India Reynolds sashayed across the stage at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts on Friday afternoon, belting out the 1965 hit “Ain’t That Peculiar” as classmates doo-wopped around her.
For her, this rehearsal was special. There to give Reynolds and the other high-schoolers tips on performance — and on life — was Smokey Robinson, the celebrated Motown singer who co-wrote “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
“I want to be a timeless artist like him,” said Reynolds, an 18-year-old vocal music major.
Before the students took the stage, Robinson encouraged them to stick to their studies even as they pursue careers in entertainment.
“All of you are probably here because you love the arts,” he said. But he reminded them that the “most important thing you can do is academics.”
He also said that he wished there were more schools dedicated to arts and that he is pleased that his music is still performed.
“One of my greatest joys is when I hear other people singing my songs,” he said.
Robinson visited with the students before he was scheduled to take the stage at the Kennedy Center for a Saturday night benefit for the school. The annual Performance Series of Legends concert will feature the school’s show choir.
Rory Pullens, head of the Duke Ellington school, said he was surprised to find that many of his students know Robinson’s music — although maybe not the original versions. The students have heard “Since I Lost My Baby,” which Robinson co-wrote, performed by Luther Vandross.
Series of Legends, which was launched in 2008, has raised more than $2 million dollars for the school to assist with staffing and resources in the arts department, Pullens said.
It began by tapping the talents of alumni — comedian Dave Chappelle (’91) was featured the first year, and opera singer Denyce Graves (’81) took part in the second. In later years, artists such as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire signed on.
Duke Ellington School of the Arts is an accredited college-preparatory public arts school that offers training in fields including museum studies, visual arts, dance, theater, technical design and production, and instrumental and vocal music. The school is free for District students, and those outside the city pay tuition.
Before Robinson left, the students gave him a poem that junior Lauryn Nesbitt wrote for him. Visual arts students formed the poem’s words into the shape of Robinson’s face, and Nesbitt read it aloud.
“I am generations later paying homage today,” she said, describing his music as the “soundtrack of my grandparents’ youth.”