"All right, is everybody ready?" Smokey Robinson doesn't so much ask as demand, at the launch of "Mickey's Monkey." You'd better be ready: It's Smokey! The chiming cascade of "lum di lums" that wind through the song, one of Robinson's umpteen hits, are as sweet as vanilla ice cream, but don't you fucking forget that Smokey Robinson means business.
Though he lacks the vocal gravity of his soul-singing contemporaries, Robinson's oeuvre is marked by a joviality and gracefulness on songs spanning dance crazes ("Mickey's Monkey") and heartbreak ("Tracks of My Tears"). For the most part, Robinson's songs are stamped with the same emotional tenor, a gleeful nostalgia for love that's almost there or almost was. His voice is high and clear as a trumpet, buoyed by the kind of vintage American optimism that doesn't really seem so American anymore. Despite the lightness, Robinson still sounds like soul. He helped invent it: Smokey was a prototypical Everyman, an early figure of music-industry multitasking. While he penned and sang an unending stream of hits, Robinson was also the vice president of Motown Records for almost 30 years.
His list of hits—garnered as a solo artist, with his group the Miracles and in his most staggeringly brilliant capacity as a songwriter—shames even the most successful career artist: "Try Something New," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Shop Around," "My Girl," "Way Over There" and a trillion more. Now a casino fixture with a disturbingly ironed-out visage, Robinson has earned his right to chill out and reap what he's sown. "It's Smokey!"