SMOKEY ROBINSON: Motown Classic Interview - Dec 1992
Pete Lewis remembers meeting Smokey Robinson back in late 1992, when the Motown mega-legend gave ‘B&S’ arguably one of his most revealing in-depth interviews ever
Back in the Sixties, Bob Dylan referred to him as "the world's greatest living poet"; today, an entire US radio format - 'The Quiet Storm' - owes its name to the title of one of his Seventies albums. As an artist he is immediately recognisable by his unique high-pitched, tremulous vocal style while visually his equally distinctive blue eyes are striking in their intensity. The awards that have been bestowed upon him are innumerable: The Grammy; places in both the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame; the Soul Train Heritage Award; the NARAS Living Legend Award, to name but a few.
In addition to his sensitive performances on numerous million-selling records both in his own right and earlier as frontman of The Miracles, he has penned some of the most timeless and significant compostitions of the last three decades. From 'My Guy'' to 'My Girl'; from the pathos of 'The Tracks Of My Tears' to the romance or 'Being With You', Smokey Robinson will go down in history as one of the most gifted singer/songwriter/producers of our time.
Recently in the UK for his first live performance in nine years, Smokey impressed his fans with a first class performance and left them the ideal early Christmas present in the form of a new 22 track compilation of 'Greatest Hits', released on Polygram TV.
Born in Detroit, Smokey Robinson was raised by his mother and two sisters and grew up surrounded by the music of jazz greats like Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. In 1954 he joined with high school friends Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore and Ronnie White to form a vocal group which became The Metadors; whose sister group, The Metadorettes, included Bobby's sister Claudette in their line-up.
Smokey takes up the story: "Shortly after we graduated from High School we had the chance to audition for Jackie Wilson's manager", he remembers: "Claudette would always come to our rehearsals and so, since she knew some of our material, we took her down to the audition with us. But Jackie Wilson's managers weren't impressed at all, they rejected us because we looked too much like The Platters, who were already out and also comprised four guys and a girl with a guy lead who sang high. However, Berry Gordy - who at that time was the songwriter for Jackie Wilson - was there, and he was very impressed 'cause he hadn't heard any of the songs that we sang. He came outside afterwards and introduced himself, and then I knew immediately who he was because I had ALL Jackie Wilson's records and I always looked on records and songs to see who'd written them! He critiqued them - he was very patient with me, and he actually was the first one who showed me how to write songs. From that moment on he and I were friends and, after I'd known him for about a year or so, he started Motown."
Before forming the label, Gordy produced some records for Smokey's group who by now were called The Miracles: "Berry had already produced a record for us called 'Get A Job' which was our very first record and released out of New York on this record company called End Records. Then we made another record for them called 'I Need Some Money' backed with a song called 'I Cried'. So we had two records on the End label in New York. And they didn't pay us! So Berry just said he was going to start his OWN record company, and the first Motown record ever was on the Tamla label - a record called 'Come To Me' by an artist named Marv Johnson, but the company was only set up for local distribution. Then we, The Miracles, released a record called 'Bad Girl' on Motown locally, and it was just like a big smash hit in Detroit and the surrounding areas. So Berry sold our national distribution rights, for two records only, to Chess Records in Chicago - and THEY didn't pay us! So then our next record was 'Way Over There' and Berry and I were talking one day, and I said 'Hey man, why don't you just go national with this record because, you know, nobody's paying us anywhere. So what have you got to lose?'... So he did - and 'Way Over There' by The Miracles was the very first Motown record that was a national release, and that was the birth of what started to happen!"
Meanwhile, Claudette Rogers had married Smokey and become Claudette Robinson in time for The Miracles' next release 'Shop Around', which became both the group's and Motown's first national US Number One. However, she was soon to leave the group, as far as touring was concerned: "Pete Moore went into national service in 1963 and didn't come back till the end of l964, and at that time Claudette left so that we could try to have some babies", explains Smokey: "We'd actually found out she was pregnant and had lost a lot of weight and got very ill being on the road. So I made her come off the road. In fact, the last date that she did with us live was here in England. Because we'd never been here before, she came over with us and we all performed here. After that she just retired from the road altogether and we kept trying to have children. We had several miscarriages after that, but finally our son Berry was born... But Claudette always recorded with The Miracles the whole time I was in the group, even though she did stop doing the road work."
