Get ready, ‘cause here they come! Broadway.com is taking a deep dive into some of the musical icons who grace the stage in Motown: The Musical, which charts the life of Motown mogul Berry Gordy. Our Legends of Motown series continues with Charl Brown, who gives voice to the incomparable Smokey Robinson. Founder and frontman of The Miracles, Robinson rose to fame as a songwriter, producer and executive—who also happened to be Gordy’s best friend.
Name: Charl Brown
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Role: Smokey Robinson
First/fondest memory of your icon: My first and fondest memory of Smokey is actually from my favorite TV show at the time, Sesame Street! He was singing "You Really Got a Hold On Me" with a giant orange letter U. "U" really had a hold on him and kept hugging and squeezing him as he sang. I remember this being so funny to me as a little boy.
Favorite song sung by your icon: Smokey has written and performed so many hit songs, it’s hard to choose just one, but "Tracks of My Tears" is one of my favorites. I don't get to sing it in the show, but I perform it whenever I get the chance for various events we do to promote the show. I love a good R&B song, and this one tells such a heartwrenching story. Also, the rhythm and blues and poetry of it are so beautiful, relatable and timeless. The man really knows how to tell a story through song!
What does it mean to you to be playing your icon? It is a big deal for me. The songs he has written are so woven into the fabric of our country and culture. He had a huge part in building Motown from the ground up. Not only were he and his group The Miracles the first signed to Motown, but he was also the first Vice President of the company. He had a lot to do with Motown's rise to success and Motown was a company that not only changed the face of music but also the world. It allowed young black people the opportunity to see people who looked and sounded like them in a glamorous way. It inspired people to dream bigger beyond the racial and social constraints of the time. I truly believe this company has a lot to do with breaking down barriers by bringing us together through music. And Mr. Robinson had quite a bit to do with that. Therefore it is an honor and a privilege to play him on Broadway.
Most surprising fact you learned about your icon? In my research of Smokey I learned many things I did not know before, but the most surprising, which he wrote about in his autobiography, was that his first child, Berry (which he named after his best friend to this day and founder of Motown, Berry Gordy), was actually one of the first cases of surrogacy in this country. His wife Claudette and he were having trouble conceiving so they used a surrogate and then because of the laws at that time had to adopt their biological child to have legal parental rights. I found this to be quite interesting and special.
Hardest thing about playing your icon? The hardest thing about playing Smokey is also the best thing—his voice! It is so unique and therefore a challenge to evoke. Though I am not trying or directed to do an impersonation, I cannot become Smokey Robinson without evoking his legendary and iconic sound. Finding where my voice meets his was a challenge. I am a tenor, as he is, but my speaking voice does sit a bit lower than his and I usually don't always sing quite as high or as smoothly. The challenge has been to bring that special authenticity to the sound of the character eight times a week.
Easiest thing about playing your icon? I think Smokey and I have a very similar demeanor, and from what I have gathered from speaking to Mr. Gordy and others about him, as well as having the chance to meet him briefly myself, he seems to be a very easygoing, humble and kind person, yet willing to fight for what he believes in and what is right. He is also very passionate about his art. I find a common thread here between the two of us as artists and people. That makes it very easy to relate to him and find myself in this role.
Which of your icon’s songs do you sing in your show? As one can imagine, the Motown catalogue is so vast and chock-ful of hits that the process of choosing the material has been quite an undertaking. I'm glad that is not my decision! The songs I have performed on stage are "Mama Done Told Me," "Got a Job," "Shop Around," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Tears of a Clown" and "Cruisin’."
If you could meet your icon, what would you say to him? I met Smokey at a press launch for the show last fall. The first thing I said—and the most important thing I can say—is "thank you." I told him what an honor and privilege it is to get to re-tell his story and sing his music.
One word to describe your icon Superstar.
Click here for more Legends of Motown profiles!