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Smokey Robinson: The Master of Motown

| February 17, 2011 | 3 Comments

Born in Detroit on February 19, 1940, William “Smokey” Robinson spent his childhood mixing a love of Sarah Vaughan’s voice with dreams of becoming a cowboy. When Smokey was 7 years old, his father took him on a trip through the American Southwest, presumably to offer him a glimpse into the rigors of a rancher’s life. Apparently the excursion had its intended effect, for upon his return, Robinson forsook all thoughts of becoming a cowpoke and began directing his passions exclusively toward music.

By age 16, Robinson had formed a vocal group called the Matadors and crossed paths with a young lyricist named Berry Gordy Jr. who proffered compliments mixed with some advice, and a teacher-student relationship was born. Little did either man know just how fruitful that relationship would become.

Formed in 1958, Motown Records mushroomed in the span of just five years to become one of the most successful record labels in America. Centered on Gordy’s business savvy and Robinson’s prodigious talents as songwriter, singer and talent scout, the company thrived throughout the ’60s. Among the hits written by Robinson and recorded by the Miracles during the decade were “Shop Around,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” and “I Second That Emotion.” Perhaps fittingly, the song many consider the group’s finest ever – 1970’s “Tears of a Clown” – became the Miracles’ last major hit.

In addition to writing classic hits for the Miracles, Robinson spent much of his time at Motown composing and producing songs for the label’s other acts. “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “My Guy” are merely a few of the classic songs written or co-written by Robinson for fellow artists like Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and the Temptations. Even the Beatles jumped on the Motown bandwagon, covering the Robinson-penned “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” on their 1963 album, With The Beatles.

In 1972 Robinson left the Miracles and Gordy appointed the singer – still a mere 32 years old – to the position of Vice President of Motown. Robinson also began to contemplate a solo career, and continued to write songs with long-time Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin. Following a move to L.A., where Gordy had expanded Motown’s business empire to include film and television, Robinson quietly released his first album sans the Miracles, simply titled Smokey.

Over 50 years later, one can look back in awe at the consistency and the attention to craft that characterizes Robinson’s body of work. His third solo effort, the critically heralded A Quiet Storm, even spawned a new radio format – one built upon soft, romantic music. Hits have continued to come as well, most notably 1979’s “Cruisin’” and 1981’s “Being With You”. This week Universal Music released Volume 4 in the series of Robinson’s solo albums with Love Breeze and Where There’s Smoke.

There’s a lot of celebration going on in Robinson’s world now, including a rave performance at New York’s Apollo Theater this past Tuesday, and a performance at the White House on Feb. 24 to honor the Motown Sound (to be broadcast on PBS on March 1). And we want to add to that with a big happy birthday, Smokey! Thank you for the wonderful songs and musical memories you’ve given us.

Do you remember when you first met Berry Gordy?

Oh, yes. I was just 16 years old when I met Berry. He was a songwriter at the time, and he was writing for Jackie Wilson. Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol. I had all his records, so I knew who was writing songs for him. But I met Berry quite by chance. The Miracles and I went for an audition for Jackie Wilson’s managers, and Berry was there to turn in some new songs or something.

Anyway, we sang about four or five songs I had written, and I suppose that impressed Berry, him being a songwriter himself. We didn’t get signed, but Berry followed us out when we left, and he approached me. He asked me where I had gotten those songs, and I told him I had written them. That’s when he told us who he was, and I just flipped out, because I already knew his songwriting so well.

Did he immediately begin making suggestions to you about songwriting?

Yes, pretty much. The thing is, I was always good at rhyming. I was able to make things rhyme really well, but my songs didn’t make much sense, lyrically. The first verse would be about something altogether different from what the second verse was about. And then the bridge would go into something else, something different from what the two verses were about. So Berry sat me down, and he explained to me that a song is like a short book – or a short film, or a short story, or a short poem – where everything is tied together. He said a song needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it needs to mean something. And since that moment, I’ve always written with that in mind. I always try to make my songs mean something.

And the subject you choose to write about most often is love.

That’s right. That’s why I choose to write about love, because love, I hope, is a never-ending subject. It never goes out of style, and it never becomes passé, and it’s never going to be something people don’t know about. You can write about cars, or political situations, or dances or something that like, but those subjects, pretty soon, become passé. Love is something that’s here to stay, I hope, and that’s why I choose it as my subject matter the great majority of the time.

Do songs ever surprise you? Do you ever think, “Where did that come from?”

