At MusiCares gala, Smokey Robinson celebrates 'best friendship in history' with original song for Berry Gordy: 'You are so, so precious'
2023’s Grammy weekend kicked off Friday with the annual Person of the Year gala thrown by MusiCares, the philanthropic arm of the Recording Academy — and for the first time in the event’s 32-year history, it was a Persons of the Year celebration, with two honorees, Motown founder Berry Gordy and soul legend Smokey Robinson.
The gala celebrated how the iconic duo “reached out across a racially divided country to transform popular music, creating a musical legacy like no other,” as MusiCares’ executive director Laura Segura had said in a statement. But it was also, as Sagura worded it Friday's ceremony, a “toast to a beautiful friendship” that began way back in 1957 — when a then-17-year-old Robinson met songwriter Gordy after a failed audition for Brunswick Records and, as fate would have it, ended up becoming the first signing to Gordy’s new label, Motown.
Now, as the 82-year-old Robinson stood onstage Friday at the Los Angeles Convention Center while the 93-year-old Gordy sat at a front table beaming, Robinson reflected on what he sweetly called “the best friendship in history” — not only in his MusiCares acceptance speech, but in a touching original song written for the “mentor” who “took [him] under his wing” more than 65 years ago.
“This is so, so, so special for me. I mean, in my life I have been blessed enough to get a few awards, but this one is really, really, really, probably the most special to me, because I'm getting this award tonight with my very best friend in the world,” Robinson gushed. “I'm standing here tonight because when I first met this man, it was the beginning of my dream come true for me. I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be in show business. I wanted to write songs and make music. And I never thought it would be possible for me, from where I grew up. But then I got there, because I met Berry. And like I said, that was the beginning of a new life for me.”
Robinson recalled that when he first met Gordy, “I had a loose-leaf notebook of about a hundred songs in there, and probably only one of them made sense!” But he said Gordy patiently reviewed them all and “never once said, ‘OK man, I'm tired, I gotta go. That's enough.’ He just sat there and listened and he critiqued them. … And that day, the seed was planted for the best friendship in history. I love you, man, You are so, so precious. I am so, so, so proud to call you my best friend. That's one of the proudest things in my life. I love you so much.”
Robinson apparently had one more especially meaningful song in his notebook, “Did You Know,” which he sang directly and adoringly to his best friend, while Gordy looked on in amazement. The full lyrics were:
Did you know all the joy you keep bringing?
Did you know you’d be the song the world is singing?
Did you know when you dreamed your dream
That you would make so many other dreams come true?
Did you know way back when first we met
That you and I would be as close as true friends can get?
Though the road has been rough at times, we made it through
And I’d live it all again just to be with you
And I’m hoping that right now you know
My friend, my wonderful friend, I love you so
Robinson’s performance ended with a few blown kisses in Gordy’s direction, as Gordy pumped his fists in the air approvingly and the teary-eyed crowd burst into applause. Throughout the rest of the evening, the two adorably sat together to enjoy a star-studded revue of songs penned by Gordy and/or Robinson. Several other Motown legends also performed; as Robinson said in his MusiCares speech, “You've seen so many people here tonight who were able to do what they do because of [Gordy].” Among those performers were Stevie Wonder (who said, “It is more than a pleasure to be here, because were it not for the two people that we’re recognizing, I wouldn’t be here”); past MusiCares honoree Lionel Richie (“I don’t know whether I’m more excited to be a part of the Motown family or having Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson as my dear friends”); the Temptations; the Four Tops; and the Isley Brothers. Dionne Warwick also appeared, telling Gordy and Robinson, “Thank you so very much for allowing me to be your friend — and for me allowing you to be mine!”
Among the newer artists whose Motown performances were highlights of the night were Grammy darling Brandi Carlile, who delivered an absolutely stunning rendition of Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” while her longtime bandmates the Hanseroth Twins executed Motown-style choreography in snazzy suits; Mumford & Sons, whose raw, haunting interpretation of the recently departed Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” was a revelation; and Best New Artist Grammy nominee Samara Joy, who received a standing ovation for her elegant and operatic cover of “Ain't That Peculiar.”
Proceeds from Friday’s gala honoring Gordy and Robinson will go to MusiCares programs and services that assist the music community with physical and mental healthcare, addiction recovery, unforeseen personal emergencies, and disaster relief. The special evening’s full setlist, overseen by musical director Greg Phillinganes, was:
The Temptations – “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” “I Can't Get Next to You,” “My Girl”
Sheryl Crow – “I Want You Back”
John Legend – “I'll Be There”
Valerie Simpson and Jimmie Allen – “Ain't No Mountain High Enough”
Mumford & Sons – “Money (That’s What I Want)”
Dionne Warwick – “My Guy”
Samara Joy – “Ain't That Peculiar”
Domi & JD Beck – “All I Do Is Think of You”
Molly Tuttle – “The One Who Really Loves You”
Trombone Shorty – “Shotgun”
Michael McDonald – “Lonely Teardrops”
Rita Wilson and Sebastián Yatra – “It Takes Two”
Brandi Carlile – “The Tracks of My Tears”
The Isley Brothers – “This Old Heart of Mine”
The Four Tops – “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It's the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out (I'll Be There),” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”
Lionel Richie – “Easy”
Lalah Hathaway and PJ Morton – “Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing”
Chloe x Halle – “Baby Love”
Stevie Wonder – “Try Something New,” “The Tears of a Clown”
Smokey Robinson – “Did You Know”
Group finale – “Get Ready”
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