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Smokey Robinson Remembers Natalie Cole: She Was ‘One of Our Greatest Musical Icons’

Smokey Robinson Remembers Natalie Cole: She Was ‘One of Our Greatest Musical Icons’


The world lost a brilliant talent last week when singer Natalie Cole died at age 65. Now, Cole’s friend and fellow music legend, Smokey Robinson, shares with ET his memories of the late songstress.

“Natalie was so cool, she was down to earth,” Robinson said of his “instant friendship” with Cole.

The 75-year-old “Tracks of My Tears” singer said that Cole was “one of our greatest musical icons,” but admitted that it was clear she wasn’t doing well in the months leading up to her death.

WATCH: Natalie Cole Dead at 65

“About nine months or so ago, we did a concert together in Arizona, and when I saw her that day she didn’t look good to me,” Robinson recalled. “She lost a lot of weight and stuff, and I could tell because I had known her for so long and [we were] so close.”

Cole died on Dec. 31 from congestive heart failure at a hospital in Los Angelesafter suffering ongoing health issues.

“The last time I was able to talk to her was the night of the concert, before I went on,” Robinson said. “We hugged and talked and that was the last time I had a chance to have a good talk with her.”

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Robinson hit it off immediately with Cole — who was the daughter of famed jazz singer and pianist Nat King Cole — when they first met after the release of her 1975 hit. “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love.”

Robinson said it’s his friendship and conversations with Cole that he’s going to miss the most.

“Just being able to say, ‘Hey Nat, how are you doing baby?’ Sit down and talk like that. That is what I am going to miss, because we spent a lot of time together,” Robinson said.

WATCH: Dionne Warwick, Questlove, Cher, Gigi Hadid and More Share Touching Tributes to Natalie Cole

“I hope even people that don’t or didn’t get a chance to know her personally will understand that her legacy is that she was a wonderful lady,” Robinson added. “She is going to live on and on and on. She made great music and people who knew her loved her.”

Motown family helps Smokey Robinson celebrate turn as 20th Music Masters winner

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Dr. Smokey Robinson, newly minted doctor of humane letters at Case Western Reserve University, resplendent in a royal blue gown for the ceremony, was feted with all the proper pomp and circumstance befitting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 20th Annual Music Masters Saturday night.

But that he was at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre was a – you’ll pardon the expression – a Miracle in and of itself. At least according to his best friend, mentor and one-time boss, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Gordy told the sold-out auditorium, barely able to keep a straight face. “The biggest one was teaching Smokey Robinson how to write songs.”

Gordy advised an attentive crowd that when he began Tamla – which morphed into Motown — HE was the best at everything. Best businessman, best artist development guy and – most important – best songwriter. That was true for a while; after all, he was the principle songwriter for Robinson’s idol, Jackie Wilson, even before starting Tamla Records.

That didn’t last once the hungry Robinson started writing songs. As Gordy said, he had one for-sure policy at Motown.

“I made logic the boss – no politics or egos,” he said. “Not even mine.”

Eventually, the artists in the Motown stable were vying for Robinson songs, not Gordy songs.

“I felt terrible,” Gordy deadpanned. “But I got rich.”

Gordy and a trio of Hall of Fame Motown stars – Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas and Dennis Edwards – were joined by several contemporary artists in paying homage to Robinson and a career that began in a Detroit elementary school with his vocal band the 5 Chimes and eventually led to the his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Truthfully, it was a mixed bag of performances. Cleveland’s own Avant delivered solid renditions of the Robinson-penned “Shop Around” and “Just to See Her.” But former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, now a solid solo star in the gospel world, had a little difficulty until she launched into “Get Ready,” which allowed her to belt out the chorus in true tent revival fashion.

Singer and actress JoJo, in a slinky black dress cut almost up to her eyebrows, offered powerful “If You Can Want,” and Avery*Sunshine got the night’s first standing ovation with the Miracles’ hit “Cruisin’.”

Of course her humor got a starring role, too.

