Hardly any assignment of my life gave me as much pleasure as talking to Smokey Robinson. A lifelong admirer, I counted the opportunity as a privilege. I rang Smokey from London, when he was in LA, and ten days later I was at the BBC to watch him film a TV show with Jools Holland.
The final article appeared in The Word in February 2010. At the end I also include a full, unedited transcript of our conversation.
Part One: The Word Interview
Yoko Ono sits here, peering between dark glasses and a large top hat. Jack White stands over there and across the room are Basement Jaxx. In a distant corner, almost unobserved on his guitar stool, crouches Eric Clapton. And Jools Holland, our eternally chirpy master of ceremonies, is striding in all directions, throwing benign superlatives like confetti: “The fabulous! The legendary! The one-and-only!”
They are indeed a stellar bunch, the line-up of this evening’s Later show. But if anyone can truly pull rank, it is perhaps the trim, twinkling, straight-backed gent in a black suit, who now beams happily at us all and lifts the microphone to his lips.
William “Smokey” Robinson”, aged 69, is fifty years into his career and that of the label he helped create, Motown Records. He has called his new album Time Flies When You’re Having Fun – because, he will gently insist, that’s exactly what his life is like. If there is any downside to being Smokey Robinson, universally admired and clearly the idol of every famous musician in this studio tonight, well, he is concealing it more successfully than Pagliacci (that poor, tearful clown) ever managed.
It was The Beatles who brought him to UK renown, by covering You Really Got A Hold On Me on their second LP. (Lennon remained a fan all his life, lugging First I Look At The Purse around in a portable jukebox and basing Sexy Sadie on Smokey’s I’ve Been Good To You.) His high, sweet singing voice was a thing of beauty, but as well as fronting his own band the Miracles, Smokey wrote huge hits for other Motown acts, including The Jackson 5, The Temptations and Four Tops. The lifelong pal of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Robinson was for many years the company’s vice-President. He even had a child called Tamla.
“Well, you know,” he says to me in his soft, courteous tones, “one of things that I really loved about The Beatles – and I had met the Beatles in London before they became the Beatles Beatles, you know what I mean? – when they became popular, they were the first white artists that I had heard, who came right out and said, We grew up and were very influenced by black music and by Motown. I loved them for that and I thought it was so wonderful they would say it.”
After all, didn’t Bob Dylan himself call Smokey “America’s greatest living poet”? At least, hasn’t almost every article written about him trotted this line out? Unfortunately, it’s a myth. But the internet is now recycling it into eternity. In 1965, when Dylan was subverting his press conferences with deadpan surrealism, he was asked “What poets do you dig?”. Among his nominees were Smokey, WC Fields and an un-named family of circus trapeze artists. Years later, he even back-tracked on Smokey, saying he’d really meant Arthur Rimbaud. Dylan does in fact love Smokey, but the quote is a dud.
Still, the man’s talent is its own recommendation, as he shows tonight by singing Don’t Know Why, the Jesse Harris number made famous by Norah Jones. The sleepy sensuality of Smokey’s treatment evokes his old hit Quiet Storm, a song which actually gave its name to a whole school of late-night R&B radio. It was bedroom soul without the machismo.
Smokey Robinson was never a raw soul funkateer. For all that he knew the blues, gospel and the African-American heritage, his own path as a writer started with the classic craftsmen his parents played: George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Once established, the peers he looked to were similar masters of elegant precision, like Bacharach & David and Leiber & Stoller. Songs such as I Second That Emotion and The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game displayed the same care and an eye for the verbal twist. He’s never grown sloppy. Even his Tweets are well-honed: “Tweedle dee and tweedle dum. I think I am about to Twitter some.”
“When I sit down to write a song,” he says, “I want it to be one that would have meant something to people if I had written it 50 years ago, or 50 years from now. That’s my goal. There are no new words, no new chords, no new notes on the piano, and there are really no new ideas. So, within the framework of what’s already been there for thousands of years, I try to say it differently. How can I say this different than it’s ever been said?
