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‘Vegas is the place to play’: Motown legend back on Las Vegas Strip

Updated April 25, 2024 - 4:11 pm

Smokey Robinson remembers his first live performance. It was also the first time he saw Ray Charles play live, and the first time he visited a legendary theater.

“It was in New York, at the Apollo Theater, I was 18 years old, and we were on the Ray Charles show,” Robinson recalls. “It was a big thrill. In fact, I’m getting ready to back to play the Apollo in a couple of months, because I will always play there. It’s the granddaddy of black music.”

Charles famously stepped up to help Robinson and the Miracles (who had just changed their name from the Monarchs) prepare for that show in 1959. The group was so raw they lacked proper charts for the house band. Robinson was not a hit that night, but had a radio hit with “Bad Girl.” And he would record many more hit songs, spanning generations.

Robinson is scheduled to play The Venetian Theatre at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Motown pioneer

Alongside Berry Gordy, Robinson effectively developed the Motown Records empire and that label’s indelible sound. “Shop Around” was Motown’s first No. 1 R&B hit. “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “More Love,” “Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder) and “I Second That Emotion” are all in Robinson’s catalog.

Over the years Robinson has been a legendarily prolific songwriter for such superstars as The Temptations, Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway and Marvin Gaye. His hits include “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “My Guy.” “Just to See Her,” “Quiet Storm,” “Cruisin’,” and “Being with You.”

At 84, Robinson is still fit and a master of his performances. “I lead a very normal life,” he says. “When I’m not doing shows or something career-wise, I’ll go to a golf course, or do different things that people do normally.”

A start at MGM Grand

Obviously, Robinson can easily fill a greatest-hits show, as he has for decades. His performance history in Las Vegas dates to the original MGM Grand, before it was turned over to Bally’s, in 1980. Dean Martin was headlining the Celebrity Room at 8:30 and 11 p.m. But he wanted no part of the late show.

“This was in the era where you had to play two shows a night in Las Vegas, and I never really wanted to play there because of that,” Robinson remembers. “But my agent called me and said, ‘Hey man, Dean Martin doesn’t want to do the 11 o’clock show, and you can do your own music.’ I was interested in that, and that’s what got me started in Las Vegas.”

Human connection

Robinson developed a legacy outside of his own performances by presenting Human Nature, the Australian Motown group, on the Strip. Human Nature opened 15 years ago this month at Imperial Palace (today’s Linq Hotel), a four-man ensemble of Andrew and Michael Tierney, Toby Allen and Phil Burton. The act is a three-man group today, with Burton moving to Australia five years ago.

The Tierneys and Allen just wrapped a weekend at South Point Showroom, where they still recite their meeting Robinson in Australia and singing “Ooo Baby Baby” with a video of a 1960s-era Robinson playing on the video screen.

“They are my guys, and they will always be my guys,” Robinson says. “They are extremely talented. The three guys are carrying on, and they’re doing great. I’ve seen them. They are doing absolutely fabulous.”

A Vegas Renaissance

R&B is experiencing a revival in Las Vegas. Several R&B and hip-hop artists have been burning it up on stage and at the box office. Bruno Mars at Dolby Live, New Edition at Encore Theater, Jodeci at House of Blues, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds at Pearl at the Palms, Jason Derulo at Voltaire at The Venetian, Wu Tang Clan at Virgin Theater and Boyz II Men at the Cosmopolitan are among the star headliners propelling this trend.

“That’s definitely right, and I think it’s great,” Robinson says. “I think it’s because of the fact that the acts have started to play Las Vegas, because there was a while when the high-caliber acts from that genre thought Vegas was a graveyard. It was the last resort. But not now. Vegas is the place to play, and these are the acts people want to see.”

Cool Hang Alert

On the topic of the soul of Motown, how about “Soul of Motown.” The beloved R&B act plays 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; and 5:30 pm.m. Wednesdays and Thusdays at Westgate Cabaret. Great energy, vocals and choreographed grooving. Go to westgateresort.com for intel.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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