So the kids on my team are in love with the Top 10 song "Marvin Gaye" by Charlie Puth (rhymes with truth), a lily-white soul singer from New Jersey. The song starts off with "Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on, you've got the healing that I want," and is full of Marvin Gaye song-title references ("You got to give it up to me; I'm screaming mercy, mercy me." It's catchy and fun, but when it first came out, I was aghast to learn that today's teenagers don't know who Marvin Gaye was. (I know it was a long time ago, but today's kids know The Beatles, and Marvin Gaye was way better than that group.)
I listened to all the soul greats when I was growing up. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown ... I had 8-tracks of all of them. (I probably still do by the looks of my garage.) But by far the coolest of them all was Smokey Robinson. That voice, that stage presence, those suits! Smokey Robinson was the undisputed world champion suit wearer until he was tied a few years back by Matt Bomer on White Collar.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would hang out on a street corner in the projects and try to sing. (I have the absolute worst singing voice of all time, even counting those of the late Rod McKuen and the absolutely terrible Lana Del Rey.) We loved The Temptations, but, individually, we all wanted to sing like Smokey. I had friends who didn't want to go through puberty because they would no longer be able to sing like Smokey Robinson. I told one friend about the legendary castrati; he concluded that he didn't want to hold onto his Smokey-ness that badly.
As great a singer as he is, he's an even greater songwriter. (Bob Dylan once referred to Smokey Robinson as "America's greatest living poet.") My favorite tribute to his songwriting ability came in the movie Music and Lyrics, which starred my man-crush Hugh Grant as a character based on Andrew Ridgeley, who, at one time, was "the other guy" to George Michael in the pop duo Wham! Grant is trying to write lyrics, but curses the fact that he will never come close to Smokey Robinson. He says, "Smokey wrote 'I've got sunshine on a cloudy day; When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May.' THOSE are lyrics!"
I used to joke that I got thrust into puberty when I accidentally listened to Dusty Springfield sing "The Look of Love" while I was watching Julie Newmar play Catwoman on the Batman TV show. The truth is that I have no idea when puberty embraced/attacked me, but I do remember this one episode that had to have happened not long after I crossed over that threshold.
At a junior-high dance, I asked a girl named Barbara to slow dance with me. In retrospect, Barbara had that rare blessing/curse that made her look 15 when she was 12 and 21 when she was 15. Fortunately, she and I had been friends and nerd-class homies for years, long before her development, so it was really no big deal to look out on the dance floor and see a girl who looked like a way-better version of Beyonce dancing with Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show.
My Old World Italian mother had taught me how to dance the gentlemanly way and I always slow-danced with my left arm out, holding the girl's hand in mine. Some of my peers found that to be lame at the time. Years later, while watching Jon Favreau's Swingers, I found out that I was so money and I didn't even know.
Anyway, I'm dancing with Barbara to Smokey Robinson's slow dance/grind classic "Ooh Baby Baby" and all of a sudden I realize that my left hand is sweating like a freaking water fountain. Then, other stuff started to happen and I suddenly felt the need to back away slightly, perchance to leave room for Jesus. Barbara, at least, got a good laugh out of it.
When we used to have parties, the rule of thumb was a non-stop rotation of "Ooh Baby Baby" for the last hour or so of the make-out session, until you heard a chorus of "Aw Baby, I gotta go. My lips are numb."
Smokey Robinson still touches my life on a daily basis. Every day, when I go into the garage and climb onto my old StairClimber, I put on my iPod and listen to Rare Earth do a 21-minute live version of the Temptations classic "Get Ready" (which was written by Smokey Robinson). The song is the perfect length. I can get in the entire workout as the band goes through the build-up, the song itself and all of the individual solos. Just as I'm finishing, the crowd roars its approval as though cheering for my having gotten through another session on the Devil Machine.
Smokey's still going strong at 75. He's performing at the Desert Diamond Casino tomorrow night. Today's the anniversary of the day I proposed to my wife. I'm thinking of asking her if she wants to go see Smokey (although her musical taste tends toward songs about pickup trucks and lost dogs).
I promise not to sing along.