Clowns, Maybe, but No Tears: How Human Nature got Smokey Robinson’s Stamp of Approval
Posted by Andrew C on Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
Despite all the talk of New Year’s resolutions, clean slates, and fresh starts, it’s a simple fact of human nature (no pun intended) that we all like to take stock of how far we’ve come before jumping into what’s next. In particular, we can’t help but consider the individuals who believed in us enough to lend credence to our goals and turn possibilities into realities. For Human Nature, perhaps the most influential of these supporters is a man they admired long before they had the privilege of calling him a friend. His name, of course, is Mr. Smokey Robinson.
The brief explanation of Smokey’s impact on Human Nature’s career is right there in the title of their Vegas stage show, which will be celebrating one full year at the Venetian this January: “Smokey Robinson Presents Human Nature: The Motown Show.” As fans have come to learn, though, that name has far more meaning to it than your typical showbiz promotional tie-in. In fact, a more accurate title might have been, “Smokey Robinson Believes in Human Nature,” since the genuine interest and support from this Motown legend didn’t just help put Human Nature at the Venetian… it helped them find the ultimate validation for years of hard work.
“The way we got in touch with Smokey was when we were recording our third Motown record in Australia,” recalls Phil Burton. “We wanted it to be a little different from the other two and have something special. So we thought a great way to do that would be to perform some duets with original Motown artists. From there, we were able to get in touch with Smokey, and we were happy to learn that he’d heard of us through our earlier Motown records and liked what we were doing. So he said he’d be happy to work with us.”
For Human Nature, this was basically the equivalent of Michael Jordan agreeing to play on your local basketball team, or Robert DeNiro saying he’d be delighted to appear in your new film.
“And it only got better when we finally did meet him in person,” Burton continues. “He was very receptive and really fell in love with what we did and offered to help us in any way he could. So, just a few years later, he’s now presenting us here in Vegas and is really one of our biggest supporters. And we’re really lucky to have him. I think having him on board, as well as people like the Holland Brothers, Martha Reeves, a member of the Temptations—they’ve all seen our show and have told us, ‘You do a really good job. We’re really flattered that you’re doing what you’re doing.’ So for us, that’s really important to know.”
Not just important, but liberating. As Burton freely admits, Human Nature’s Motown projects were always motivated by strong emotions, and a healthy bit of apprehension and doubt were certainly mixed in with the excitement, passion, and joy.
“When we first started doing this music, we actually worried, are we bastardizing this? Are we kind of roots-stomping all over a great legacy here, or are we actually being sympathetic to it all? And to have these legends tell us they love what we’re doing is just the most amazing compliment. It couldn’t possibly mean more to us.”
As an added benefit of getting Smokey’s stamp of approval, Burton and his bandmates have also been able to take away a few extra lessons from their legendary friend—a Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer who was also integral to running the Motown label’s business with founder Berry Gordy.
“One thing Smokey talked about that’s really stood out to me is when Berry sat down and told everyone in the early days of the label, ‘We’re not just going to make black music here. We’re making music for everybody.’ And that’s what they did. And so for us, that’s one of the big things we’ve gotten from Smokey. The fact that four white guys from Australia are doing this music now is just a justification of their total accomplishment of that goal—to make music for the entire world. You couldn’t get further removed from two black guys in Detroit than four white guys in Sydney. But that just makes them all the more happy that they achieved their goal.”