This did not however affect the group's success. From the slow-rolling teenage infatuation of 'You've Really Got A Hold On Me' to the dancefloor thump of 'Going To A Go-Go', The Miracles were enjoying hit after hit on the US charts whilst at the same time Smokey was also earning an awesome reputation in the songwriting/production stakes from his work with various other Motown acts. Interestingly, throughout the Sixties, he seemingly was the only big-name Motown act to be allowed to cross the line by Berry Gordy, who otherwise appeared to keep a very definite separation between his artists and his writer/producers. Was this due to Gordy being impressed by Robinson's writing capabilities at their first meeting? "Yes, I think that had a great deal to do with it, and also he had the confidence that I could do it", agrees Smokey: But I should also point out that in those days we had committees where we listened and critiqued everybody's stuff. So actually it wasn't like the other artists weren't writing songs for themselves, it was just that their stuff wasn't up to par to come out."
And how does he remember most of the artists he worked with during this period? "Well, of course Mary Wells was the first artist that I started to work with on a regular basis - the first hit I had with her was called 'I'm The One Who Really Loves You'. I had about five Top Ten records with her, then I did 'My Guy' which was Number One. Then shortly after that she left - she'd fallen in love with her road manager who convinced her to leave because he said he could get her more of everything. I tried to talk her out of it because I knew the guy didn't know what he was doing... But he convinced her, and she became oblivious. It really was a big shame, because I think had she stayed at Motown she could have been around always."
"Then of course came The Temptations", he remembers: "We signed them, I started to work with them, and it took me about three records to get them a big hit - the first one was 'The Way You Do The Things You Do'. Then I started to work with The Marvelettes, and the first really big hit I ever had with them was a thing called 'Don't Mess With Bill'. So, I had several people that I was basically working with exclusively. Then of course Marvin Gaye was there - Marvin had always wanted to sing like Nat King Cole, he didn't want to sing rock type stuff. So he recorded songs like 'Mr. Sandman' and ballads and stuff, but he could never get a hit. Then Mickey Stevenson, who was at the time our A&R director, recorded 'Stubborn Kinda Fellow' on him and put him into another realm, and he started to do 'Hitch Hike’ and songs like that - and eventually I started working with him and had a few hits. But I worked closely with basically everybody. Some of the people I had hits with, some I didn't - I never had a hit with The Four Tops, though I recorded them many times. So some people I just had the right combination with, and some I didn't."
By the late Sixties, The Miracles - by then known as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - had become an American institution, thanks to Smokey's distinctive lead vocals and the quality of his hit songs - like the punchy 'I Second That Emotion' and the poignant classic 'Tracks Of My Tears', which contained some of Smokey's finest lyrics ever. Yet the group's first international Number One actually emanated from the UK, when in 1970 the London office of Motown resurrected a forgotten three-year-old album track entitled 'Tears Of A Clown': "The music was written by Stevie Wonder", recalls Robinson: "ln those days we used to do a lot of collaborating - you know, some people did great music but didn't necessarily do lyrics, and at that time Stevie wasn't doing lyrics. So he came to me and said 'Hey man, I've got this great music. I just can't think of a song to go with it!'. So I took it home and listened to it... The first thing that came to me was that it kind of reminded me of circus music. So when I realised that I said 'Oh, this has go to be something about the circus!'... And a few days later I thought of Pagliacci, which is a very touching story because he was a real person - a real Italian clown, one of the greatest clowns to ever live. He made everybody happy, the kids loved him. But, when he went off to his dressing room he was one of the saddest people in the world. He was just lonely. So I decided to write about him."
"Anyway, we recorded that song in 1967 and nothing happened with it in The States - just an obscure cut on an album. Then in 1970 this girl who worked for our Motown office over here in London said 'Hey, this would be a great hit over here!'. So they released it over here, and it was Number One! So Berry said 'Hey, if it's Number One over there, then we're definitely gonna release it over HERE!'... And it was like Number One all over the world! That was really something, to have a song that just laid around for that time period and then came back like that!"
The hit records may have kept on coming - like 1971's catchy 'I Don't Blame You At All' - but by 1972 the constant years of travelling on the road had taken their personal toll, and Smokey finally decided to split from the group: "When I left The Miracles, the only thing that I really enjoyed about show business was when we actually got out on stage, when we performed to the people - I LOVED that. But everything that led up to that, I HATED it! I hated recording, I hated the travelling, the buses, the planes, trains, limos, the hotels, the restaurants... You know, I'd had it! By that time my two eldest children had been born, and I just really didn't like being away from them too much. You know, when I was with The Miracles, probably 80 to 90 per cent of my life was spent on the road. It took my wife and I a long time to have children, so I wanted to know them in their formative years, and it became harder and harder for me to leave. But then going solo was a scary thing too - something that took a lot of getting used to. But, like I said, performing has always been one of my favourite things in life. So that helped me overcome that."
