MusiCares Dinner for Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy Features Salutes From Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Samara Joy and More
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” was the unofficial theme of MusiCares’ annual benefit dinner Friday night. A handful of surviving and still musically active singers who date back to the original Motown era, not least of them Stevie Wonder, were joined by performers from the real-er side of contemporary music to pay tribute to Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, being honored by the Recording Academy’s charitable wing as its Persons of the Year.
The span of the bill at downtown L.A.’s convention center ran from appearances by Wonder, Valerie Simpson and ongoing editions of the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Isley Brothers (all with at least one original eightysomething member in their lineups) to a segment that featured three artists in their 20s that are up for best new artist at the Grammys. Samara Joy, Molly Tuttle and DOMi & JD Beck.
In-between those demographic extremes were some of the artists who can be counted on to deliver a top-shelf cover at a MusiCares dinner or Grammy salute any time they’re asked, like Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow and John Legend, and some who haven’t participated in quite so many tributes, like Chloe x Hallie and Mumford & Sons.
The final performer of the night was Robinson himself, singing a new song he’d written just for Gordy. Preceding that performance, Robinson said, “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.” The singer went further with the superlatives, calling his relationship with the songwriter-producer turned label mogul “the best friendship in history.”
Wonder got the penultimate slot, and the only one in which a performer was allotted two numbers, outside of the vocal group’s medleys. First, Wonder sat down at the harpejji — a seemingly magical instrument he adopted in the 2010s that is played in the style of a keyboard but sounds remarkably like an acoustic guitar — to perform “I’ll Try Something New,” a Robinson-cowritten number that was the title track of the Miracles’ debut album in 1962. Then he was joined by Greg Phillinganes’ house band for a fresh arrangement of another Robinson tune, “The Tears of a Clown,” done in a reggae style.
“It is more than a pleasure to be here because were it not for the two people that are here that we’re recognizing,” he told the audience, “I wouldn’t be here. … All of my appreciation, respect, love goes to you, Berry — even though you thought I couldn’t sing,” Wonder added, getting in a dig at a rare lapse in the mogul’s talent-scouting skills, which he recalled including the suggestion, when he was a kid, that he stick to what he did best, harmonica. (Wonder turned in a mouth-harp solo during “Tears of a Clown” that made it clear Gordy wasn’t wrong in being particularly impressed by that talent, at least.)
Overhead screens provided frequent views of the reaction shots to the performances by the duo being honored, with Gordy’s shows of delight being particularly delightful. The record label impresario was frequently caught on camera with his fists in the air. When Grammy nominee Samara Joy sang a very slowed-down version of “Ain’t That Peculiar,” Gordy sat with a pointed finger suspended in mid-air, as if he’d forgotten to put it down as he watched and listened in rapt attention, figuring out just exactly what kind of different direction she was taking the classic tune.
When Mumford & Sons, performing as an acoustic trio, did a radically different arrangement of “Money” (originally sung by Barrett Strong, who died just as Grammy events were getting underway), as if it had been passed down as a Mississippi Delta blues traditional, Robinson and Gordy initially had looks of slight puzzlement, as if they were trying to wrap their heads around it, and eventually huge grins on their faces.
On the red carpet, Crow explained why she was performing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” “I’ve already done it for them once, at the White House years ago, so they asked me if I’d come do it tonight, which is really an honor,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee told Variety. But ‘ABC’ is also the first album I ever owned. It was literally played all of the time in my house, nonstop, when I was a kid. And I learned to play bass to James Jamerson.When I moved to L.A., the first artist I ever worked with was Michael Jackson [as his backup singer in the late ‘80s]. So I’m so happy to be here. I can’t wait to get out there and look at them and sing it for these guys.”
It’s not a surprise to anyone who ever heard “If It Makes You Happy” that Crow has a high range, but it was still striking to hear Crow hit the high notes on “I Want You Back” — not in a belt-y way, but in a soulful-pipsqueak way that expertly mimicked the sound of a very young Michael.
