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People still love being with Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson performed at the Mahaffey Theater on Feb. 9, 2017.

Times files

Smokey Robinson performed at the Mahaffey Theater on Feb. 9, 2017.



ST. PETERSBURG – Compared with a couple of recent concerts for younger audiences, this crowd moved at three-quarter speed, gradually making their way through the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater to the $8 cups of wine or the $7 pizza slices, like tourists on a cruise ship, sure that everything would work out like it's supposed to if they were reasonable, the way things always had. 

That's the difference between a Smokey Robinson crowd and whoever the young people are seeing now. These fans took their time, maybe because they were expecting a warm-up act, or for whatever reason felt no urgency. A half-dozen songs in, they were standing and cheering. 

Robinson, a figure nearly as huge in the origins of Motown as Berry Gordy, appeared on stage at 7:30 p.m. sharp, materializing out of the darkness in a powder blue suit singing Being With You, one of the dozens of hits he authored over 60 years, either with The Miracles or for Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops or the Supremes, among others. Drawing on a lifetime of trial and error, instinct, three backup singers and a six-piece band, he turned up the pilot light a little more with each song. Robinson graduated from I Second That Emotion, to You've Really Got a Hold on Me, hitting his first peak with Ooh Baby Baby, which brought the ovation. 

At 76, Robinson can still sing. His voice might not be the instrument it was decades ago, but reaching that conclusion is an act of will, of reasoning backwards and extrapolating rather than relying on what the ear hears. He also likes to move, his steps fluid and playful or steamy and sensuous, doing everything he ever did on the stage except leaving his feet. The man is a ham, and his joy gave even the more sedate quarters of the audience permission to feel their own. He led the crowd with other hits – My Girl, Cruisin', The Tracks of My Tears – mixing songs and stories, such as conceiving The Way You Do (the Things You Do, for the Temptations) while doing some long-distance driving late at night. 

Robinson did a couple of songs from his 2014 CD, Smokey & Friends, in which he pairs with Elton John, John Legend, Steven Tyler and CeeLo Green. Green was among the stars who showed up in November, when Robinson received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Established in 2007, the award honors "a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins." 

Previous winners include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel and Willie Nelson. The ceremony honoring Robinson will air at 9 p.m. today on PBS.

[Last modified: Friday, February 10, 2017 4:38am]


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