“I was 4 years old when ‘Crusin’ came out and I didn’t know what ‘Crusin’ was,” she said, eyebrows raised and milking the joke. “I’m 43 now and I have kids, but when the time came to ‘Cruise,’ I knew the words because of you.”

The biggest stumble, frankly, came when the Robert Glasper Experiment tried to “jazzify” Smokey songs. The beauty of the Motown sound – particularly Robinson’s songs, were the lyrics and the simplicity. Voice boxes and manipulation of sound don’t work.

But really, what mattered and what everyone in the packed auditorium was waiting for was the appearance of Reeves, Wilson and especially Edwards, who managed to recreate the spirit of Motown in just 30 short minutes. The trio breathed the same life into those Robinson tunes that they gave them decades ago and turned the songs, themselves and Robinson into legends.

Edwards in particular killed on what he called the best song ever – Robinson’s “My Girl.” And fortunately, he was able to coax his friend into breaking his promise and bursting into song as the entire cadre of singers took the stage for the finale, a reprise of “My Girl.”

Perhaps the most touching moment was Robinson, shyly but insistently, beckoning to Gordy in the wings to come out onstage. Their hug was one for the ages.

Somebody should write a song about it.

Smokey Robinson At The NYCB Theatre At Westbury

Smokey Robinson at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury

Smokey Robinson
NYCB Theatre at Westbury
Westbury, NY
October 11, 2015

Smokey Robinson stood at the center of the small revolving stage of the NYCB Theatre at Westbury. It was just him and a lone spotlight, the band situated off-stage in the pit, Robinson, dressed all in white (white suit, white shirt, white shoes and a contrasting dark tie) commanded the stage and had the audience’s full attention. “Stevie Wonder is my brother,” he said. “He should be called Stevie Wonderful…One year I was at the Motown Christmas Party when Stevie came up to me and explained that he had some music for a song but couldn’t come up with the lyrics. He handed me a tape and asked me to help. I said I’d listen to the tape and see what I could do. He even offered to drive me home so I could get started. I said, ‘no thank you.’ Stevie drives too fast.” When an audience member, in a very shocked tone, said, “He does?” The crowd erupted. Robinson, stopped, paused, smiled and slowly said, “Yeah, he does.” When the people seated near the woman explained that Wonder is blind, she shrieked an embarrassed, “Oh my God!” The legend was laughing so hard, he doubled over. He then asked the woman if he could bring her to all of his shows. Everyone in the intimate venue (audience members, band members, ushers, bartenders and waitresses) smiled and had a good chuckle. Robinson continued, “And this is what we came up with.” Robinson and the band then ramped-up a fantastic version of “Tears Of A Clown” that was almost as memorable as the song’s introduction.

Still more memorable than the introduction and even that particular song, is Robinson’s life and career. A pop and R&B singer-songwriter, record producer, and former record executive, many consider Robinson to be the true architect of the Motown sound. He was the founder and front man of the Miracles and served as the frontman, songwriter and producer. He led the group from its formation in 1955 (when it was known as the Five Chimes) until 1972 when he announced that he was retiring from performing to devote more time to his duties as Vice President of Motown Records.

Robinson’s retirement didn’t last long. He returned to the stage and the studio and in 1973 released the eponymous <smokey< em=””>album on Motown’s sister label Tamla. Since that time he has released an additional 22 studio albums and numerous live albums, videos as well as just under 60 singles.

Back in 1957, Robinson and the Miracles had just failed an audition with Brunswick Records. As luck would have it, he met Berry Gordy who was impressed with Robinson’s voice and even more impressed by the singer’s songwriting prowess. Gordy helped the group release its first single “Got A Job” which served as an answer to the Silhouettes hit song “Get A Job.” When Gordy formed Tamla Records (whose name he later changed to Motown), the Miracles were among the first acts that he signed. In 1960, the Miracles recorded and released the million-selling single “Shop Around.” Over the next decade, the Miracles charted 26 Top 40 Billboard hits including: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and, of course, “Tears Of A Clown.”

Robinson also served as one of Motown’s most prolific songwriters. He was responsible for writing many of the label’s hit singles. Mary Wells’ “My Guy;” The Temptations‘ “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “My Girl” and “Get Ready;” the Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” are but a few.