“I write about love. Love is my favourite subject, because it’s never-ending, everything else is trendy as far as I’m concerned. If you write about cars, or dances, or even political things, you know, they’re here today and gone tomorrow. But love is everlasting, I hope.”
Not only does Smokey’s voice have a feminine register. His whole act is a projection of tact and sensitivity. In Lennon’s delivery of You Really Got A Hold On Me, he inverts the cliché about white acts emasculating the black originals – next to the Beatle’s earthy growl of sexual frustration, Smokey’s version is a model of grown-up wistfulness. It’s perhaps no wonder that Robinson has written so many hits for female artists, from The Supremes to The Marvelettes, and most famously, Mary Wells’ My Guy. Was it ever a challenge for him to adopt the other persona?
“Oh no, not really, because a songwriter should be able to write about anything. I look at the world and I see what’s going on. I could not possibly have experienced all the things that I’ve written about but it’s easy to see what goes on in a woman’s life because, you know, I have a woman, and I’m around women all the time and I grew up in a house with my Mom and two sisters and I have a bunch of nieces, so it’s easy to see a girl’s point of view. Mary Wells was my personal project at Motown.”
As this evening’s sideman Eric Clapton would have known, the guitar spot next to Smokey has history too. Robinson’s long-term collaborator was Marvin Tarplin, whose riffs were often the beginnings of another classic song, from early Miracles days to the rarefied heights of 1973’s Just My Soul Responding.
“Marv, who’s just retired, was the inspiration for many songs for me. He put that Tracks Of My Tears guitar riff on tape for me, till I could get a song for it. And the first three lines of the chorus that I came up with – Take a good look at my face, you see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer it’s easy to trace – it took me a long time to figure out something that was ‘easy to trace’. And one day I thought, What if a person was crying so much that if you looked closely into their face you could see tracks that their tears had left. And I knew that was it.”
It was another Motown collaborator, Stevie Wonder, who gave Robinson his cue for The Tears Of A Clown: “He had already recorded that track and he brought it to me: ‘Hey Smokey, I got this track here but I can’t think of a song to go with it, see what you can come up with.’ It had a little thing in there that was like the circus to me: pom pom pom, tiddle om-pom pom-pom-pom. I wanted to write something about the circus that I thought would be personal to people. I didn’t want to write about animals. Pagliacci the clown was a story I heard as a kid, how he made everybody happy. But he was sad, he didn’t have a woman to love him. So Tears Of A Clown is a personalised story of Pagliacci.”
Don’t Know Why aside, the new album has another of Smokey’s rare cover versions, a “hidden” bonus track of The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back. Its ambivalent place, he explains, was the result of Michael Jackson’s death, just after it was recorded: “I didn’t even list it on the album. I had pressed up the CD and then Michael died, you know, so I didn’t want people thinking, Well, he’s put I Want You Back out so he can exploit the fact that Michael has died. I didn’t want anyone to say that I exploited his death, because he was my little brother. And I loved him… Michael was a good-hearted person, a really good-hearted person. He cared about life and people. And I’d like people to know that about him.”
Michael Jackson’s gone but Motown (and Berry Gordy) are still around. The company’s greatest days are surely past, but its importance is lasting, and is not limited to music. Anyone aware of the label’s history could not have missed the resonance of Stevie Wonder performing at the inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s fanciful to call him a “hip hop President” as some have tried, but he’s certainly a Motown President, a man who embodies the will and discipline that enabled Motown to transcend its ready-made ghetto audience and communicate to America’s mainstream.
Smokey Robinson was present that day in Washington, watching from the front row. Does he have a sense that Motown helped bring big changes in America?
“I have a sense that Motown helped to bring about big changes in the world. We bridged racial gaps and inter-continental gaps. When we became popular in the United States we were in a Cold War with Russia, yet our acts were going to Russia and people loved them. Racial barriers were broken down. That was a wonderful time, at the Inauguration. I was right there. All the people that I know voted for him. It’s wonderful that he is President of the United States. It was a wonderful statement for America. America became what it should have been all along.”
