Gather your best-known hits and divvy them up among your pals and admirers: It’s become a go-to move for musicians of a certain age, including John Fogerty, Tony Bennett and Lionel Richie, who scored an unexpected No. 1 album in 2012 with “Tuskegee.”
So it was only a matter of time until Smokey Robinson, the R&B legend with a trove of classic tunes, got into the act. But if the all-star duets record is beginning to feel like a legacy-burnishing obligation, Robinson, 74, sidesteps that vibe on the breezy “Smokey & Friends,” a would-be museum piece with some real air in it.
That’s partly due to the fact that Robinson still sounds like a singer on active duty -- no surprise to anyone who heard his solid (if significantly lower-profile) “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun,” from 2009. Even better was 2006’s dreamy “Timeless Love,” his crack at another established old-timer’s project: the standards album.
Here he harmonizes beautifully with Mary J. Blige in “Being With You” and floats so effortlessly through “Quiet Storm” that John Legend comes off like a desperate overachiever. And there’s nothing about his performance in “My Girl” – as part of a quartet with Miguel, Aloe Blacc and JC Chasez, each decades younger – to suggest that age need diminish a vocalist’s elasticity.
Yet “Smokey & Friends” works too because Robinson appears to have given his guests carte blanche with his material, gamely accompanying Elton John as the latter growls his way through “The Tracks of My Tears” and ad libbing cheerfully over James Taylor’s country-funk groove in “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
Are we in need of a version of “You Really Got a Hold on Me” streaked with Steven Tyler’s alley-cat screech? We most definitely are not. But Robinson’s song is strong – it can withstand the abuse.
“Smokey & Friends”
2 and a half stars
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