The sweet sound of William Robinson's songs has been working miracles for generations. Beginning in his doo-wop days in 1950s Detroit and continuing through his solo career, Smokey -- the nickname came from a favorite uncle, partly to remind the light-skinned, blue-eyed youth of his African-American roots -- is regarded as one of America's finest singers and songwriters. His lyrics, mostly first-person accounts of an ideal love found, or the perfect sorrow of love lost, have an elegant simplicity and offbeat clarity that prompted Bob Dylan to refer to him as "America's greatest living poet."
Robinson grew from a musically aware family in a neighborhood of singers. He found his performing self by singing lead in teenage vocal groups like the Five Chimes and Matadors. Initially concerned that his voice was too high or feminine, he never looked back after he heard the high vocals of Clyde McPhatter, the lead singer of the Dominoes. Robinson's own smooth siren song -- building on a long tradition of falsetto singing in black blues and gospel as well as doo-wop -- defined the sound of his newly named Miracles. They in turn, with Smokey as the leader, became the prototypes for Motown's roll-out of polished and powerful vocal groups that would dominate American pop music throughout the 1960s.
The Motor City would perfect the assembly line in producing cars from Chevys to Caddys for newly mobile post-war Americans of all backgrounds. It also was the birthplace of this dominant black record company -- Motown -- that was equally effective at reaching consumers who took pleasure in a great song as performed by the Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many more artists we can all name. Motown was fathered by Berry Gordy, the streetwise producer and businessman who first seriously responded to the poetic verve in Robinson's songwriting and heard the perfectly matched emotional elixir of his voice. Gordy needed Smokey Robinson's talent and support in finding and writing for Motown singers as much as Smokey needed a vehicle for the Miracles' sound.
The original Miracles included Robinson's girlfriend and later wife Claudette Rogers, also singing lead, Bobby Rogers (tenor), Ronnie White (baritone) and Pete Moore (bass). They were later augmented by the infectious guitar lines of Marv Tarplin. In contrast to the simmering blues and gospel-drenched sound of Southern soul as recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., or Memphis' Stax Records, the Northern soul of Motown had perky production with shimmering strings, finger-pop rhythms and those catchy lyrics. "I Second that Emotion," "The Tracks of My Tears," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," and both "My Girl" and "My Guy" are among the reportedly 4,000 songs written or co-written by Robinson.
Robinson split amicably with the Miracles in 1972, deciding to devote more of his time to solo recordings and the business side of Motown. In the ensuing years, the Miracles went back to day jobs, some in the music industry, and occasional incarnations in the road show. Smokey and Claudette traveled their own ways. I spoke with him by phone, preparing for shows in Las Vegas; even long distance, the voice and spirit of Smokey Robinson remain miraculous.
Q: I wonder if you wouldn't mind just taking us back a little in time to your early days in Detroit and setting the scene as to your growing up and life on the home front.
A: I had a pretty normal childhood for somebody growing up in the ghetto section of Detroit. You never realized that you were in the ghetto until you got out. At least I didn't -- because everybody was living the same way. I have two sisters and both of them are older than me, but my older sister raised me along with her 10 kids because my mom passed when I was 10. I've always been interested in sports and music, so those are the things that I did to occupy my time.
As a kid in Detroit at the time, you were either in a gang or a group. So I chose to be in a group. I guess we started when I was about 12 years old and carried on until just after we graduated from high school, which was the time when I met Berry Gordy. At the time, he was the mainstay songwriter for Jackie Wilson. Jackie Wilson happened to be my number one singing idol at the time. I had all of Jackie Wilson's records and I had all of Sam Cooke's records, and all of Clyde McPhatter records and Frankie Lymon records. And there was a group in New York called the Diablos and their lead singer was Nolan Strong. These were the voices that I kind of liked or mimicked in my young years.
I've always been interested in writing songs and who the songwriters were. I grew up in a house where there was always music happening. I grew up on Cole Porter and the Gershwins and people like that, so I always was interested in who was writing the music.
So the Miracles and I -- we were not called the Miracles at that time -- we auditioned for Jackie Wilson's managers and we sang about four or five songs that I had written, rather than singing stuff that was currently popular by other artists. And Berry happened to be there that day because he was gonna turn in some new songs for Jackie Wilson. That was the day that he came to show Jackie "To Be Loved" and "Lonely Teardrops." He had those songs with him and so we were rejected by Jackie Wilson's managers.
