When Smokey sings I hear violins,” crooned Martin Fry in 1987. “When Smokey sings, I forget everything.”
Few would have any argument with the sentiments of ABC’s 1987 hit. To hear Smokey Robinson sing is always a heart-stopping experience. To hear him when he’s two feet away and singing just for you is something else altogether.
Smokey sings like other people breathe. He just can’t help himself. Mention one of your favourite hits by The Miracles and Smokey will look you in the eye and generously treat you to a few bars. Ask him to shed light on how he wrote a certain song and, by way of explaining how a certain couplet was constructed, he’ll sing it to you in that glorious, androgynous falsetto of his. At moments like these, you can’t help but quake.
It is now forty years since William “Smokey” Robinson penned Shop Around, Motown’s first million-selling single. Through the 60s, he was extraordinarily prolific, not only writing and recording a long string of hits with The Miracles, but also undertaking writing and producing duties for the rest of the Motown stable. His best songs (My Girl, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, The Way You Do The Things You Do, I Second That Emotion, The Tracks Of My Tears, The Tears Of A Clown…) became instant classics and earned him the title, “America’s poet laureate of love”. No figure in popular music has written and sung about the heat of romance quite so poignantly. To date he has more than 4000 songs to his credit.
To mark his 70th birthday, he grants an exclusive audience to Jon Wilde at a West End hotel, serenades him with a few Motown classics, and explains how he came to be the label’s undisputed king.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
SR: I remember like it was yesterday, Jon. At the age of six I wrote a song called Goodnight Little Children for a school play. I sang it and my mother could not have been more delighted. She was nudging people in the audience, telling them, “That’s my son up there.” For months afterwards, I had to sing that song down the phone to friends and relatives. By that time in my life, I was fascinated with music. It was always playing in the house – blues, gospel, classical, jazz, you name it. All I thought about was music. Other kids would save up their dimes to buy candy. There was a songbook they used to sell in the shops called Your Hit Parade. It came out every month and cost a quarter. I’d buy it every month and read it over and over. I was always fascinated in how people put together words to make a song.
As legend has it, when you first met Berry Gordy in 1957, you were carrying around a notebook with more than 100 songs inside.
SR: That’s completely true. I carried around a loose leaf notebook from school and I’d accumulated these 100 or so songs. At the time I was singing with The Matadors who went on to become The Miracles. We’d gone to audition for Jackie Wilson’s management in New York. Jackie was my number one singing idol at that time. For me, he’s one of the best ever. Anyway, Berry Gordy had written all these hit songs (like Reet Petite and Lonely Teardrops) for Jackie Wilson at that point so he happened to be at the audition. He looked so young. We were just teenagers ourselves so I assumed that Berry was waiting to audition next, like he was just another singer in the queue. We sang for these guys and they told us we would never make it because we had a girl in our group and I sang high. The Platters had the same set-up and they were world-renowned, so they said we had no chance of competing with The Platters. But we’d performed these five songs I had written rather than cover someone else’s material. We left the studio and we were totally dejected. It felt like the end of the world, really it did. Then this young guy, Berry Gordy, came after us and asked where we’d gotten those five songs from. I told him I’m written them and he was amazed, said he’d like to use those songs. When he said his name was Berry Gordy my jaw hit the ground. He was still working on the Ford production line but he’d already written all these great songs for Jackie Wilson and Etta James (All I Could Do Was Cry) so he was already a legend to me. He took me back into the studio, sat down at the piano and had me sing some Frankie Lymon songs for him. He told me he liked the sound of my voice, told me that there was no-one out there who sounded like me. He asked me if I had any more songs and I had plenty. So I must have sang twenty songs for him that day and he never once told me he was tired or that he’d had enough.
Did Berry Gordy have anything to teach you about writing songs?
SR: Oh sure. Berry could teach me something about every song I’d written at that stage. See, I never had any trouble finding rhymes for words. That came easy to me. My problem was that I had something like five songs going on within one song. Often the first verse had nothing to do with the second verse and the second verse had nothing to do with the bridge. It was just a bunch of ideas all rhymed up. It was Berry who made me see that. He encouraged me to construct songs professionally. He told me that first day, “A song should have a beginning, a middle and an ending, and it should all tie together.” He made me see that a good song could be like a short story or a little movie.