Smokey's style of songwriting for his first solo album, 1973's 'Smokey', continued his long tradition of writing primarily love lyrics, which he describes as an everlasting subject: "If you write about a dance, about cars or political situations, sooner or later your material sounds passe, dated. But love always has its significance, it never goes out of style and ANYTHING might inspire me. I might see something on television, or be driving down the street and see a road sign, or you might say something to me, and I'd say 'Wow, that'll be a great song'... You know, and if it's a hit I'll give you a credit!", he adds jokingly.
"I look upon it as a gift, because I'm not one of those songwriters who's moody and has to go off to the mountains or the desert and take two months off where I do nothing but write! I'm not like that, I write all the time - probably most days of my lfie I write at least a part of a song, and it just comes, just there. It's just in the air. Everybody has a gift, it's just that some people never discover theirs because they don't pursue it."
However, Robinson did deviate considerably from his normal subject matter on that debut solo LP with the chilling 'Just My Soul Responding'. The track provided him with his first solo UK hit single in the spring of 1974, and featured a big production job, which placed Smokey's mournful vocal alongside a Sioux medicine chant performed by a Navaho Indian. The song’s lyrics protested openly about the injustices in the treatment of the Native American Indians and blacks in America, as well as criticising the Vietnam War: “Maybe two months ago, they approached me with this ‘Greatest Hits’ album and one of the songs they requested to be on the record was ‘Just My Soul Responding’, which was a hit here in Britain but never anywhere else. And it started me thinking ‘Where was I AT when I wrote this song?’. The music was written by Marv Tarplin, my guitarist who has done music for me for so many songs that I’ve written. He gives me music, puts it on tape, I listen to the tape, and it inspires me to go one way or the other. And that particular time I was probably socially angry, because so many things were going on. There was a thing happening in The States at a place called Wounded Knee, where state troopers had gone to put these Indians off their own land - and they were shooting at them and my song reflected that.”
“Then the war started - they were sending all these young men over there, and they didn’t even CARE about that war! They didn’t want to go to Vietnam, they didn’t think those people deserved to be at war with them. It wasn‘t like World War 2 where we’d been attacked and everybody said ‘Well, let’s retaliate!’. Many of them didn’t come back from Vietnam. Some of them came back, and those who weren’t physically maimed for the rest of their lives were mentally maimed! And then the plight of the black man. You know, he’s being pushed into the corner and being told ‘You’re over there and you STAY over there - as long as you stay over there you’re cool. But if you try and come over here you’re not!’! So, there were a lot of things happening, and that’s how that song came out - it’s one of the very few times in my life when I have written a protest song.”
At around this time, many people were actually claiming that Smokey’s move towards a solo career was merely a step taken to facilitate his appointment to the administrative office of Vice President of Motown Records. However, as Smokey recalls, that was most definitely not the case: “When I left The Miracles in 1972 a lot of people thought that was why I left, and so they wrote that. But that’s not true, I’d been Vice President since 1963, when I’d become the youngest Vice President ever of a major record company! That was another thing that made me comfortable and confident that I could leave the group and still have a life because... I had a job! You know, before my life had been such that I’d be on the road for a while then, when I got home, I’d go to the office every day and function as Vice President! At one point I had all The Miracles working at the company! However, it wasn’t financially conducive for them, and the one big thing that made it conducive for me was the fact that I had a Vice President’s budget! Plus, I was also recording and writing songs for all these other people - so I had royalties coming in from other sources, while they only had royalties coming in from The Miracles. So, it was very hard for them - and I so I felt I had to go back on the road on a regular basis for them, because they were my brothers. But then that eventually also became part of my decision to leave. Because I said ‘Well hey, if I’m staying with them and I don’t wanna go on the road, that’s making THEM suffer’… you know.”
While The Miracles actually went on to achieve their biggest-selling single EVER in 1976 with the gimmicky global disco smash ‘Love Machine’ (which featured Smokey’s replacement Billy Griffin on lead, who also co-wrote the song), Smokey actually had to wait until late 1979 for his first million-selling solo single - the sensual, haunting ballad ‘Cruisin’’. However, its US success was not repeated in the UK, where Robinson enjoyed his first solo Number One two years later with the lilting, summery ‘Being With You’. This also marked one of the comparatively few occasions when he did not produce himself, the producer being George Tobin, famed for his work with straight pop acts like Kim Carnes and later Tiffany: “I have a tendency, when I hear one of my songs by another artist, to get the record and study that artist, and then write two or three songs and send them to the producer to see if I can get another record made by this artist”, reveals Smokey: “George Tobin had recorded one of my songs ‘More Love’ with Kim Carnes and it was a Number One in The States. So, I wrote four songs for her, and ‘Being With You’ happened to be one of those songs. So I called George, went over, sat at the piano and played them for him… And when I played ‘Being With You’ he said ‘Wow, man! I like you singing that song - I’d sure like to record you doing that!’! I said ‘No man, this song is for Kim’. He said ‘Why don’t you come to the studio tonight and we’ll just make some demo records for her of these four songs, and you just sing them’. So I went down to the studio and sang it. However, when it came out and he gave me the demo, he said ‘Man, listen to this. I’m telling you, this is a hit for YOU!’! So that night I took it home and listened to it... And he was right! That WAS a hit for me!”