But Berry was impressed that we sang all songs that he had never heard. So he comes outside after we are finished and had been rejected, and he questioned us as to where we got the songs. I told him that I wrote them and he said that there were a couple of them that he liked. At the time, Berry looked like he was about 15 or 16 years old, so I thought that he was just a guy waiting to audition after us. And perhaps he wanted to use some of my songs or something.
Q: A little suspicious there?
A: Yes, so I was curious to who he was, but I told him, I said, "Thank you very much for liking my songs." And he said "Yeah, I am Berry Gordy." So then my lip dropped down to the ground. So I said, "Berry Gordy who writes for Jackie Wilson?" He said, "Yeah, that's me you know." So that day I had a loose-leaf notebook, about 100 songs, and I must have sang 30 of them for Berry and he never, ever said, "OK man, that's enough," or "OK, OK, I'm tired," or any of that. He just critiqued every one. Berry Gordy was the main instrument in teaching me how to write professional songs.
Q: When I listen back to some of the early recordings that you made, I guess I would call them "doo-wop." There is a very strong focus on vocal harmony.
A: That is what was happening in those days. You know it was the group era, it was the era of the doo-wop groups. They were everywhere. There were so many groups in our neighborhood. I grew up in a neighborhood where Diana Ross lived right down the street from me and Aretha Franklin lived around the corner and the Four Tops lived two blocks over and the Temptations lived about four blocks away. This is where I grew up and so we had one of those neighborhoods.
Q: That's a heck of a 'hood, I have to say!
A: There is no question about it. And about a year or so after I met Berry, we started Motown and so the rest is history.
Q: In terms of your desire to sing and your willingness to be in a group, at what point do you say to yourself, "I've got a voice and I can sing." That must have happened in your early youth.
A: You know something, I am not sure that I've gotten to that point yet. But I am very, very, very, very blessed because I am living my dream. I am living beyond my wildest dreams because my first and foremost thought for all of my life was to be a singer. Now I say that I am blessed because I was in the right place at the right time, by the hand of God. I am sure because there were guys in my neighborhood who could sing me under the table. You never heard of them because they never made it out of there.
Q: It helps to have a great voice though, to carry you on.
A: I have always considered myself more of a "feeler" than a singer. Because I consider people like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross -- God bless him, I hope he has a speedy recovery -- but these are people who are real, real, real singers to me. I am a feeler, I feel songs, so that is what I consider myself.
Q: In the classic black vocal tradition, there is a long history in quartet harmony of people who sing the high tenors and the falsetto. Is that something that you discovered before puberty, that you had a voice that could go where you go?
A: Well, I always had a high voice. I guess that's why I picked my singing idols to be guys with high voices. I was in glee club and in choir and all those things like that in school, and even when I was in high school, I was in the alto section. I was not in the tenor section or anything like that. I was in the alto section and I think that just before I graduated from high school, I went to the first tenor section. But I always had a high voice and that's just how I sound and who I am.
Q: Any great female singers that you liked growing up?
A: Well, I think that the very first voice that I ever remember hearing was Sarah Vaughan, and Sarah Vaughan was absolutely an instrument as far as I am concerned. She and Ella Fitzgerald. These were the kind of people that were being played at my house 'cause my two older sisters were into the jazz era, and so they loved that kind of music.
Q: In your earlier records you had your old girlfriend and later wife, Claudette, singing high harmony. How did that work? Did you really figure that your voices could fit together in those harmonies back then?
A: No, we didn't figure that. Claudette was just in our group, that's just the way it was. There were a lot of brother-sister groups at the time. For instance, at the time the Temptations were called the "Primes" and the Supremes were the "Primettes." So there was lot of that going on.
Claudette's brother originally sang with us while we were in junior high school and in high school. We were called the Matadors. When we graduated from high school, he had his mom decide for him to go into the Army. Claudette was in a sister group called the Matadorettes, and when we got the chance to go for the audition, we were used to having a fifth voice, so we took her along and that is how she became one of the Miracles.
Q: What kind of clothes were you guys styling with when you were the Matadors?