He has been the recipient of many awards. 1987 was a year of honors for Robinson. He was inducted to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1989, he was inducted to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. In 1993, Robinson received the National Medal of Arts. In 2006, along with Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Steven Spielberg and Andrew Lloyd Weber, Robinson was honored by the Kennedy Center. Over the years, he has remained active—touring and releasing CDs. His most recent CD, Smokey & Friends, an album of duets featuring Elton JohnJames Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Sheryl Crowe and Steven Tyler) was released in 2014 on Verve Records. It reached number 12 on the Billboard album chart.

On a warm Sunday evening in early October, Robinson, his band and his two back-up dancers touched down in Westbury, Long Island for a performance that will not be soon forgotten. The band opened the show with an instrumental that built to a crescendo, in a fashion not unlike old blues shows did prior to the appearance of the main attraction. The crowd was awakened and a tad surprised when Robinson’s back-up dancers, clad in spandex, bopped onto the stage and danced provocatively. While they were gyrating on the slowly revolving circular stage, the great man made his way down the ramp to the stage while singing “Being With You” from the 1981 Motown album of the same name.

When the song concluded, he addressed the crowd stating, “We have got some singing to do this evening. You all sound so good. Let’s sing another.” He then went to work on the classics that almost everyone in the audience had hoped to hear. “I Second That Emotion was followed in short order by “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” “A Quiet Storm” from the album of the same name (Motown, 1975) and “Ooo Baby Baby.”

As the audience whistled, applauded and begged for more, Robinson, who was catching his breath, said, “We should have played that one first. You have New York-ed me again! Right now we’re going to boogie.” He told a story about the origins of Motown Records and about the Temptations. He explained that the next song “came to me as I was driving the Miracles back from the last night of 50 one-night concerts. In those days, we toured in a van and each of us took his or her turn driving. On this night I was driving and the songs just popped into my head.” With that, he took off his jacket and juked his way across the stage to the opening notes of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” The joy was evident on his face as he sang, smiled and danced his way through the song. He declared, “I could have been a Temp.” That smile broadened as the audience joined in for the next two songs: “Get Ready” and “My Girl.”

Not only was Robinson having fun, he was making sure that the evening was an unforgettable one for the entire audience. One little fan was treated to a night she would surely never forget. He brought little Lynseria (who appeared to be about 6-years-old) onto the stage, gave her a kiss and announced that the girl knew all the words to “My Girl.” “You know what that means? When we play here in 2037,” he said, “Lynseria will bring her kids to see us and they’ll know all the words.” He then hugged and kissed the girl’s mother and shook hands with her father. In keeping with the family atmosphere, it was at this point that Robinson told his Stevie Wonder story.

The evening continued as Robinson took it down a notch for “Fly Me To The Moon” from his Timeless Love CD (New Door Records, 2006), “That Place” from 2009′s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun (New Door Records) and “Just To See Her” from his 1987 Motown million-selling album One Heartbeat.

Robinson again took a moment to catch his breath and take a sip of water. It was at this point that he told a fantastic story about what happens when he hears his songs. He said, “People always ask me, ‘What do you do when one of your songs comes on the radio?’” He chuckled and paused for dramatic effect and giggled. “My answer’s always the same,” he continued, “I turn it up! Anyone else who says they don’t or that they’re used to it is lying.”

He picked up the tempo with another of his 1960s classics, “Tracks of My Tears” and the audience again sang along. The evening ended with a slow-jamming sing-along version of “Cruisin’” from Where There’s Smoke… (Tamla, 1979) during which Robinson pitted one half of the audience against the other half in a contest to see which section could sing best and loudest. The crowd ate it up as the master showman made each member of the audience feel special and as though his or her performance during the competition was essential.

As the last notes of “Cruisin’” faded into the ether, Robinson thanked the audience for coming told them that he had a great time and promised to return as soon as possible. When the lights came up, it was apparent that Robinson’s performance had left his fans feeling that they had just been part of something very special.