Bobby Rogers of the Miracles died recently at the age of 73. "Another soldier in my life has fallen," Smokey Robinson said in a statement to CNN. "Bobby Rogers was my brother and a really good friend. He and I were born on the exact same day in the same hospital in Detroit. I am really going to miss him. I loved him very much."
As lyrics from "Shop Around," "Tracks of My Tears," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "I Second That Emotion" reverberate in my head, I'm reminded of a different emotion that I'd shared with Bobby Rogers and his fellow Miracles Ronnie White and Pete Moore on a March day in 1967.
I was co-chairman of the social committee at tiny Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. My co-chair, Ken Miller, and I had just won the first-ever campus-wide election for social chairman and our campaign pledge to the students of Bethany College was that "we'd bring Smokey and the Miracles to campus" if we were elected.
Elected we were and thanks to Kenny's contacts in the Pittsburgh area where we both haled from, we booked Smokey & the Miracles to appear at Rhine Field House on a gloomy March 5 Sunday in 1967. Part of the kicker for us was that we had to drive from Bethany to the hotel in Pittsburgh where the Miracles were staying, bring them to Bethany (guitarist Marv Tarplin and the rest of the band were driving separately), do the Sunday night concert (for which we must have gotten a discount), and then drive them back to Pittsburgh!
It was going to be a very, very long night, but having grown up snuggling with someone I had the hots for to ballads like "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Tracks of My Tears," I was ready to do anything to hear Smokey & the Miracles live.
While I don't remember much about the ride to or from the concert, I do remember the lilt of Smokey's voice when we met him in the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel and how he took his gloves off to shake hands. His hand was soft and warm.
"Hi, I'm Smokey," he said in his sweet voice and that was that.
And given how long ago 1967 is and the fact that I was "working" during the concert that night, I don't remember much about their set except they sang all their biggest hits and premiered "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" that night. Not the greatest Smokey & the Miracles song, but it has a special place in my heart because that's the first time I ever heard it -- and live no less.
But what I do remember vividly about that night was what happened after the concert. The guys (Claudette Rogers-Robinson wasn't with them) had decided to do one long set rather than two shorter sets with an intermission so the show wrapped up at 11 instead of closer to midnight. Their "dressing room" was the boys' locker room in the Bethany College gym and Kenny and I waited for them on the bleachers after they changed and the crowd had cleared out. I watched as they walked slowly, single-file, toward us from the locker room across the gym floor that just minutes ago had been filled with almost a thousand adoring fans. A basketball backboard and hoop was stationed behind and above the bleachers we were sitting in since it wasn't retractable. I saw that Pete and Bobby kept looking up at the hoop as they headed in our direction.
By the time they reached us, Pete shyly asked: "Man, I would love to play some ball right now. I haven't shot any hoops for a long time." I thought Pete was joking but then I saw that Bobby and Ronnie were nodding their heads. I turned toward Kenny and Smokey to see what they thought. Smokey waved at us.
"Go ahead and knock yourself out," he laughed. "I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter."
And he sat. And so did Kenny who wasn't much of a baller or an athlete for that matter. But I was a huge player and fan and was thrilled by the prospect, regardless of what time it was. I raced to the locker room and came back with a new Wilson basketball. We quickly collapsed the bleachers (moving Smokey and Kenny) and squared off. Pete and me against Ronnie and Bobby.
Our dress shoes sounded funny and out of place on the hardwood floor and we slipped and slided a little too much. But our inner city playground basketball genes eventually took over and the next thing I knew we were all in t-shirts, sweating, dribbling, shooting, hustling, and talking trash.
We played to 7 by ones and split two games. Bobby was taller than the three of us and was killing us on the boards, tipping in missed shots and grabbing rebounds. As we geared up for the rubber match, Smokey's voice, not as lilting and sweet as before, rumbled across the gym.
"Game over! We gotta get back."
We slung our shirts and jackets over our shoulders and began to head out. I looked behind me to see Bobby Rogers waving at me to throw him the basketball.
"You gotta make your last shot," he smiled at me as he caught the pass and banked in a short jumper.
And so you did, Bobby. You and Ronnie (who died in 1995) -- and Pete and Smokey. You always made your last shot.
And one of those times I got to pass you the ball.
Rest in peace, brother.