Part Two: The Interview Unedited
Transcribing and editing are major parts of the interview process. It can often be a chore, but not in this case. Though never abrupt, Smokey’s answers were all to the point, befitting a verbal craftsman. I spoke to him by phone, on the 16th of October 2009, a week before his visit to London.
“Hey Paul, how you doin’?”
(Though it’s midday in LA, where Smokey is, it’s a dark, cold evening in London. I advise him to wrap up well for his visit next week.)
“I’m so looking forward to it man, First of all I love London. And I was there, gosh, just about three or four months ago and I’m so looking forward to it. I can’t wait, I’m revved up. My record’s coming out over there on 26th of October and I can’t wait.
Do you remember your first time in London?
“Oh yeah. I came there on a promotional tour with the Miracles, many years ago. This had to be 1960 or so. I remember how excited we were to be going to London, ‘overseas’ as we called it.
Were you surprised when your music was recognised by groups here? So far away?
“Well, you know, Paul, one of things that I really loved about The Beatles when they became really popular, and I had met the Beatles in London before they became the Beatles Beatles, you know what I mean, one of the things I loved when they became popular was that they were the first really popular white band, or white artists that I had heard, who came right out and said, we grew up and were very influenced by black music and by Motown. And I really loved them for that and I thought it was so wonderful they would say that.”
And many others, like the Stones.
“Oh yes, I loved the Stones and I had the opportunity to work with them many years ago, we were on the same programme on the TAMI Show. They’re still going strong and I’m very happy for them.”
Your new record has such a warm and natural sound. Was it easy to make, did it flow?
“Oh yeah. The thing about this one is that I recorded it live. And I haven’t done that in so long. When I say live I don’t mean with an audience but recorded it live in the studio, the guys in there played while I was singing. You know that records are not recorded like that any more. Everybody’s in a different place at a different time, even in a different country, but I recorded this with the guys in there while I was singing. We had a ball, it was incredible.”
Does something special happen in a room when everyone is present?
“Absolutely. It was like doing a concert, people have a chance to feed off each other, to get inspired by what some other guy’s playing. Or, as a singer, I get inspired by what they’re playing and it’s just like doing a concert, incredible.”
If you had to be remembered as a singer/performer or as a songwriter, which would you choose?
“Gosh that’s really hard. I guess I would pick songwriting because your songs live on and on, long after you’re gone. We’re still listening to Beethoven. So I guess songwriting.”
Who were your own role models?
“I was influenced by so many people, Paul, because I’ve been listening to music all my life.. The first music that I heard was Gershwin and Cole Porter and people like that, because those were the people that my parents and sister would play in the house. But when I started to write my own music, guys like Leiber and Stoller and Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Berry Gordy and people like that, man.”
They are very careful. precise writers, aren’t they?
So you learnt the importance of taking care?
“Well I try to. When I sit down to write a song that’s what I want to do, that’s my goal, I want to write a song. I want it to be something that if I had written it 50 years before it would have meant something to people, or 50 years from now it’s gonna mean something, so that’s my goal.”
You very seldom write a straightforward song. There’s often a twist, a beguiling twist in the meaning from the obvious.
“Well you know something Paul, I feel like this as a writer. There are no new words, no new chords, no new notes on the piano, and there are really no new ideas. So, within the framework of what’s already been there for thousands of years, I try to say it differently. How can I say this different that it’s ever been said?”
An example on the new record is the title track, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. It’s an everyday phrase but you put a sad emphasis on the “time flying” part.
“Yeah, because the song, the title of the album, that’s how I feel about my life. I’m loving this more than I ever have before and time has whizzed on by. I’m celebrating 50 years, you know? But the song is about being with someone you love and you really don’t want to leave them, for even a few minutes. And the time that you have with them seems to fly by.”
