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Parting Shots

The Soul of Soul: Smokey Robinson

ďIím living beyond my wildest dream,Ē says 66-year-old Motown legend Smokey Robinson. With an equal amount of charted hits under his belt as his years, Robinson could easily rest his laurels on his 4,000 song-plus catalog. Yet the sultry soul master is as indefatigable as ever, releasing a collection of standards earlier this summer with an aim to release an album of original material in the near future. The man who penned such classics as ďMy Girl,Ē ďI Second that Emotion,Ē ďThe Way You Do the Things You Do,Ē ďMy Guy,Ē ďYou Really Got a Hold on MeĒ and ďTracks of My TearsĒ checks in with Relix.

Youíve written over 4,000 songs. Between your solo career and that with The Miracles, youíve had 66 chart hits. Tell me something about the muse thatís been so good to you.

God gives everybody a gift. Everybody has one. Some people never discover what that gift is, they donít explore themselves enough to finally get to it. But everybody has a gift. Everybody has a blessing of a gift and thatís my blessing and that what my gift is. I was fortunate enough to find it at an early age in life and to have it be my life. Itís a blessing.

When did you first discover your gift?

It was my childhood dream to do what Iím doing. Iím getting a chance to live my dream. Iím living beyond my wildest dreams, man. By being in show business and being in this business for as long as Iíve been in it, Iím living way, way, way beyond my wildest dreams. Iíve always had this dream. And here I am.

Youíve gotten to for so long, youíre 66 now.

Actually, Iím 35 but thatís the age they promote out in the streets. [laughs]

Your voice still possesses all the sultry soul sweetness that it did. Whatís the secret?

I tell young people this all the time who are aspiring singers, people who Iíve met who are just getting their singing break, who ask me that question about what do you do if you get hoarse or sick or anything. The best thing is to take care of yourself. Thereís no magic remedy. Thereís no, ďYou drink this tea and you put some lemon in it or drink some honey.Ē No, no, noÖ The best remedy for that is to take care of yourself. To understand that yourself is a daily job; yourself is a daily upkeep. So thatís what I try to do.

This new collection is very much, to a degree, a throwback though in certain ways itís very contemporary. Why this music now?

These songs are the first songs I ever heard in my life, as a child, in my home. My mom, and I had two older sisters, this was the music that they played. And I love songs and I love songwriters. And I always, when I hear a song I like or love, I want to know who wrote it and Iíve been that way all my life. These are not just a collection of songs that I looked at from a standard list of tunes and said, ďOk, Iím going to sing this, this, this, this.Ē No. For the last 14 years or so, Iíve been singing at least one or two of these songs in my live show every night. I actually have seven more that we kept in the can. So there are about 20 of them. These are songs that Iím very familiar with. Even when I recorded them, my first inkling was to record them live. And it turns out that I didnít get a chance of doing that but I did the next best thing for me because other than the string players, everybody on the record, we in the studio at the same time. The musicians were in there playing as I was singing, which is unheard of in todayís recording market. We had a ball. So thatís how I recorded it, to get that live kind of feedback.

Given how legendary these songs are, particularly the renditions you heard growing up, how do you approach these songs from a recording perspective? It would seem so intimidating.

I sing them like I sing them. Every song that I sing, I try to sing it like me. Iím not trying to emulate what has been done with those songs because I would never try to emulate Ella or Sarah Vaughn or any of those people. They were instruments. [laughs] Youíre talking about two of the greatest singers in life.

See, these songs, were written when the song was king. When a song came outóa writer wrote a hit songóeverybody in the recording business or and in show business basically either sang or recorded that song. Iíll just use ďOur Love is Here to StayĒ which is one of our main thrust songs off of this CD. When ďOur Love is Here to StayĒ was written by the Gershwins, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis, everybody recorded that song, you know what I mean? It was written when the song was king. So thatís where these songs come from. And when I sing them, I just try to sing them like I feel them.

What is king today in your opinion?

