I’ve got this cotton shirt that only comes out once or twice a year, for parties where there is bound to be dancing to really good music and very special gigs. I bought it at a shop called ‘Culture Vulture’ on Hockley about twenty years ago (and it still fits!). A “CHARLIE Boo Boo” short sleeved cotton shirt covered with insignias for early rock’n’roll legends, from Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to the Big Bopper and the Diamonds, Buddy Knox, Eddie Cochran, The Crickets and loads more in a fetching orange, red and blue. The Miracles should be on there – they formed in 1955, so they’re of the right era, but they didn’t have their first hit until 1960, so they’re not. The shirt cost me £25, in a sale, which seemed like a fortune at the time but has proved to be a good investment. One night I wore it to a party and someone tried to buy the shirt off my back, said I could name my price. It’s that good a shirt.
Last night, I wore this shirt, and no-one noticed it. Because there, in front of our very own eyes but still hard to credit, was Smokey Robinson, who I’ve been listening to since I was ten years old (when I thought he was a woman). He’s possibly the best soul singer, certainly the best soul writer of all time. When I heard that he was playing his first UK tour (ever – how strange is that?), I calculated how much I was willing to pay and how far I was willing to travel. Then I heard he was playing Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall, for about the same as it costs to see Bob Dylan in an arena (that’s the Bob who referred to Smokey as ‘America’s Greatest Living Poet’ back in the ’60s, when many were keen to give Dylan that crown).
Before Smokey comes on, a blind old black guy wanders onto the stage and finds himself a stool. It looks like Marv Taplin, but it can’t be, surely he’s been dead for years? Then the band and string section arrive, and Smokey’s preceded on stage by two go go dancers (one white, one black, both reminiscent of Pan’s People – readers of a certain age will remember how this rather literal dance troupe used to interpret the songs of absent stars on ‘Top of the Pops’). Smokey walks on, wearing a shiny purple dress coat that is terribly kitsch and therefore befitting a soul legend. Of course he opens with ‘Going To A Go Go’. Before we know what’s hit us, he’s into ‘I Second That Emotion’ and ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me (a song I first heard done by The Beatles) and it’s clear that, at 67, his voice is as strong as ever. He slows it down for an utterly sublime ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ which draws a standing ovation. ‘I should have opened with that one!’ he says, then sings two songs he wrote for The Temptations, ‘The Way You Do The Thing You Do’ and ‘My Girl.’
I could go on and on but I’ve already written about three gigs this last week, so suffice to say that he plays ‘Tears Of A Clown’ and ‘Just To See Her’ and ‘Cruising’ (I felt like I was on a cruise ship for the sing along with that, but never mind), enough hits to satisfy the casual fan and enough relatively obscure material to excite the stalwarts. His upper face may be frozen from plastic surgery but his smile is genuine, his outfits are appropriately retro, he works his arse off, playing the crowd like a pro. He introduces the band, the backing singers, the go go dancers, the local orchestra and his pianist/conductor. But only at the very end of the show does he acknowledge the blind, black guy who ambled onto the stage before it began. Smokey stays in the shadows, as the guy’s stool is moved to centre stage and, picked out by a spotlight, the guitarist vamps on the opening to ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’. It really is former Miracle Marv Taplin, who played guitar and wrote the music for several of Smokey’s hits. Two legends for the price of one.