Would you agree that the key to a good song has as much to do with what you leave out as what you put in?
SR: That’s it, exactly. A song should hang together in the way you portray it for people. But it’s often a good thing if you fade out to leave the listeners to make their own conclusions. A little mystery or ambiguity is no bad thing.
That’s instinctive a lot of the time. But there have been many times when I’ve done it on purpose. I call those “mind songs”. I’ll leave the conclusion up to the listener. Cruisin’ (1979) is one of those songs. After all these years I still get people coming up to me debating what “cruising” means. Some people have bets with each other about what the word means. Is it about driving? Is it a gay song? Is it about sex? I always say to them, “I meant whatever you want it to mean.”
Berry Gordy was once asked to define the Motown sound and he said that it was a combination of rats, roaches, love and guts. Would you go along with that?
SR: I know what he means by it. He’s talking about where we all came from. He’s talking about the groups on Motown and the rough places where we all grew up and the love that existed in those homes despite all the poverty and dirt. Then there’s the guts needed to come out of that situation. We were all from poor backgrounds, that’s the thing we had in common. As for the Motown sound I’ve heard so many theories and explanations. For me the Motown sound was about the people who were there: the writers, the artists, the producers. It was about all of us in combination. When Motown started having hits people came from all over the world to record in Detroit. They were convinced that there was something in the air of the city that could be captured. But we recorded those songs all over the place. They weren’t just recorded in Detroit. So it wasn’t about the city. It was about the people and those people had an honesty about them. They were telling the truth in those songs. And those songs were for everyone, people of all colours. On the first day that Motown set up business, there were five people present including Berry Gordy and myself. Berry stood up and said, “We’re not going to make black music, we’re going to make people music, music that everyone can enjoy, music with great stories and great beats.” And that’s what we set out to do. It was always about the people. When there was any dispute about which song from a batch we were going to release as a single Berry would say, “Let’s ask the people.” Right outside the Hitsville studio we’d wave cars down and ask the drivers if they wanted to hear some new Motown songs. Of course they wanted that. So we’d bring them into the studio, play them a few songs. The one they liked the most, that became the single. It happened a lot.
How do you remember your early live shows with The Miracles?
SR: They were crazy and that’s the truth. See, we caught the final wave of vaudeville. Wherever we performed we’d be on the same bill as a tap-dancer, a stand-up comic, a dog who jumped through hoops and maybe a woman who did tricks with balloons.
By the mid-60s you were writing, recording and producing. You were also scouting for talent for Motown. You said the thing you were looking for was charisma. Which individual on Motown embodied your idea of charisma at its fullest?
SR: I think just about all of the Motown artists had it. We looked for “it”. That quality was more common than not.
How would you describe the recording sessions at Motown?
SR: A lot of the time it was loose and informal. We had these ping pong tables in the studio and everyone would hang out and play. We were lovingly competitive. If someone needed something adding to their record, we’d be happy to oblige. Like with Mickey’s Monkey. That song is a party in itself, right? We had not just The Miracles but Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (from The Supremes), Martha & The Vandellas, Eddie Kendricks, The Elgins …we had a studio full of people singing along on that record. (Sings) “The people see him dancing they begin to see, See this cat do that monkey thing…”
What are your memories of touring Britain for the first time?
SR: It was wonderful but kind of surreal, a little like landing on another planet. It was the little things that struck me. Like the fact that the British toilet roll was like wax paper. That took some getting used to. When I first came to London, men were wearing bowler hats. That was strange to me. It was like walking into a movie. Nowadays you go to any major city in the world and things are pretty much the same. You get the same department stores and coffee shops everywhere you go. Even in Europe it’s like visiting another city in The States. Back then the differences were amazing to me. Growing up in the hood in Detroit I’d never have believed that one day I’d be walking the streets of London. I always loved visiting Britain. The sense of humour cracked me up. The first time I saw Monty Python I wept with laughter. It was so risqué, so over the top, I’d never seen anything like it.
It’s clear that The Beatles and The Stones learned plenty from Smokey Robinson, but what did you learn from them?