The artist. See, there was a shift over in about the mid Ď50s when Elvis Presley and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, all those guys like that, started to record. There was a shift over to the focus being on the artist. And then many artists were recording original material that they had written.

Would it be fair to say the Motown combined both those aesthetics, a focus on the song and the artist?

Yeah, exactly.

Have you written anything recently?

I write almost everyday of my life. At the same time I was recording this particular CD, in fact one of my songs is on the Timeless Love CDóďI Love Your Face.Ē Iíve been in the studio for about a year and eight months because Iím also doing a CD of original material right now. I havenít finished that one. I finished this one up first so that I could get this one out. I am in the studio right now as we speak. I write all the time, man.

So many of your lyrics connect with people on such a personal and emotional level, how often have they come out of real experience?

You know what I do? Life is my inspiration. I donít have to experience everything that I write about. It would be impossible for one person to experience everything in life. But Iím an observer. Iím a people watcher and a thing watcher. I see things in life and I just want to write about them. I donít have to stub my toe necessarily to know that it hurts. I see billboard signs or something in the newspaper or you might say something that could trigger an idea, you know what I mean? [laughs] Thatís how I write. Iím not one of those writers who needs to take four months off and go to the mountains and isolate myself so that I can write or go down to the beach and rent a little hut. No, no, no. It happens to for me everyday of my life, basically. I can be in my car, in the bathroom. Thereís no place or set thing. The lyric comes first and then comes melody or the melody comes first and then comes the lyric. No, it just happens.

So I have to ask, does Smokey Robinson sing in the shower?

All the time.

Given your integral role on the business-side of Motown Records, how does one sit on both sides of the production glass as it were, knowing how to balance the interests of both the artist and the business?

Well, Barry Gordy is my best friend, ok? Heís the guy that founded Motown. I met Barry Gordy quite by chance at an audition for the group that turned out to be The Miracles, we werenít called that then, that we went to for the guys who managed Jackie Wilson. Jackie Wilson was also from Detroit and Barry Gordy had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson up until to that point. I had all of Jackie Wilsonís records because Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol as a kid growing up. When I buy a record, I look to see who wrote the song. So I knew that Barry Gordy was the writer of those songs and he happened to be at that audition that at which we sang five songs I had written. We were rejected by his managers because we had a girl in our group and there were four guys and I had a high voice and the guy told us, ďThereís already The Platters. The Platters are already popular and stuff like that, so you guys will never make it.Ē

So Barry Gordy was sitting there and I thought he was a kid waiting to audition next. He came out after we were through and approached me about the songs and I told him that I had written them and then he introduced himself as being Barry Gordy and said he liked a couple of my songs. That flabbergasted me. Thatís how we hooked up with Barry Gordy and about a year after that we started Motown.

On the very first day of Motown, there were only five of us there, and Barry said, ďSo, weíre not going to make black music. Weíre going to make music music. Weíre going to make music for everybody. Weíre going to make music with some great beats, some great stories and thatís how weíre going to approach making music.Ē Which we did. With only five of us, everybody did everything, you know what I mean? We went and got the first records. We packaged them up, we took them to the radio station, all the stuff like that and very shortly after we started Motown I was made a vice-president. So, Iíve always been on both sides of the fence. I loved my job as a vice-president because I was liaison between the artists and the company. By sitting on both sides I could see what was happening on both sides of the fence. It was there from day almost for me.

In Detroit in the 1950s you literally grew up alongside Aretha Franklin and so many other phenomenal talents. What do you think catalyzed people to perform at that place and time?

Iím going to answer your question like this. If youíre talking about all the talent that came to Motown and all the stuff like that, the key to Detroit at that time was Barry Gordy because I guarantee you every city, every town, every township in the entire world, in ratio, has that amount of talent. Even if youíre in a little village somewhere where no one would ever hear them, the people in the village know about them. So everywhere has that same amount of talent ratio-wise. Itís just the fact that we were fortunate enough to have Barry Gordy. Barry Gordy was a man who had a dream and he had the wherewithal to pursue his dream and to make that thing happen like that. He had people alongside him that had that same dream who wanted to make that happen.

