It's time for a flash, Smokey 4th of July

On any 4th of July, PBS puts on a festive show, with a rich blend of music and the fireworks. This year, however, could be particularly fun, with Smokey Robinson at the core. That's one of three big-deal TV concerts on Monday, the 4th; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As July 4 nears,
skies and spirits seem to brighten.

This is a time for
upbeat music and moods. Then again, that's Smokey Robinson's usual

Robinson is at the
core of PBS' concert, one of three TV specials on the Fourth. He's a
guy who can even make “Tracks of My Tears” and “Tears of a
Clown” seem festive; that attitude goes way back.

“When I was 5 or
6, my mother would tell me a lot of parables and not explain them,”
Robinson said. One was the man who was sad about having no shoes,
until he met someone with no feet.

This philosophy has
taken him through his own hard times, including his mother's death
when he was young and his later problems with divorce and cocaine.
And it prepared him for that first meeting with Barry Gordy, the
future founder of Motown Records.

“He reminded me of
me – so excited and passionate about his music,” Gordy wrote in
“To Be Loved” (Warner Books, 1994).

Robinson had been
listening to music throughout his Detroit childhood. “I grew up in
a musical family,” he said. “We listened to everything – blues,
gospel, jazz.”

He wrote lyrics at
5, sang for his school at 10. At 17, he had a group (the Miracles)
and a notebook with about 100 songs.

That was in 1957,
when he spotted Gordy (a successful songwriter at 27) and asked to
show him some of his work. Soon, each song was being criticized.
“Instead of being upset, he got more excited with each criticism
.... His enthusiasm after each rejection really impressed me,”
Gordy wrote.

They drove together
to pick up the first release by the Tamla (later Motown) label, Marv
Johnson's 1959 “Come to Me” -- getting stuck in the snow twice.
They got some airplay with the Miracles' “Got a Job” and “Bad
Girl”; then came their “Shop Around” ... which was already on
the radio, when Gordy phoned Robinson at 3 a.m. to say they had to
re-cut it – right then – with a faster tempo.

“It was an odd
request,” Robinson grants now. But “he was our leader, so we did
what he said. I'm glad we did.” The song reached No. 2 on
Billboard's pop charts.

The Miracles would
have other hits, from “I Second That Emotion” to “You've Really
Got a Hold on Me.” And Robinson kept writing for others in Motown;
this is the guy who wrote or co-wrote “My Guy,” “My Girl,”
“Get Ready,” “Ain't That Peculiar,” “Don't Mess With Bill,”
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” and more. Bob Dylan called him
“America's greatest living poet.”

Back then, Motown
was a group activity. People would debate songs, deciding who fit
what; they would record them in one crowded room, now preserved as
the Motown museum.

“I think it's
better that way,” Robinson said. “Now people record one piece of
a track and then send it to someone else. You don't get that same

It was a formula
that scored big. In the last week of 1968, with Robinson as its
vice-president, Motown had five songs in Billboard's top 10 – two
by the Supremes and one each by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the

Robinson would go
solo in 1972, but kept his vice-president job until Gordy sold Motown
in '88. He cut back on road trips for a while, but now, at 76, talks
passionately about touring.

“That's where the
fun is,” he said. “Every show is different. We have a celebration
every night.”

Especially, perhaps,
if it's the night of July 4.

4th of
July concerts (each with fireworks):

-- PBS, 8 and 9:30
p.m. (check local listings): From Washington, D.C., with the National
Orchestra, stars of pop (Smokey Robinson, Gavin DeGraw), gospel
(Yolanda Adams) and Broadway (two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster,
Christopher Jackson of “Hamilton,” the cast of Gloria Estefan's
“On Your Feet”). Also, alumni of TV's “Glee” (Amber Riley),
“The Voice” (Cassadee Pope, Alisan Porter) and “America's Got
Talent” (Jackie Evancho).

-- NBC, 8 and 10
p.m.: From New York, Kenny Chesney, Meghan Trainor, 5 Seconds of
Summer, the Rockettes.

-- CBS, 9-11 p.m.:
From Boston, with the Boston Pops: Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Little
Big Town.