SR: I have to take my hat off to The Beatles who were the world’s first humungous rock band. They were like this enormous life force. They came along and acknowledged that they’d grown up listening to black music and that they were inspired by blues and R&B. A lot of bands had the same experience but they didn’t say it. I loved The Beatles for their honesty. To me, The Beatles were like soufflé and The Stones were a pot roast. The Stones looked like they were out to whip your ass. They were down and dirty. The Beatles had a lot more class. I admire both bands. A few years back I went to the Super Bowl in Detroit. There was a big protest that year because the main half-time attraction was to be The Stones. Bands like The Temptations and The Miracles were singing before the TV started its coverage. People were coming to me asking what I thought, whether the local bands were being treated second. I told them to sit back and watch The Stones perform, then tell me what they thought. Of course The Stones tore the place off the map. They rocked that stadium to its foundations. They kicked ass like you wouldn’t believe. They showed everyone there that they still had it and they had every right to be doing the gig.
In 1967 Bob Dylan described you as America’s greatest living poet. How did you feel about that statement?
SR: First of all I think it was a wonderful thing for him to say because Bob is a hell of a songwriter himself. He’s a great artist, a mainstay. Any of your peers making a statement like that, it’s flattering. Bob might seem aloof but he’s a fun guy to be around. Maybe he was goofing around when he made that statement. I don’t see myself as a poet. I’m no Wordsworth. I don’t even think of myself as a singer to be honest with you. Pavarotti was a singer. I can’t compete with someone like that. I think of myself more as someone who feels his way into a song. I’m a feeler, not a singer. Maybe that comes from the time I started out when everyone assumed I was a girl because of my high pitch.
How quickly or how slowly do you write songs?
SR: Some come real quick, others real slow. Shop Around took me no longer than twenty minutes to write, start to finish. After twenty minutes I had the arrangement in my head, everything. (Sings) “Just because you’ve become a young man now, there’s still some things that you don’t understand now…” It was written for Barrett Strong who’d had a hit with Money (That’s What I Want). I played it to Berry Gordy the same day I wrote it and he said, “This is a song for you and The Miracles.” And that became Motown’s first million-seller.
The Tracks Of My Tears took two days to write. The melody was all there and I had the opening lines, “Take a good look at my face…” Then the image came into my mind of someone who had cried so much that, if you looked closely enough, those tears had actually made tracks in their face. And that was it. Once I’d got that image fixed, the words poured out of me. (Sings) “People say I’m the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two…”
The Tears Of A Clown came about in a similar way. Stevie (Wonder) approached me with a tape at a Christmas party, asked me if I’d like to put some words to his melody. I took the tape home and played it. To me, the first image I got in my mind was a circus. So I ran through all kinds of circus subjects: trapezes, elephants…nothing that would make for a moving song. Then I thought about Pagliacci, the clown who made everyone laugh in the ring, then went home alone and cried. As soon as I had that, I had the whole song.
Cruisin’ actually took five years. My guitar player Marv Tarplin had written this sexy melody but I couldn’t find the right words to go with it. One night I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard and this song came on the radio, Groovin’ by The Young Rascals. I thought that “grooving” was a word that might fit the song I was trying to write. But it wasn’t quite right. When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I retraced my thoughts. What was I doing when I thought about “grooving”? Well, I was cruising in my car. Cruising? It hit me like a tidal wave. That was the title of the song. It all just flowed from there.
Were you ever tempted to follow Marvin Gaye and do an album of social comment?
SR: I only ever did a couple of songs in that vein. One of them, Just My Soul Responding, was a hit in the UK in 1974. But social comment wasn’t really my thing. I heard other people doing that and I can’t think of too many of those songs that have lasted. That said, Marvin’s What’s Goin’ On was my favourite album when it came out in 1971 and it’s still my favourite today. It’s an incredibly powerful work. When Marvin was working on those songs through 1970 I’d go round to his house just around the corner from mine. I’d sit there while he worked at his piano. He said to me, “Smoke, I gotta tell you, God is writing this album. I’m not writing it. I’m just the catalyst.” That album is more poignant today than when it was released. Those songs say more about the world we live in today than they say about the early 70s. In other words, those songs were prophetic. But I can’t think of any other songs of that ilk that have been prophetic. I prefer to sing about love, an ever-lasting subject. There’s a million ways of falling in love and feeling love. As long as there are two people alive on the planet there will be love. That gives my songs every chance to live on. I want to write songs with staying power, songs that still have meaning to people long after they’ve been in the charts or whatever. As a songwriter I know there are no new words, no new chords and really no new ideas. When I write a song I know I can’t write about something totally original. But I can take a theme and give it my own twist or find a way of saying something differently.