No, because I really do see them as gifts from God. I think I know where they come from, although I am surprised sometimes by how profound the ideas can be. To have a phrase come to you that says something differently from the way something has been said before can be an exciting thing.

Am I remembering correctly that your 1979 hit, “Cruisin’,” was a song that came to you in stages, or was something you worked on piecemeal over time?

Yes, exactly. “Cruisin’” was started by my guitarist, Marv Tarplin. Marv’s been with me since the days of the Miracles, and his work has always inspired me to write. In the case of “Cruisin’,” he had put that music on a tape for me, and I wrote two or three songs to that music, including the chorus for “Cruisin’.” The idea came to me when I heard the song “Groovin’,” by the Young Rascals. I had already started the chorus…[sings] You’re gonna fly away / I’m glad you’re going my way / I love it when we’re…But at that point, I couldn’t figure out what I loved, or what we were doing. Originally I was thinking of saying, I love it when we’re groovin’ together, but that just didn’t seem right to me, because “Groovin’” had already been done. But I liked the way “groovin’” sounded, so “cruisin” ultimately came out of that. (Laughs) People can make up their own minds about what the word means.

“Tears Of A Clown” was written by you, Tarplin and Stevie Wonder. Can you talk a bit about how that song came together?

The way it started was, Stevie Wonder had that music. He had the track, but he couldn’t come up with a song to go with it. So he gave it to me and asked me to see if I could do anything with it. The track already had that circus [riff] in there…[hums the opening bar]…so I decided I wanted to write something about the circus that would be touching. Well, the most touching story I’d ever heard about the circus was the story of Pagliacci – the clown who made everybody laugh, but who was sad himself, and who would go to his dressing room and cry because no one loved him. “Tears of A Clown” is about Pagliacci.

Going back again to the days when you hooked up with Gordy – have you always been an astute judge of your own material?

I think I have, inasmuch as I know that when something is finished, at that point I’ve given it my all. I always go for writing a song, as opposed to making a record. For me, the song is the main ingredient. There are albums that have gotten by without having good songs on them, but they tend to be one-shot deals. But there’s always a place for good songs, and I always start from that premise.

You saw many great albums recorded at Motown. Is it fair to say that, of those albums, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On had the most profound effect upon you?

No doubt about it. That’s my favorite album of all time. It’s my favorite of all the albums in the history of recording. And if you listen to it now, it’s even more profound than it was when [Gaye] was writing it, and doing it. At the time he was making the album, he told me that the album was being written by God. He said he was just an instrument, and that God was writing this album because he wanted that message out. And I can buy that, because the message remains so significant today. I think it’s the greatest album ever.

Of all the awards and accolades you’ve received over the years, are there two or three that you hold especially dear?

Yes. The ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award is one. Only about five songwriters in the history of ASCAP have received that, and to be placed alongside people like George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin is a special honor. Being in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame is another thing that’s special, as is being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those honors mean a lot to me because they are for al time. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that someone living in the year 2525 will know I was here.

—Interview by Russell Hall

From Performing Songwriter Issue 42, December 1999

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. Jim 'YesterYearAudio' O'Beirne says:

    I will never list a number ONE songwriter of all time because it is SO debatable, but to me Smokey is in the TOP 3. He has had such an impact on the years of music dating from the ’60’s to now that can NOT be denied. A musical genius, and so humble in his character, he only wanted to write music about love and all of its fallacies and complications because he felt that songs of love were everlasting, and therefore would be accepted and played forever. I am not limiting his talent in that statement, nor am I judging him. His genius was particularly in rhyming, and THEN composition of the song, making a song into a short story, that (vitally important) would connect with a massive percentage of people (young and old) as descriptive of their own particular situations. I do not know for a fact that Smokey himself ever experienced all of the emotions that his songs described, but I can tell you that he did the best job of anyone alive or dead in the past 300 years expressing them in song. An absolute LIVING LEGEND, that will be remembered, and listened to for hundreds of years from now. Happy Birthday, Smokey!!! Love you man!! Jim O’Beirne, Yester Year Audio

  2. Endy Daniyanto says:

    “You can write about cars, or political situations, or dances or something that like, but those subjects, pretty soon, become passé.”

    I think political situations tend to repeat themselves actually, on the fundamental level. There’s always war going on also, and plenty other subjects besides love in the human lives that tend to have cycles and/or similarities between generations. So other topics besides love should also be explored by songwriters (Bob Dylan did it).


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