A: I think that people think that Michael Jackson came up with the high-water pants, but those were the pants that were happening in our day, and that's what we wore all along. You look at some of those old pictures of the groups back then; we all had the high-water pants and the short waist-coat jackets, and stuff like that.
Q: Now not every kid in a group has a great voice, as you say is blessed, or moves out and does something with it. But not only did you do something with it, you also became the leader of the groups. I think that you were referred to as the "president" at one point and then obviously your own name was added in front of the Miracles. What do you think caused you to be a leader out of the group beyond just the singing ensemble?
A: Well, I don't know. I guess just the fact that I have been involved in earning a living all my life. Like I said, my sister raised me and she had 10 kids, so I had a job since I was 10 years old and ...
Q: Helped take care of the younger ones?
A: Absolutely, or just take care of myself. My brother-in-law is one of the hardest working men that I've ever known in my life, and I was most certainly not going to go to him and say, "Hey, have you got a quarter?" He was working real hard to take care of all of us, so I felt like I needed to have a job so that I could just help take care of myself. I've always worked and had sort of a business sense.
Q: In a lot of these early songs and later, too, the doo-wop influence is there. Did you have much of a church and gospel side, since so much of soul music seems to feel like it has the church side to it?
A: No, I really didn't. I am not one of those singers who can say, "Well, I grew up singing in the church," and all of that. My mom was a very church-going lady, and when she was alive, I went to church two or three times a week. But I never sang in church. Like I said, I grew up around the corner from Aretha Franklin, so as a kid growing up I would go to her father's church many times. Aretha's been singing like she sings now since she was 4 or 5 years old, but I was never a church singer.
However, I have just completed a spiritual album, and they are songs that I have been writing for people who are in the gospel arena. I know people like the Winans and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and they always asked me, "Well, Smokey, why don't you write us some songs?" So for about the last 10 years or so, even longer than that, I have been writing spiritual songs, but I never got around to sending it to them or we never hooked up again. So I ended up recording them myself.
Q: Let me ask you this though, when I listen back to some of the classic songs, something like "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," that has a gospel feel to it.
A: It may be because all music, as far as I am concerned, comes from the cotton fields. All American music has its origin in the cotton fields, when those people out there are humming and singing and praising. The songs were basically directed to God; they were basically singing spiritual music. So of course the blues being one of the main branches of that particular music. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" is the blues. I wrote "Really Got a Hold on Me" because I loved Sam Cooke. I wanted to write something like "Bring It On Home To Me," so I wrote "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," which is in that same bluesy vein.
Q: Now you've been somebody that had taken the music, whether it's originally the blues or gospel or doo-wop -- some people would say "chitlin' circuit" music -- and you carried it off to a much wider, broad, mainstream audience, black and white.
A: I am very, very proud of my audience, because when I go and perform I am so happy that there are people there from every race that you can think of, and I love that. I can go and I can play places where they would say mostly black people come to this place, but when I go and play there are Asian people there, there are Hispanic people there, there are black people there, there are white people there. Another thing that I am so very, very proud of is the age range. I see people there now that, I see them and they have their children with them, and the first time that I saw them, they were with their parents.
Q: The songs obviously endure and you've been able to endure with them, both the older classics and later ones that you've been doing. You mention the idea that you go on the basis of feel; a song like "I Second That Emotion," it's really all about feeling and emoting. How do you approach a song that you must have sung thousands of times and still keep the feel?
A: I mean this from the bottom of my heart: I am going to go out tomorrow and we're opening in Las Vegas, and I am going to sing those songs for the umpteenth thousandth time, OK? Every single solitary night they are new to me. I love what I do. Performing is my favorite part of my work, because it's the time I get to one-on-one with the fans. I get a chance to have a good time with the people who are responsible, other than God, for me being whoever I am in show business. They think that they are coming to see me, but I am going to see them.
Q: Some of these songs are deeply emotional, personal kinds of statements about love and loss. I also think of one, I don't think that you authored it but you give voice to it: what an amazing rhythm on "Mickey's Monkey."