Your very early songs were often quite sharp and comical, like First I Look At The Purse?
“Oh, well, First I Look At The Purse was inspired by my relationship with The Contours. The Contours were a very novel type group and they sang a lot of very novel type songs like that, and I was inspired to write that by them.”
More recent years saw you as the Master of The Love Song.
“Say again, Paul?”
“Oh well [Laughs]. I don’t know about the Master. But I do write about love. I mean love is my favourite subject. because it’s never-ending, everything else is trendy as far as I’m concerned. If you write about cars, or dances, or even political things, you know, they’re here today and gone tomorrow. But love is everlasting, I hope.”
What makes a great love song?
“Just something that touches people, man. Something that will make them listen or teach them something or make them care.”
It must be important to you that your songs connect, that so many of us have memories of our lives being touched by a Smokey Robinson song.
“Oh that’s wonderful man, thank you.”
On your new album you do a few covers. What a compliment it must be to other writers if Smokey Robinson does one of their songs.
“You know something, Paul, that’s how I feel about people who have covered MY songs. Especially the fact that a lot of people who have covered my songs are songwriters themselves. And I feel the same way about that myself. As a songwriter that’s what I want to happen. I want people to sing them and to love them. I loved the Jesse Harris song Don’t Know Why and I loved the version they did with Norah Jones, and it caught my ear the first time I heard it, and of course I kept on hearing it and it grew on me and I wanted to record it. I wanted to give it a different treatment, I’d like to do it how I felt it and you can do that, because a song can have so many interpretations. Then with I Want You Back it’s a hidden track, I didn’t even list it on the album because of the fact that it was one of the first songs I recorded for this album, I just wanted to do a jazz version of that, a semi-jazz version, and I always used to play around with it in my mind. Then I had pressed up the CD and then Michael died, you know, so I didn’t want people thinking, Well, he’s put I Want You Back out after Michael has died so he can exploit the fact that Michael has died. There are some people who would have thought that and I didn’t want to give them a chance to think that, so I didn’t even list it on the CD. The only way they’re gonna know is if they get that CD and they hear it. I didn’t want anyone to say that I exploited his death, because he was my little brother. And I loved him. And I didn’t want anyone to get a chance to even think that.
Would you mind sharing a memory of Michael with us?
“Well you know, Michael was a good-hearted person, Paul, a really good-hearted person and he loved people. He loved the world and he was a very world-conscious person, as to the conditions of the world and the conditions that people were living in. He was a warm person like that, he cared about life and people. And I’d like people to know that about him.”
You’re very busy this month. Is it always like this?
“Well you know what, I have been really busy for the last couple of years. I was recording my last CD which was a CD of all the standards, Timeless Love, and then I was recording both CDs at the same time and what with doing concerts and promotional things and Time Flies When You’re Having Fun is on my own label, and starting a record label has really kept me busy. And I’m still doing a bunch of concerts so yeah, really busy.”
What’s a typical day for you? Are you very disciplined?
“Not really. I do what I have to do. I know the day before what I have to do and I get up and I go do it, whatever that may entail. If I have time off – I haven’t been able to do it recently because I injured my left shoulder – but if I have time off, I go play golf. But other than that, I know the day before what I have to do so I just have to get up and do it.”
Do you listen to much new music?
“I listen to everybody, Paul. I’m a music lover first of all, and also I have to compete, I’m still recording.”
For a lot of your career you were not only an artist but a business man, as vice-president of Motown.
“Well, I was vice-president early on at Motown but it wasn’t anything new to me because I’d been there since the very first day Berry started Motown and there were only five people and we had to do everything, so I was used to it. What I was doing as vice-president I’d been doing all along.”
So you see things from both sides. Every artist I talk to complains about their record company.
