The Library of Congress bestows the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and the 2020 winner is country crooner Garth Brooks. Even so, on the first weekend of the new year, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) did not show the award ceremony for Brooks, and nothing appeared for 2019 winners Emilio and Gloria Estefan or 2017 winner Tony Bennett.
That same weekend kicked off National Football League playoffs but those who tuned into PBS saw a marathon show for 2016 Gershwin Prize winner Smokey Robinson. The show was taped on November 16, 2016, and aired on February 13, 2017. With Brooks, Estefan and Bennett grabbing the Gershwin Prize after that, some viewers may have been puzzled that PBS went with Smokey Robinson, but they wouldn’t have been disappointed.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1940, the “Tracks of My Tears” composer had supplied the soundtrack for countless Baby Boomers. His group, the Miracles, was Motown’s first vocal ensemble and Smokey’s 1960 “Shop Around,” became the first million seller for Barry Gordy’s label. Robinson was also the force behind Motown hits such as “Get Ready,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” covered by the Beatles.
Host Samuel L. Jackson said his first 45 was by Smokey, explaining that a 45 was “a record not a gun.” That drew some laughs but the show was all about the music.
On the nearly two-hour broadcast, various artists performed Smokey’s hits, backed by a top-drawer band. The marathon “Get Ready” rocked the place and Jo Jo’s soulful rendition of “Who’s Loving You?” had Smokey and Barry Gordy leading the cheers as the packed house shouted for more. They got it, with performances by The Tenors, Esperanza Spaulding, Kip Moore, Tegan Marie, Corrine Bailey Rae and others.
In the fullness of time, Smokey Robinson took the stage his own self. He paid tribute to George and Ira Gershwin, and recalled the time when “the song was king.” Smokey’s performance of “Our Love is Here to Stay,” erased any doubt that the Motown star still had what it takes as a singer, and that he richly deserved the Gershwin Prize. On the other hand, the broadcast left some doubt whether Smokey Robinson was the real star of the show.
Smokey’s performance gave way to a delegation of politicians including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The San Francisco Democrat got the loudest applause, in an audience stacked with Democrats such as former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, repeatedly shown during the broadcast. During the “My Girl” finale, the camera dutifully cut to a smiling Nancy Pelosi, as though the show was all about her, and in a way it was.
The taping took place shortly after the 2016 presidential election, which Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won. After that stunner, with Trump Derangement Syndrome surging, the old-line establishment media gave more attention to loser Hillary Clinton. Republicans held on to the Senate and also took the House, so no surprise that PBS would seize the opportunity to showcase Nancy Pelosi, who gave way to Republican Paul Ryan as Speaker.
President Donald Trump was not on the ballot in 2018, as Democrats took back the House and reposted Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. Pelosi spearheaded the drive to impeach Trump, holding the party-line vote just before Christmas break. In these conditions, it comes as no surprise that PBS would bypass Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett and Gloria Estefan, or past Gershwin Prize winners such as Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson, to re-run the 2017 broadcast that showcased Nancy Pelosi. As the San Francisco Democrat knows, another dynamic is in play.
The budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is $449 million, the bulk of it from direct government grants trickling down through Congress. President Trump has sought to eliminate that funding, so the PBS re-run was also about keeping the taxpayer dollars coming. With Nancy Pelosi’s hands on the purse strings, PBS bosses are always singing “My Girl.”
By contrast, no taxpayer dollars were involved the creation of Smokey Robinson’s music or the establishment of the Motown label. Barry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and many others teamed up to produce records that people liked and wanted to buy. That’s how the free market works.
Meanwhile, at this writing Nancy Pelosi is still refusing to move along the articles of impeachment to the Senate, as the Constitution demands. For his part, Sen. Mitch McConnell is willing to move forward on a trial without agreeing to rules about witnesses and without any votes from Democrats.
It’s not Nancy Pelosi’s show anymore. As President Trump says, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.