A: "Mickey's Monkey" was written by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. It was a song that I requested because of the fact that we had what you call piano rooms at the Hitsville building in Detroit. So one day I go into one and Lamont Dozier is sitting at the piano and he is playing that rhythm and he's singing "Lumdy, lumdy la. ..." I loved that. I said "Hey man, what's that?" He said, "I don't know yet, man." I said, "OK, when you finish that up, record that on us." He said, "OK," and they did, and I am happy.
Q: When you were really working in the record industry, we think of this gleaming grand Oz of Motown, but it really was people, voices, songs, getting together, creativity. Can you say a little about the process of creating songs for yourself and for other people in that studio setting?
A: I am glad of what you said leading up to that, because many people think that the Motown stories are mythical. They think that we must have made them up, but it's not, man. That's exactly what we had, a lot of young people making music, and even though we were highly, highly competitive with each other, we were also great aides to each other.
All the guys in all the groups, not so much the girls, they hung out there all day and all night. Not necessarily making music, but we'd be hanging there playing cards, we'd be playing chess, we'd be playing Ping-Pong and they had a basketball net hanging there. So, it would be nothing for me to be in the room doing something and Norman Whitfield would be recording something on Marvin Gaye and run in and say, "Hey man, Smoke, come in and put some hand claps on this record." And I'd go in and do it because that's how we were, that's how we operated.
I think that's what made Motown so unique and so everlasting is that that feeling and that camaraderie and all that comes across in that music. I hear that music on the radio today and it still sounds good.
On the very first day of Motown, Berry said -- and we only have five people at that time -- he said, "We're going to make music with a great beat, and some great stories for everybody. We are not going to be a black music company, we are going to be a music company. We are going to make music and we are going to be the sound of young America." It turns out we were the sound of young everywhere, but that's what we set out to do and that's what we've done.
I wish I had known that we were not only making music, we were making history, because I would have saved everything, man. I would have saved every scrap of tape; I would have saved every little card that I ever started a song on, every little matchbook, every little piece of paper.
Q: I was thinking of the social philosopher Cornel West who basically said that Motown represented the African-Americanization of the broad public, white and other. And in a sense you are contributing to understanding civil rights at that point. You are really changing the social order by bringing people into the feeling, the mood and everything that you brought to that music.
A: Absolutely. I think that Motown accomplished something that they were trying to legislate. They had ministers. They had everybody trying to get people together, and we did it with music and I am very proud of that.
Q: When I remember some of the songs that you wrote for the Temptations, the guys were singing quite a bit about the girls.
A: Well, what better subject for a guy to sing about?
Q: "My Girl?"
A: Absolutely. "My Girl" was a song that I wrote for them. I had really gotten the first hit record on the Temptations with "The Way You Do the Things You Do," and I had an assignment to do an album on them. I was the first person to record them, and Berry Gordy recorded a couple of records on them, but nothing happened. I knew that the Temptations were an awesome group, and so I wrote the song "The Way You Do the Things You Do." I recorded it using Eddie Kendricks as the lead singer. At that point, all of the producers and writers at Motown jumped on the Temptations using Eddie Kendricks' voice because, of course, they had a hit with his voice singing the lead, but I knew that Paul Williams and David Ruffin were in that group and that they were awesome, awesome singers. And I knew that if I could get the right songs for either one of them, it was going to be all over, so I wrote "My Girl" for David Ruffin's voice.
Q: Well in your own voice being able to do the falsetto, I would think that that helps you when you are working with other groups and guys who have a voice in that range and can work those harmonies.
A: Well, yeah, but the Temptations, see I had a nickname for them, I used to call them "the Five Deacons," because you talk about a gospel sound. They had such a gospel sound because they had Melvin Franklin way down on the bottom and Eddie Kendricks way up on the top and everybody in between, and they had such a blend. I loved working with them so much. I never once ever made up a background vocal for the Temptations. I would just show the lead singer what I wanted them to do and they would make up their own backgrounds. With the exception of "The Way You Do the Things You Do," which I knew they had this great harmony thing, so that is why that song is like an ensemble song with everybody singing basically together.
Q: Now, beyond the guys, you have obviously written for the girls about guys. You were able to put yourself in the female perspective with Mary Wells, like "My Guy?"
A: I am not a temperamental songwriter. I don't have to be sad to write a sad song; I don't have to be happy to write a happy song. I don't have to take it to the mountains to write about that, or go to the river. I am not like that. Man, I'll write on the toilet. You know what I mean?