“Yes, it was a weird position to be in, that’s for sure, because I did have both sides of the fence, and I was a liaison. All the artists, we not only travelled together we hung out together and they knew they could come to me and tell me anything, any grievances that they might have and all that. And also I was a corporate person, so I was in on all the corporate meetings and I knew if an artist had a legitimate grievance I could take it up at the corporate meeting, and if an artist came to me with a grievance I already knew what was happening behind the scenes and I could tell them that, so it was a very wonderful and unique position to be in.”
Do you ever have a sense that Motown helped bring about big changes in America?
“I have a sense that Motown helped to bring about big changes in the world, Paul. We bridged a lot of gaps. We bridged racial gaps, and inter-continental and all things like that. When we became popular in the United States we were in a Cold War with Russia yet our acts were going to Russia and people loved the, And racial barriers and stuff like that were broken down.”
You must have watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, where your friend Stevie Wonder performed. How did you feel?
“That was a wonderful time, I was at the Inauguration, I was right there in the front row. It was a wonderful statement for America, America became what it should have been all along. It’s wonderful that he is President of the United States.”
And how wonderful to think that Motown and its artists might have played some part in helping that to come about.
“Of course. All the ones that I know voted for him. Because he was qualified, he was the best candidate.”
In the time left can we talk about some songs? What’s your personal favourite?
“Paul, that’s an impossible question, My songs are my kids. And I give them all the same emphasis.”
Let me mention one or two. Perhaps my own favourite, Just My Soul Responding?
“OK, Just My Soul Responding was instigated by my guitarist who’s just retired, Marv Tarplin, who was the inspiration for many songs for me because he would put the music on tape and give it to me so I could put a song to the music. So that was his guitar riff that started that off for me. At the time there were a lot of things going on, as far as conditions in the United Sates, and I wanted to write about that.”
An early song you wrote for Mary Wells was My Guy. Was it difficult to write in the female role?
“Oh no, not really, because as a songwriter you should be able to write about anything. So I look at the world and I see what’s going on, and I could not possibly have experienced all the things that I’ve written about, but it’s easy to see what goes on in a woman’s life because, you know, I have a woman, and I’m around women all the time and I grew up in a house where my Mom and my two sisters were there and I have a bunch of nieces, so it’s easy to see a girl’s point of view. Mary Wells was my personal project at Motown.”
Even when you write from a male perspective you’re not a macho writer are you? Not a boasting sort of writer?
“Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that.”
Tell me about Tracks Of My Tears.
“Once again I have to say Marv Tarplin. He put that guitar riff on tape for me, till I could get a song for it. And the first three lines of the chorus that I came up with, ‘Take a good look at my face, you see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer it’s easy to trace,’ and it took me a long time to figure out something that was easy to trace, that would be something different. And so one day I was thinking and I thought, What if a person was crying so much that if you looked into their face you closely you could see tracks that their tears had left? And I knew that was it.”
The Tears Of A Clown?
“Well Tears Of A Clown was inspired for me by Stevie Wonder. He had already recorded that track and he brought it to me: Hey Smokey I got this track here but I can’t think of a song to go with it, so see what you can come up with. So I wrote The Tears Of A Clown because of that track and it had a little thing in there that was like the circus to me: pom pom pom, tiddle om-pom pom-pom-pom. So I wanted to write something about the circus that I thought would be personal to people. I didn’t want to write about animals. So Pagliacci the clown was a story I heard as a kid, how he made everybody happy, they came to the circus to see him more so than the animals. But when he went home he was sad, he didn’t have a woman to love him. So Tears Of A Clown is a personalised story of Pagliacci.”
It’s amazing how many of you came from Detroit at that point in time. How did that happen?
“Paul, I am a firm believer that ratio-wise, every city, every town, every township, every village, in the world, ratio-wise, has that same amount of talent. The difference with us is that we had Berry Gordy. We had this young man who had this dream. He wanted to have his own record label and his own record company and he wanted to give the talent an outlet. So we had Berry Gordy and we had an outlet through him. That’s what made the difference in Detroit.”
Could it have happened elsewhere?
“Yes. If they had a Berry Gordy there that same thing could have happened.”