While Crow said she “couldn’t wait to look at them” while sang, jazz newcomer Samara Joy was quite the opposite, saying on the red carpet, “I intentionally didn’t wear glasses so that I wouldn’t see anybody in the front row, because I’m very nervous about that.” She need not have been, as Joy got one of the evening’s spontaneous standing ovations for her take on Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.” She also noted that, while Phillinganes had picked most of the songs for the respective artists, she definitely had a preference. And “I intentionally asked to slow the tempo down, because originally it’s a little bit faster — definitely the Motown sound. I love the original version, but thought maybe if I slowed it down a little bit, maybe infused a little blues into it or something like that, then it would more fit my voice and style.”
Tuttle also worked to make “The One Who Really Loves You” fit her acoustic-leaning style, although not so far as to take it into the bluegrass realm she has a nomination for this year on top of best new artist.
Tuttle was the only artist on the carpet to point out that she, personally, had been a beneficiary of MusiCares’ endeavors to provide for musicians in need. “When I first moved to Nashville about eight years ago, I was just starting out my career. I was in in a new city and I just felt kind of lost, and MusiCares sponsored me to go to a therapist for a full year or two. It was really wonderful. They’ve helped my friends get dental care and helped people get healthcare. Then during the pandemic in 2020 when everything shut down, I did a couple livestreams to raise money for them, because they were giving people grants during the pandemic, which was really helpful to a lot of my band members and a lot of my friends. They’re amazing.”
The words “Brandi Carlile” and “standing ovation” pretty much go together at this point, and there was not much sitting as she wrapped up an all-too-quick performance of “The Tracks of My Tears,” with Phil and Tim Hanseroth in near-matching suits, for once freed of their instruments and performing vocally only, like Pips.
There was also a standing O in much of the house for Trombone Shorty’s “Shotgun.” “Junior Walker was a saxophone player and he sang, so I guess me singing and playing a horn today, I guess that that made sense for them to reach out,” he said on the carpet. “I have to make it my own, you know —I can’t get some of the sounds that he was able to get on the saxophone, but I’m making my own and put a little hot sauce on New Orleans from there.”
Some non-musical figures with a tangible connection to the honorees also passed by on the carpet, like entertainment lawyer John Branca, perhaps best known in recent years for his work with the Michael Jackson estate — but also, historically, one of the Persons of the Year. “Berry Gordy’s one of my favorite clients,” Branca said. “He discovered Michael Jackson. He mentored so many great artists like Michael and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and I learned a lot representing him. You know, normally the lawyer is supposed to teach the client. But in the case of Berry Gordy, he taught me — he is one of the wisest men I’ve ever known. The deals we do are always so complicated, and Berry had a principle: Keep it simple. Start simple and let it go from there. And Berry is the greatest talent finder in the history of the record business.”
The happiest person on the red carpet, by far, seemed to be Eddie Holland, of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. A few yards away, the Four Tops were serenading a TV camera crew with one of his first hits.
“Right now I keep hearing the Four Tops in the background, with Duke [87-year-old Duke Fakir] in the group, singing, ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving.’ That’s inspiring to me because my mind flashes back. Mickey Stevenson came into my office and said, ‘Man, we are looking for something for the Four Tops.’ I said, ‘For who?’ ‘For Duke and Levi. Do you have anything?’” Those names, he knew — Holland had already grown up loving their preceding group, the Four Aims, which started in 1953, before this 1962 development.
“My brother had just written (the melody for) ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ from his own personal feeling. I said, ‘Wait a minute. We have something’ and finished it because I wanted to write for those guys.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as the song rose to No. 11 in ’62, becoming the Four Tops’ first hit.
“Those two are my favorite people,” Holland said of Gordy and Robinson. He appeared to be about ready to jump out of his suit at the thrill of sharing a carpet with the group that brought him to the dance more than 60 years later. “Can you tell? I’m excited!”
The full set list:
Greg Phillinganes and band: Opening medley
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” — medley
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”
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 Sebastian Yatra: “It Takes Two”
Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth Twins: “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)” — medley
Lionel Richie: “Easy”
Lalah Hathaway and PJ Morton: “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing”
Chloe x Halle: “Baby Love”
Stevie Wonder: “I’ll Try Something New,” “The Tears of a Clown”
Smokey Robinson: new song about Berry Gordy
Full cast: “Get Ready”
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