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Motown icons Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were honored in star-studded fashion Friday at the MusiCares Persons of the Year Gala, with a tribute lineup that included Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Chloe and Halle Bailey, Sheryl Crow, Mumford & Sons and The Temptations.
Robinson and Motown Records founder Gordy became the first duo to be recognized with the honor, which is awarded to musicians for their artistic achievement in the music industry and dedication to philanthropy. Proceeds from the gala provide support for MusiCares, the leading music charity offering health and human services to music professionals.
Taking place in downtown Los Angeles just steps away from where the Grammys will kick off on Sunday, the gala began with a silent auction before launching into a two-hour tribute concert of Robinson and Gordy’s work, starting with a medley from The Temptations that included “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” Crow followed with a rendition of Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back,” in front of a crowd that included Elton John and Tom Hanks.
“It’ll probably be said many times tonight but Motown was the soundtrack to our lives and it’s due to the vision and the creativity of Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson,” Legend said before his performance of “I’ll Be There.” “I grew up in a house that appreciated Motown, loved Motown, and I wouldn’t know music without Motown,” he continued, before thanking the two icons.
Over the course of the night, Valerie Simpson and Jimmie Allen sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Dionne Warwick performed “My Guy,” Mumford & Sons covered “Money (That’s What I Want),” Michael McDonald sang “Lonely Teardrops,” Trombone Shorty took on “Shotgun,” Rita Wilson and Sebastián Yatra dueted on “It Takes Two,” and best new artist nominees Samara Joy, Molly Tuttle and Domi and JD Beck performed a medley. Carlile also did a rendition of “The Tracks of My Tears” followed by the Isley Brothers singing “This Old Heart of Mine” and a Four Tops medley of “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).”
Richie later took the stage, wondering, “How in the world did I get to be in the Motown family? How in the world did I get a chance to have a catalog and be sitting here in front of my amazing mentors?” The star reflected on his days as a college student, “not realizing that my destiny was going to be being educated by two of the greatest in the music business. The businessman of course was Berry Gordy, and my mentor as a writer, who I wanted to be like, was Smokey Robinson.”
“Tonight I am going to say this to you honestly, I don’t know whether I’m more excited to be part of the Motown family or having Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson as my dear friends,” Richie continued. “You guys mean the world to me and I’m going to play one of those songs that Berry Gordy made me famous on,” before launching into “Easy.”
Chloe x Halle followed with a performance of “Baby Love,” before Wonder took the stage, saying “it is more than a pleasure to be here because were it not for the two people that are here, that we’re recognizing, I wouldn’t be here.”
Wonder joked that “All of my appreciation, respect, love goes to you Berry, who thought I couldn’t sing. Let’s keep it real, you said, ‘You can play harmonica, you really can’t sing,'” adding that Robinson was the one who said he could sing. “Smokey, I want to thank you. Were it not for you and your friend — a member of the group The Miracles, the late Ronnie White — I wouldn’t be here. I could never repay you, just with saying to you the rest of my life, ‘Thank you, I love you, thank you, I love you.'” Wonder then performed both “Try Something New” and “The Tears of a Clown” before Robinson took the mic.
“In my life, I’ve 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,” Robinson told the crowd. “Because of him, not only me, you’ve seen so many people here tonight who were able to do what they do because of him. I’m standing here tonight because when I first met this man it was the beginning of my dream come true,” recalling how Gordy took him under his wing and gave him advice on songwriting during their first meeting.
“That day the seed was planted for the best friendship in history,” Robinson continued. “I love you, man, you are so gracious. I am so, so, so proud to call you my best friend, that’s one of the proudest things in my life.” He then proceeded to sing “Did You Know,” a song he wrote about Gordy and their relationship.
For his part, Gordy — who at 93 was beaming and blowing kisses all night — had just a few words when coming on stage to accept the honor: “I’m happy to be here with my best friend, I mean, damn!”
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