Friday night’s MusiCares Persons of the Year gala marked the first time the Recording Academy’s charitable organization honored the work and philanthropy of two musicians instead of just one at its annual Grammy weekend tribute concert.
It was also the first time one honoree sang a tender song of devotion to the other.
“In my life I have been blessed enough to get a few awards,” Smokey Robinson told the crowd of donors and industry types [including Elton John] at the Los Angeles Convention Center near the end of the two-hour event. “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”: 93-year-old Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. Robinson, 82, went on to say that meeting Gordy — with whom he revolutionized Black pop as a singer and writer of such foundational classics as “Shop Around,” “My Girl,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Get Ready” and “I Second That Emotion” — “was the beginning of my dream come true.”
Accompanied by a pianist, his voice the same feathery wonder it’s been for decades, Robinson then performed a florid new ballad he said he’d written about “the best friendship in history” before Gordy joined him onstage for a few words of his own.
“I’m happy to be here with my best friend,” Gordy said. “I mean, damn!”
Featuring Grammy-circuit regulars like John Legend, Brandi Carlile and Lalah Hathaway, Friday’s concert was a worthy if conventional testament to their highly productive bromance.
The current versions of the Temptations and the Four Tops (each with one original member) offered crisp medleys of their Motown staples with neat choreography to match; another Motown alum, Valerie Simpson, sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with help from country singer Jimmie Allen.
Legend did the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” in a plush low-and-slow style, while Sheryl Crow aimed for the exuberance — and the sky-high vocal notes — of a young Michael Jackson in “I Want You Back.” (Good try, but not quite.)
Dionne Warwick sang a smoky “My Guy” and riffed on her reputation as a social-media sass machine: “Thank you so very much for allowing me to be your friend,” she told Gordy and Robinson, “and to me for allowing you to be mine.” Other veterans in the show included the Isley Brothers, who cranked through “This Old Heart of Mine”; Lionel Richie, effortlessly smooth in “Easy”; and Michael McDonald, who reached back to the late 1950s for Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops,” which Gordy co-wrote in his pre-Motown days.
Three nominees for the Grammys’ best new artist award — jazz singer Samara Joy, jazz duo Domi & JD Beck and bluegrass singer-guitarist Molly Tuttle — took part in a quick-moving display of vocal and instrumental chops; Hathaway, backed by PJ Morton on churchy electric piano, found some room to play with the melody of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
As always, Carlile’s voice was a thing to behold in “The Tracks of My Tears,” even if she played it straight in terms of the song’s arrangement. A three-man version of Mumford & Sons (minus banjoist Winston Marshall, who left the band in 2021 after being criticized for voicing various right-wing beliefs) was more adventurous in a rough-hewn take on “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong, who died last month; it was severe but witty, one of only a handful of moments Friday when an act seemed to be getting deep inside the music.
Another came from Stevie Wonder, who played the Miracles’ “I’ll Try Something New” on his signature harpejji then remade “The Tears of a Clown” as — hey, why not? — a killer reggae jam.
With an impish grin, he told the audience that Robinson hadn’t necessarily approved of the creative liberties he’d taken. “Just keeping it real,” he added. “But a great song never dies. You just keep on finding different ways of doing it.” Wonder picked the right guys’ stuff to prove it.