Interview – Smokey Robinson
– by Shawn Conner
Not too long ago, Smokey Robinson found himself back in the news, if indirectly; as a key player in Motown, the sound and the company, he was in a position to know Michael Jackson fairly well. But as a singer with the Miracles and a songwriter for numerous other Motown acts, as well as his own solo career, Smokey is a legend himself. Probably no fan of popular music hasn’t fallen in love with, or to, a Smokey Robinson song, whether recorded by him or one of the innumerable artists, from the Rolling Stones ot Linda Ronstadt to the English Beat, who have covered him over the years. A partial list of his tunes: “Going to a Go-Go”, “Tracks of My Tears”, “Tears of a Clown”, “Ooh Baby Baby”, “Mickey’s Monkey”, “Cruisin'”, “Shop Around”, “Being With You”.
Born in 1940, William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. became an early player in the Motown story, which of course is also the story to some extent of Detroit. We talked about his hometown, fishing in black resorts in Canada with his father, Tiger Woods, Rick James and more while he was in the midst of a summer tour that sees him performing at various theatres and music festivals across North America. He was reached at his home in L.A., on a day he was filming a video for his version of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”, which appears on his upcoming album Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.
Shawn Conner: So is this, like, your gazillionth interview?
Smokey Robinson: It’s my gazilionth interview in the last two weeks, man. Especially with what’s been going on with Michael.
SC: What’s happening with the new record?
SR: It’s coming out August 25. It’s all original material, with the exception of “Don’t Know Why”. And I have three of my wonderful friends, guest artists, on there; indie.arie, Joss Stone and Carlos Santana. And I’m excited about it for another reason. My current CD, the one that’s been out for about two-and-a-half years, it’s called Timeless Love, it has all the old standards, Gershwin and Cole Porter and all that. I had intended on recording that one live because I’ve been singing those songs in each one of my concerts. I love that old music, it was the first music I heard in my life, growing up, in my home. I was going to invite 5, 600 people out to a concert and do nothing but those kinds of songs. I never got around to doing that. So I rented a studio in Burbank, California, and I recorded that one and simultaneously I was recording the one coming out, live. I had all the musicians playing while I was singing. That’s unheard of in today’s record business.
SC: It’s interesting that Gershwin and Cole Porter were such formative influences on you. Now that you say that, I can hear that in the romantic streak in your lyrics.
SR: Between my sisters and my mom, playing every kind of music you can think of in our home, all day long – from blues to to gospel to jazz to classical—I had a great dose of music growing up, man.
SC: Was that pretty common in Detroit at that time?
SR: I imagine so. When I’d visit my friends their parents would be playing music, and then when we got older we bought our own records. By 11 and 12 we were buying our own music.
SC: The eyes of the country are back on Detroit because of the recession. What are your thoughts about your old hometown?
SR: I tell you Shawn, not only for Detroit but for the world? I have a deep concern. For the first time, if this economic situation was unique to Detroit, I’d say I’m really really worried about Detroit. But at this particular time I have the same concern for the world. We’re having recession symptoms all over the world. The economy around the world is screwed. Now, Detroit is suffering because the auto industry is leaving. But that started awhile back.
SC: I imagine growing up in Detroit you must’ve come up to Canada a lot, since it’s pretty close.
SR: Yeah yeah yeah. I kind of grew up in Canada. My dad used to take me fishing right outside Windsor, which is connected with Detroit by the bridge. There’s a place called Rondeau Bay, about 40 miles outside of Windsor. There was a black resort up there, owned by this black guy, his name was Provo. My dad would take me up there from the time I could remember. He’d take me up there and.. I am an avid golfer, whenever I can I play I do, and that’s how my dad loved fishing. I went with him ’til I was about 15, and said, “Dad, I do not want to go fishing.” In fact, Canada was the first place I started learning to drive a car. They had the dirt roads, and when I was 10 years old my dad started to teach me. There was no traffic, and those were the days all the cars were stick-shift.
SC: I had no idea there was such a thing as black resorts.
SR: Oh yeah. There was, man. They had cabins, a restaurant, fishing boats, what have you.
SC: I wonder what’s there now.
SR: I do too.
SC: We were discussing the new album. They’re all original songs that go back a few years. Have you written much since?
SR: Oh yeah. You know Shawn, and I’m not exaggerating about this, man, almost every day of my life, some parts of a song, a melody or some words or a phrase come to me. I’m not a religious man, but I consider myself to be a very spiritual man, and I have a great relationship with God, and I think God gives everybody a gift, I don’t care if some people never discover what they are, or don’t pursue them. And I’m not a labour songwriter, I don’t take myself to the mountain so I can isolate myself and write. It just comes. And when it comes, most of the time I pursue it. Sometimes I don’t, ‘cos I’m driving or whatever. But I do have a method now I think is a really good idea; I call my voicemail and leave it there so I can work on it later.
SC: Is another one of the gifts God gave you a decent handicap?
SR: I wish he had. Do you play golf?
SR: Well, don’t mess with it. One of the titles of a golf tournament that is a joke is “the Masters'”. Nobody masters golf. They just had the British Open this week, and Tiger Woods didn’t even make the cut. You know what I mean? That just goes to show you, golf respects nobody.
SC: But a guy like you, if you wanted, you could just call up Tiger Woods and get a lesson.
SR: It doesn’t matter. Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods. He did not make the cut. I love Tiger Woods, and I’ve been following golf forever, since Arnold Palmer was in his heyday. Tiger Woods is the best I’ve ever seen in my life. But he did not make the cut. Golf is one of those games. Whatever you do from shot to shot. It’s got nothing to do with how you played yesterday, or your last hole.
SC: One song I wanted to ask about is one of your more obscure ones that I heard on the Motown collection. It’s called “First I Look At the Purse” by the Contours, about the guy who doesn’t care what the girl looks like, so long as she has money.
SR: That was a song I started and one of the Miracles, Bobby Rogers, helped finish it. The Contours were one of our groups, and they sung a lot of novelty songs. We thought it would be a great one for them. I haven’t heard anyone mention that song in years and years.
SC: There’ve been so many covers of your songs over the years, and tributes. Someone I mentioned this interview to wanted to know what you thought of the ABC song “When Smokey Sings”.
SR: I’m living a life I love, I’m so blessed. I’m not expecting people to do things like that. When they do, when I see that they have that much admiration for me, that’s unbelievable. That’s incredible. I can’t even tell you the kind of high that is.
SC: It seems like American Idol has been vital in introducing new generations to your tunes, and Motown.
SR: American Idol is the the greatest platform for young talent that there’s ever been in show business. They’re seen and known by millions of people before they even record. It’s a great show. And Simon [Cowell] and Paula [Abdul] and Randy [Jackson] and Kara [DioGuardi] are great people.
SC: Do you still make and market your own line of gumbo?
SR: No. We were still building and we outgrew ourselves. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. We outgrew our ability to manufacture all the orders we were getting.
SC: I noticed you’re on Twitter. How do you like that?
SR: Most of it I do myself. One of my partners, a co-producer on my CD, does it when I can’t.
SC: And you recorded a duet back in the ’80s, “Ebony Eyes”, with Rick James. What was that like?
SR: Rick, just like all the other Motown artists, is part of the family. We have such a love for each other. There’s a definite Motown family. Even if you take a case like Michael [Jackson], who did so many wonderful things, but he was always looked at as a Motown artist. Rick James was one of my brothers. But yeah, you had to pace yourself with Rick.