In the beginning there was Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown records, a writer and producer of popular music that he hoped would one day reach all of young America, a man known for his impeccable ear and relentless drive. So it’s not surprising that the second act Gordy signed to his label was William “Smokey” Robinson, a teenage composer, and his singing group, the Miracles.
Like Gordy, Robinson was a prolific creator — he’s now credited with more than 4,000 songs and dozens of Top 40 hits, including “My Girl” for the Temptations, “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye. But Robinson also went on to sing many of the timeless hits he created: “The Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown,” for openers. He also became a Motown vice president, producer and talent scout. The image of Motown to this day is tied up with the image of Smokey Robinson — both are associated with class and taste and the ability to cross over to white audiences without ever losing the love and admiration of black fans.
Robinson has earned his place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and has been honored by the Kennedy Center. Two years ago he received the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. These days his voice remains sweet and strong — he’s still recording and performing; in February and March he’ll be playing four shows at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas. At 78, he says he’s healthy and happy. When he’s not singing, he’s doing yoga, eating vegan or playing golf. In October we invited music journalist Touré to interview the Motown legend. Robinson was eager to talk about his role in the label’s history but was still mourning the August death of his friend, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin — they’d known each other since she was 6 years old and he was 8 — so we’ll start there.
How are you feeling now about the loss of Aretha?
I’m still in recovery mode, because I love her and I’m going to miss our conversations and our getting together. But I know that spiritually she’s in a better place. She was suffering at the end there, and I don’t ever want to see her suffer. So now she’s cool, and I’m cool ’cause she’s cool.
You and Aretha grew up in Detroit, along with lots of stars — Jackie Wilson, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Mary Wells and more. The Detroit you grew up in was so musically fertile.
There were thousands upon thousands of talented people there. We used to have group battles on the street corners. There were groups that would outsing me and the Miracles.
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But other cities are loaded with good musicians. What was different about Detroit and your era?
Berry Gordy. I believe there are talented people in every city, every town, every township, every village, every nook in the world. But Berry Gordy gave us an outlet.
What was unique about Berry?
He was a music man. When I met him, he was writing songs for Jackie Wilson and other people like that, and he was a record producer. Back in those days, especially if you were black, nobody was paying you what you should be paid, if they paid you at all. So Berry decided to start his own record company and gave us that outlet.
Some record execs succeed because they have the ears and some because they can make the business work.
Most record companies, back then, were run by lawyers or guys who just wanted to go into the record business for a hobby or something. But we had a music man at the helm. Somebody whose first love was music and producing records and writing songs. So that was a real asset for us.
Did he help you become a better songwriter?
What did he teach you?
How to make my song be one idea. When I met Berry, the Miracles had gone to an audition with Jackie Wilson’s managers. Berry was there that day to hand in some new songs. We sang five songs I had written. Jackie Wilson’s managers didn’t like us at all, but after they had rejected us, Berry came out and said, “I liked a couple of your songs, man — where did you get them from?” I had 100 songs in a loose-leaf notebook. But most of them were haphazard, because my first verse had nothing to do with my second verse.
So he showed you how to make them more cohesive?
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Do you have a normal method of writing, like “I want to start with the rhythm and then get to the melody”?
No, there’s none of that, babe. Not for a real songwriter — there’s none of that. There’s no, “Let me start with this first every time,” because then you’re handicapping yourself.
When did you first think, I’m a good singer?
I never thought that. I’m not one of those people. I’m not an ego singer. I’ve never thought what you just said.
You’ve never thought that you were a good singer?
No. I think I feel songs. Whitney Houston was a great singer. Celine Dion is a great singer. Aretha Franklin was a great singer. I’m not in that category. I won’t fool myself. But I feel what I sing, and I think people can feel what I feel when I do.
When did you first think you could be a professional singer?
When I was a professional singer.
You didn’t realize you were good enough until then?
