songs from my past that I can get today's kids to listen to and sing along with is probably the greatest song Smokey ever wrote, "My Girl."

The magnificent Mr. Robinson will be at the UA Centennial Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. I'm supposed to be out of town for a family thing, but I want to go to the concert. Family is family, but Smokey and I are boys. ■

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