Smokey Robinson brings classics, ‘Gasms,’ to NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk’

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Image: Instagram/@smokeyrobinson

By for Thegrio

Smokey Robinson is the latest Black music legend to drop by NPR’s “Tiny Desk.” The Motown icon performed classic songs and selections from his latest album, “Gasms,” for the online concert series.

On Monday, NPR premiered its latest installment of the “Tiny Desk Concert,” on which Robinson, 83, performed a nearly 30-minute set at the NPR Headquarters in Washington, D.C., with a 12-person ensemble backing him up. This is Robinson’s first appearance behind the desk of recently-retired show founder Bob Boilen.

Detroit son Robinson, a noted crafter of the Motown sound, is one of the most distinctive singers in R&B history and one of American music’s prolific songwriters. Choosing material for this short concert show, with his vast music catalog, proved to be an excellent problem instantly pleasing: He started his six-song set with a 1981 classic, “Being with You.”

From the start of his Tiny Desk Concert, Robinson showed he is as in tune and charismatic as ever.

His signature voice remained sensuous and endearing throughout “Being with You,” then, from there, he and his band played a brief rendition of “Tears of a Clown.” Introduced as “a song I wrote with Stevie Wonder,” “Tears of a Clown” was the only song in the concert pulled from his time as frontman of The Miracles. The intimate show’s centerpiece was two songs from Robinson’s latest album, “Gasms.”

While the LP’s title raised many an eyebrow with its thinly veiled implication of sexual satisfaction, the selections for Robinson’s “Tiny Desk Concert” proved to be in step with the kind of classy love ballads the world grew accustomed to hearing from Smokey since the 1960s.

“If We Don’t Have Each Other” has that lighthearted yet earnest sentiment that Robinson excelled at, with saxophonist Brandon Wright injecting some additional aural excitement. “Beside You” is a sweet love plea that pulls from the ballroom dancehall slow jams of Motown’s heyday, with guitarist Robert “Boogie” Bowles and organist Demetrios Pappas adding a tinge of sweet Southern comfort.

The climax of Robinson’s NPR performance included two of his most beloved and influential solo singles: “Quiet Storm” and “Cruisin’.” The back-to-back buildup of these two classic cuts was the perfect ending to the set.

NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” has featured other celebrated R&B crooners this year, including Babyface and Charlie Wilson, who each performed as part of the series’ Black History Month programming.