Q: But that means that you are a great literary man. You can put yourself in others' shoes.
A: Well that's what it is. Songwriting is life, it's being observant. Am I observing what is going on around me? I don't have to be hit by a car to know that that would probably hurt. So that's how I try to write, and that's what I try to think about, and if I am writing a song for a girl about a guy, then I just try to put myself in that place.
Q: How about the quality of the voice of somebody like Mary Wells? Is there something in her vocal quality that makes her songs special or that you write for it?
A: Mary Wells always had a very sexy voice to me. Mary Wells always had rasp. Even when she was clearer, her voice had rasp on it. And rasp is kind of whispery and kind of sexy like that, and she had that kind of voice. I found that when working with Mary, the simpler you kept the song, the more justice she did to it.
Q: Between Motown and managing, producing, writing and arranging your own stuff, how does that lead to you moving beyond being with the Miracles and onto your own? Is there kind of a transition point for you?
A: Yeah, there was a transition point. In fact, when I left the Miracles, man, I was the vice president of Motown at that time, my thoughts were just to do that. Just go to the office everyday, put on a shirt and tie, go do the business thing and blah, blah, blah. And so I tried that and the first year, it was fine. But after the second year and the third year, I was absolutely climbing the walls to do what I do, because that was not me. It's like the Peter Principle, some things that you do are not you. So I had to get back to doing what was me.
Q: Well, some of those early songs on your own are pretty neat. On "Sweet Harmony," you have the will to be able to look back to where you've been. I think that that is a brave thing to do.
A: "Sweet Harmony" is a song that I wrote in dedication to the Miracles. I wrote that song to the Miracles and that was my aim. To just write that song, record five copies and give it to them. I was going to give one to Bill Griffin, who was the guy that came in and took my slot, and I was going to give a record to each one of them and never let the public hear that song. Because that song is directed to the Miracles and I wanted them to know that I wish them well and that they could go on and do it. They had the power and they had the talent. Suzanne de Passe was our A & R director at Motown, and she convinced me to do an album around it.
Q: You also, into your solo phase, took on not just the sadness and happiness of love, you also really did deal with the social order. "Just My Soul Responding" is very much a social comment song.
A: I think that in my life I have written a few songs, maybe two or three songs like that. I basically concentrated on love though because "Just My Soul Responding" is a social issue, and it changed overnight. If you write about political events and cars and dances and all of those things, they change overnight. Love is forever! It's the never-ending subject.
Q: We talk about "soul" music and the people's soul and the soul responding, where does the soul come in?
A: The soul comes in because everyone has a soul. When they talk about soul music, they label black music as soul music, but everybody has a soul. Everybody has a soul! And if you are talking about soul singers being black, listen to Kenny Loggins, listen to Celine Dion, you know what I mean?
Q: As time passes in your career, how do you take care of the instrument, the voice?
A: I take care of myself, see that's how you take care of it. People ask me, especially young singers, "Smokey, how do you take care of your voice?" I take care of myself. My voice is my instrument; it's what I use to earn my living. It's my money-maker. So I am very physical, I work hard, I run, I play golf, I try to eat right, I don't drink or smoke and I take care of myself.
Q: Is there a sense that you have of where you'd like to take your voice and your songs on into the future? Do you have a feeling for that?
A: You just said it. You answered your own question: "On into the future." That's exactly where I want to go and where I want to take my music. I am very, very happy and very, very blessed that this is my life, and I do not plan on retiring again any time soon.
Smokey Robinson performs at the Essence Festival at 8:10 p.m. Saturday, July 5. For a complete music listing and more information, see p. 24.
- Scott Saltzman
- "Performing is my favorite part of my work, because it's the time I get to one-on-one with the fans. They think that they are coming to see me, but I am going to see them." -- Smokey Robinson
- Motown Records Archives
- An early incarnation of the Miracles. "As a kid in Detroit at the time, you were either in a gang or a group," Smokey Robinson says. "So I chose to be in a group."
- Smokey Robinson's lyrics, mostly first-person accounts of an ideal love found, or the perfect sorrow of love lost, have an elegant simplicity and offbeat clarity that prompted Bob Dylan to refer to him as "America's greatest living poet."