Having created such an immense body of work in the 60s, did you ever feel a pressure in living up to your past?
SR: My past never felt like a weight. I just didn’t think that way. I’m never thinking that I have to write a better song than The Tracks Of My Tears, Going To A Go-Go or I Second That Emotion. When I wrote those songs I wasn’t thinking how big a hit they would be. I was just trying to write another song. I’m never trying to out-do myself or compete with my own past. If you try to do that you’re making too much pressure for yourself and you’ll almost certainly fail.
I love my life and I love writing songs. I don’t have to be happy to write a happy song or sad to write a sad song. I don’t need to go off into the mountains for two months and live in total isolation just to write songs. Every day of my life a song just comes to me. It may only be a scrap of a melody or a phrase. That’s all I need. I can build from there. It’s a blessing, an amazing gift. Some people have those gifts but they don’t realise they have them. I’m lucky in that I knew the gift was there and I made use of it. I’m always thinking of song-writing. It never stops. Even when I’m asleep, I’m dreaming about songs. I might even get a song out of this interview we’re doing here. If I do get a song out of it, I’ll make sure you get a credit, Jon. Truthfully I never know where or when the next song is coming from. But one thing never changes. I never lose my hunger for writing songs. Sometimes it’s frustrating when I’m trying to finish something and I know it’s not as good as it could be. But mostly it’s a joy, a pure joy.
Your life was scandal-free until the 1980s when you struggled with cocaine addiction. A lot of people were surprised when that became news.
SR: Listen, I was more surprised than anyone. I’m not entirely sure how I got involved with coke. At that time I was basically a happy man. I wasn’t looking to escape my life in any way. I didn’t even feel that my career was in bad shape. Being With You had been a huge hit around the world in 1981. My problems with drugs started after that. I just got caught up in the illusion that I was having fun, that’s all. I guess I started doing it because the people around me were into it. I was a victim of temptation, pure and simple. At first it was fun. Then it stopped being fun and it almost killed me. I was addicted to cocaine for two and a half years and it turned me into a walking corpse. I stopped doing it in May 1986 and I haven’t touched a drug, not even an aspirin, since that time. I had to pray to get myself off that stuff. Church worked for me. Rehab works for some people. Just do what you have to do. But don’t let that stuff kill you. Don’t kid yourself that you will be the one who can handle it. Because coke doesn’t discriminate. Cocaine doesn’t care who you are or what you’re about. Whether you’re a singer, a doctor or the guy who runs the grocery store, it will eat you alive.
How have you managed to cope with the demands of fame?
SR: Just by keeping normal, remaining true to myself. So many people create a frenzy around themselves so they get further and further away from the normal world. I never let that happen to me. If I’m on tour I’ll have one guy to drive me around and one guy to take care of my security. If I’m not on tour I’ll do everything myself. I’ll drive myself around. I’ll do my own shopping. I’ll play a round of golf at the local course. I’m meeting all kinds of different all the time and I treat them all as equals. Why wouldn’t I? I’m no more special than they are. I see people who become successful, achieve a certain level of fame, and they allow their own lives to become a prison. I’ve never allowed myself to lose sight of the fact that I’m living my wildest dreams being able to do what I do for a living. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It just means I’ve been exceptionally blessed. I sign autographs all day. I’ve never refused a single one. These people have bought my records. Why wouldn’t I be nice to them?
Apart from getting into drugs I can’t think of a single downside to fame. And, when I stop to think about it, it wasn’t fame that got me into drugs. That was all my own doing.
Finally, how would you like to be remembered?
SR: I’d most like to be remembered as a good person. I’m a firm believer that being essentially good is far more important than what you might go on the achieve in your life. Hopefully that goodness is there in the music.