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- Posted on Mar 8th 2010 8:00AM by James Sullivan
Raphael Saadiq introduced himself to one of his idols, Smokey Robinson, a couple of months ago at a breakfast joint near Saadiq's Los Angeles home. Saadiq, the former Tony! Toni! Tone! singer who uncannily channels the vintage soul sound on his most recent album, 'The Way I See It,' is 43 years old. The Motown great just turned 70.
Like the Saadiq album, Robinson's latest, 'Time Flies When You're Having Fun,' features a guest appearance by Joss Stone, the British retro-soul ingenue who began recording her debut album the week she turned 16. Like Robinson, who jokes that his recent birthday was his 29th, classic soul doesn't age. It just gets better with time.
Robinson, who will make the keynote address at this year's SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas, is the headline act on a knockout bill (sponsored by AOL and Spinner) at the Austin Music Hall featuring Saadiq, funky Brooklyn, N.Y., big band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Detroit love child Mayer Hawthorne and Austin's own garage-R&B brawlers Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. It's an exhilarating cross-section of the contemporary soul scene, which is creating common ground for hard-core hip-hop heads, 'American Idol' fanatics and retro revivalists. SXSW attendees can head over to 208 Nueces St. at 7PM on Friday, March 19 to catch this sure-to-be-unforgettable concert.
In a conversation with Spinner, Robinson speaks about visiting with his best friend, Motown founder Berry Gordy, the night before. In addition to his own hits with the Miracles ('You've Really Got a Hold on Me' and 'The Tracks of My Tears' are just two of dozens), Robinson wrote many of the biggest hits for the label's other acts, including the Temptations, the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. Having celebrated the label's 50th anniversary last year, Motown's two principal figures are still amazed by the longevity of their work together.
"On the very first day of Motown, there were five people there," says Robinson. "Berry sat us down and said, 'We are not going to make just black music. We're gonna make music for the world, with some great beats and some great stories.' That's what we set out to do, and thank God we accomplished it, way, way beyond our wildest dreams of that first day."
For Saadiq, who started singing gospel as a kid in Oakland, Calif., and was raised on his older siblings' Temptations, Stylistics and Earth, Wind & Fire albums, questions about a "soul revival" have been coming up since the beginning of his career. To him, the music has never gone away.
"It's like a great pair of shoes," he says. "If you spend $300 on some shoes, you can probably wear them 20 years later. If you buy some cheap shoes, you're never gonna wear them again.
"This music was made with a lot of love and talent, from the heart. It wasn't a trend -- nobody was thinking about SoundScan when they did it."
"To me, it's not a classic soul revival. It is a good songwriting revival," says Hawthorne, the Michigan newcomer whose Stones Throw debut, 'A Strange Arrangement,' has attracted plenty of attention for its spot-on originals, which sound like newly discovered Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson tunes from the vaults.
Already in his young career, Hawthorne has had the privilege of meeting Lamont Dozier, the middle man in the great Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and has earned the admiration of Snoop Dogg and Ghostface Killah, among others. But sharing a bill with Robinson will be a dream come true, he says.
"Smokey is my favorite because he wrote all the catchiest songs, but they're also sort of left-of-center. His songwriting is a little strange" -- not for nothing is Hawthorne's album called 'A Strange Arrangement' – "and that's why I really love his stuff."
Robinson, in addition to singing as well as he ever has on his new album and his occasional appearances on 'American Idol,' has lent his name and periodic guest appearances to the yearlong Las Vegas residency of Human Nature, a vocal quartet from Australia who have been a blockbuster pop act Down Under since the mid-1990s. All but unknown in America, the group has been earning five-minute standing ovations for its Motown revue at the Imperial Palace Casino. The group is on the verge of renewing its contract for another two years.
"They're kicking butt," says Robinson, who first met the group when he was asked to Australia to help promote the first of their three classic-soul tribute CDs. "These guys are the Beatles in that area of the world. They do one of the greatest versions of 'Ooo Baby Baby' I've heard in my life."
"We're constantly amazed that he's been so open and giving," says Andrew Tierney, who makes up one-half of Human Nature with his brother Michael. Every night onstage, Tierney disarms the audience by cracking jokes about the four white guys from Australia doing Motown.
"I would be skeptical, too," he admits. "But if Smokey believes in us, then I'd say we're doing something right."
Tierney says his group, friends from their school years, came to appreciate classic soul by degrees. The four were urged by their late mentor, Australian promoter Jack Neary, who brought the Beatles to the country and had been in vocal groups himself as far back as the 1930s, to study Motown groups such as the Temptations and the Four Tops.
Tierney recently met the daughter of Ron Miller, the late Motown staffer who wrote several of Stevie Wonder's earliest hits. When she mentioned 'A Place in the Sun,' Tierney had to admit he'd never heard it. He says he didn't know that British soul singer Paul Young's 1983 hit 'Wherever I Lay My Hat' was a cover of a Marvin Gaye b-side until well after the song charted.
"When those gems are unearthed," he says, "it's like finding gold."
Hip-hop crate diggers have been burrowing for soul nuggets far deeper than the Motown catalog for years, of course.
"I discovered a lot of the soul music I love through hip-hop, digging for the samples," says Hawthorne, who counts DJ Premier, Pete Rock and the Public Enemy Bomb Squad productions among his favorite resources.
But it's the Motown songbook and similar hits of the period that remain instantly familiar to generations of 'Idol' viewers. Like the great American songbook that gave so many jazz singers their material, Saadiq says, classic soul songs are the standards of modern pop singing.
"It's a great thing to travel the world and see how many other people are inspired by some of the same people I'm inspired by," he says. "It's a worldwide beat in everybody's heart."