I grew up with some guys who could sing me under the table. All I know is that we were fortunate and blessed enough to meet a man who gave us a chance to make records.
OK, I want to talk about some of those records. “I Second That Emotion” is just an incredible performance. What’s the feeling that “I Second That Emotion” is working with?
When you’re musical, that stuff happens automatically. I do concerts every night, and it’s never the same. I’ve sung “Ooo Baby Baby” 500,000 times, but every night it’s brand-new because I don’t know how I’m going to deliver it. Whatever comes out of me that night is what it is.
What about “The Tears of a Clown”? I love that song.
Thank you. You can thank Stevie Wonder for that.
He wrote that?
I wrote the words; Stevie and Hank Cosby wrote the music. Stevie had recorded that track, and he couldn’t think of a song to go with it, so he gave it to me. I wanted to write something about the circus that would be touching to people. When I was a child, I heard a story about Pagliacci, the Italian clown. Everybody loved him and they cheered him, but when he went back to his dressing room he cried, because he didn’t have that kind of love from a woman. So that’s what “The Tears of a Clown” is about. It’s a version of Pagliacci’s life.
When you put it like that, the song could be a ballad.
The best version that I’ve ever heard of “The Tears of a Clown” is by a jazz singer who did it as a ballad. Her name is Nnenna Freelon. She had a violin crying in the background, and it was beautiful, because it’s a sad song. My version is upbeat only because of the musical track that Stevie gave me, but in essence it’s a sad song.
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You do make me want to cry with “The Tracks of My Tears.”
Well, thank you.
Tell me about that song.
“The Tracks of My Tears” originated with my guitarist, Marv Tarplin, and was cowritten with Pete Moore. Marv put his guitar riffs on tape and gave them to me to write lyrics. The first thing I came up with was, “Take a good look at my face, see my smiling side of the place, be the closest thing to trace, that you’re gone and I’m not.” And I said, “No, that’s not it.” Then, “It’s easy to trace that I miss you so much.” And I said, “No, that’s not it.” Then one day I was at my mirror, shaving, and I said, “What if a person cried until their tears had actually left tracks in their face?” Then I was able to finish the song.
So it took you a while to find that part to finish the song?
Yeah, yeah, but I did that in a couple months. “Cruisin’” took five years. Marv had given me the music, and I loved it. I used to go to sleep by it, I loved it so much. So I kept working on it. Then one day I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and I had my top down, and I said, “I’m just cruis-in’ down Sunset.” And then I said, “Cruisin’! That’s it!” I turned my car around, man. I want that gold!
Tell me about young Michael Jackson. What was it like having him around?
Young Michael Jackson was a man. He didn’t have a childhood. From the time he was, like, 8, they had him singing in the nightclubs. So when he got grown, he became a child because he could do it — he could play, he could do all those things he didn’t do as a child.
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What about Marvin Gaye?
Marvin Gaye was my brother brother. We were together all the time, and he recorded my favorite album of all time, What’s Going On. He was one of the greatest singers ever. I used to tell him all the time, “You Marvinized my song, man.” Because he would do stuff vocally that I had never even dared to dream could be a part of the song.
What is it like to work with Stevie Wonder?
His music covers every genre you can think of — from gospel to jazz and everything in between. He’s just an extremely talented person, and he’s my brother. We always have a great time. We’d be working together and Stevie would come up to me and whisper in my ear, “Hey, Smoke, man, I’ma whoop your ass.” I mean, that’s how we are with each other.
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You were a central figure in the most important label of the century, in terms of music and in terms of social impact. What does that mean to you?
That means everything to me, man. That’s beyond our wildest dreams. Berry and I talk about it all the time. We never dared to dream that Motown would become what it has become. The very first day of Motown, there were five people there. Berry Gordy sat us down and said, “I’m going to start my own record company. We are not just going to make black music — we’re going to make music for the world.” That was our plan, and we did it.
— As told to Touré