While Smokey has not since repeated the dizzy heights of international pop success, he did continue to regularly hit the Top Ten in the American black music charts for several years after, until being faced, as both artist and Vice President, with the difficult prospect of Motown Records being sold to the MCA conglomerate in 1988: “Yes, I was still Vice President and part owner”, he continues: “And of course I hated selling Motown because it was a legacy, such a profound history-making event, especially for black people. I tell people all the time that we were so fortunate in Detroit because Berry Gordy lived there. You see, it isn’t like Detroit had all these talented people more so than anywhere else in the world - because that same amount of talented people are in every big city in the world, every township, every province… But we had Berry Gordy! We had this man who said ‘I got this dream!’. He had the guts, he had the fortitude, he had the will... All these things to make this thing happen. So it gave the young peopIe of Detroit an outlet, somewhere we could go and say ‘Hey man, I got a good song’, and somebody’d say ‘Oh great, let’s put that out!’! There have been so many political things that have been done, so many laws passed, and so many things that Ministers and people like that have been doing to unite the world - to unite people - and Berry Gordy did it without demanding one thing, just did it with music!”
“You know, when we first started to make records in Detroit”, continues Smokey: “There were places surrounding Detroit - Cross Point, Birmingham, places that were exclusively white areas. We’d get letters from the white kids and they’d say ‘Hey man, we got your music, but our parents don’t know it. We wouldn’t be allowed to listen to it’... Eventually we started getting letters from the parents ‘Hey man, we’re so glad our kids got your records because there‘s no race to it!’! Berry Gordy’s idea of making music was to make music that had a great beat with some great stories that would transcend all kinda barriers all over the world. That’s exactly what happened you see, and so to sell Motown in 1988 was like ‘Here goes part of my life’. However, Motown was hurting Berry Gordy because he was so involved. He couldn’t divorce himself from it, couldn’t pull away; it was tearing him down. So, in that light, I had a choice - either Motown or Berry. I had mixed emotions. But, as far as I’m concerned, ONE HUNDRED Motown’s can go - I’d choose Berry over Motown ANY time!”
Smokey continued recording as an artist for the new regime under then-new president Jheryl Busby for a couple of years. But then, in early 1991, came the shock news that he had left the company he had been such a part of: “Over a period of time, a lot of people left and some people came back”, he explains: “But I always figured throughout the years that all those people could leave, and it wouldn’t be as detrimental to Motown as it would have been if I’D left - ’cause everybody knew my history at Motown. So I always thought that that would be like a blow, and I never wanted Motown to suffer a blow. So, of course I was gonna stay there, and I WOULD have. But it just turned out that the inner working became so messed up, and the promotions were terrible. Plus, they went on another sorta programme, where the only people that they could get played was the younger people who were into a hip hop kinda bag. So, in talking with Jheryl Busby, he felt that was going to be the lifeblood of what was happening there. So, of course, I just had to leave.”
A sad state of affairs indeed. But, ever the professional, Smokey immediately signed a deal with the EMI-affiliated SBK Records, a newly established New York-based label whose multi-millionaire success to date has been mainly in the pop field, with fresh-faced acts like female trio Wilson Phillips and rapper Vanilla Ice: “I’m new because I’ve always been at Motown, and SBK is a new company”, replies Smokey on an optimistic note: “But I think they have to tools to make something happen. And, though what I want to happen for me hasn’t yet happened there, I’m very optimistic that eventually it will. Because it’s like two new people starting out together.”
Smokey’s first single and album for SBK are both entitled ‘Double Good Everything’ and were released Stateside last year but have not, he admits, been the immediate success everyone was hoping for. But it is early days yet, and in the meantime he is busying himself composing for his first Broadway musical to be entitled ‘Hoops’ with a story based on the Harlem Globetrotters.
Let’s hope it won’t be too long before the original Quiet Storm rages again!
To coincide with Motown’s 50th Anniversary, Smokey’s album ‘The Definitive Collection’ is released January 26. His album ‘A Quiet Storm’ follows April 6
Words PETE LEWIS