Itís exciting to think how much potential there is for undiscovered talent out there.

Absolutely. Thatís why the kids coming up nowadays are so very, very, very fortunate that we have shows like American Idol. Even the kids who donít make it to the last 12 people, when they are seen on American Idol, they are seen all over the world by millions of people at the same time, immediately. We didnít have that back in those days.

How do you feel about the dynamic American Idol creates given that the viewers vote? That itís not people like you and Barry deciding whoís going to get a shot.

I think itís a wonderful thing. I really do. It becomes a popularity contest instantly and some of the kids go a lot further than I think they should go because their supporters call in. This particular time, if it had just been left up to me, Katharine would have won hands down. They had some good singers there, some great people and the young man who won, heís wonderful, a great talent. But Katharine was the best there, to me.

I thought Chris Dautrey was going to win. He doesnít quite have the range though.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Chris is a great singer and all that, but I did not think he was going to win. I thought it was going to be down to the last two it was down to; I really thought it was going to be those two. The young man who won is so charismatic.

I remember reading somewhere that Marvin Gayeís Whatís Going On is your all-time favorite album. If so, what are your next four in no particular order?

Thatís a real tough question (sighs). I know one of them would have to be Tapestry [Carole King]. And my Quiet Storm album. AndÖ man, thatís a tough question. [We let Smokey off the hook with those two]

Innumerable artists have covered your material over the years. I was curious if you ever heard the Grateful Deadís or Jerry Garciaís versions of ďSecond that EmotionĒ or ďThe Way You Do The Things You Do.Ē

I hear all of Ďem, theyíre all sent to me. Donít ask me what my favorite one is though. [laughs] As a songwriter, thatís a songwriterís dream. When I sit down to write a song, Iím trying to write a song, man. Iím not trying to write a record. Iím trying to write a song. I want to write a song that if I had written it 50 years before then it would have meant something. Itís going to mean something at the present time and 50 years from now itís going to mean something. I do not want to sit down and try and write a hit record because you never know what thatís going to be.

Take A Timeless Love and the songs that are on that CD. Some of those songs are way older than me, man, but people still recognize those songs. Theyíre still being sung, theyíre still being recorded. I want that for my music. So when I hear one of my songs being done, however the person interprets them, itís a dream come true for me as a songwriter because I wanted to write a song. I wanted to write a song that would be re-recorded and re-recorded from now on, forever. Way, way, way, way after Iím gone, I want people to still be listening to my music and recording it. So if I write a song, itís got that chance. Itís got that possibility. I am very, very flattered by that. Most of the people who have re-recorded my songs are songwriters themselves. And even if they werenít, there are millions upon millions of songs for them to have chosen to record. And they chose one of mine, I canít beat that.

Have you ever noticed a difference in the U.K. audience versus the American one? They both seemed to bolster your career at different points.

I just came back from England. The audiences from around the world are great. Even the countries you go to where they donít speak English, the audiences are the bomb because they know the music. See thatís the beauty of music, music is universal.

In the late Ď50s, I was just getting started as a kid recording, so I didnít go anywhere till the Ď60s. Probably the greatest denominator that I guess youíre asking me, one of the most wonderful things I heard was when The Beatles became really popular and they recorded some Motown songs. And they said, ďWe grew up listening to Motown. Motown was a big inspiration for us.Ē So that was wonderful.

Youíve said that ďMotown is the greatest musical event that ever happened in the history of music.Ē Why?

You had all those artists and all those writers and all those producers making that many hit records back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back. It became a worldwide event. Nothing like that had ever happened before or since.

Smokey Robinson was interviewed by Josh Baron.


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Relix Magazine - WideSpread Panic
September/October 2006
(on newsstands 9/5)

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Also in this issue:
SCENE & HEARD
Mindful music from around the globe: The Beat, Soundcheck and Fragments

GLOBAL BEAT
The Brazilian Girls

PARTING SHOTS
Soul legend Sam Moore

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