Motown, Smokey Robinson told us, “was a wonderful place to grow up, especially for a songwriter”. A medley of soul classics followed – The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “My Girl” and “Get Ready” – all written by him in the mid-1960s when the Motown hit machine was at its busiest.
Robinson’s first chart success, “Got a Job” in 1957, was about the drudgery of menial work. But Motown’s automotive working practices, modelled on Detroit’s car plants, brought out the best in him. He was its principal songwriter and, as leader of The Miracles, one of its leading performers. Not only did he provide the likes of The Temptations with hits, he also dashed out numbers such as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” to sing with The Miracles.
Knowing which songs to keep and which to relinquish must have required self-discipline and generosity. It was unsurprising, therefore, to find him at this London show, his first in 12 years, in an ego-free, relentlessly sunny mood. “Doesn’t it feel good, having fun and feeling good?” he enthused. Another circular statement explained why he wrote so many romantic songs: “I am a lover of love.”
At 67, he still sings in a sweet, high tenor. Smooth and unshowy, it was the oil lubricating the wheels of his songs, whose perfectly weighted pace and neat arrangements were models of economy (he once described his songwriting technique as being geared to “radio time”: the shorter a song was, the more it was likely to be broadcast).
There were longueurs: a suite of dinner-jazz tracks taken from last year’s album Timeless Love were unexceptional and an interminable crowd-participation exercise marred the show’s ending. But these had the happy side-effect (Smokey’s positivity is infectious) of making the highlights shine all the more. Best of all was a rendition of “The Tracks of My Tears” featuring on guitar Marv Tarplin, an original member of The Miracles: a vignette of Motown history.
Tour continues at Symphony Hall, Birmingham,