It’s hard to explain exactly what makes Smokey Robinson so magnetic. Perhaps it’s those deep green eyes, so warm, vivid and enticing. Maybe it’s the unfailing manners and humility that finds him repeating his interviewer’s name throughout our conversation to let you know you have his full attention, or signing the photographer’s diary with the words, “You’re beautiful.”
Most likely it’s a combination of these things, but the icing on top of this soft, sweet cake is the fact that this warm-hearted and welcoming soul is responsible for some of the world’s favourite love songs, instilled with such triumphant emotion that, to paraphrase the extolling of ABC’s Martin Fry, when Smokey sings, you forget everything.
One of Motown’s first superstars with The Miracles, Smokey rose to become vice president of the label that defined young America in the ’60s and ’70s. Not only did his intuitive and emotive songwriting provide the human race with those songs on which his honeyed voice glowed (‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’), he also gifted carefully crafted gems to friends – ‘My Girl’ and ‘Get Ready’ for The Temptations, for example, or ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’ for The Jackson 5.
Coming almost 60 years after his first hit, a new album, ‘Smokey & Friends’ teams Robinson up with some famous fans (including Elton John, John Legend and Mary J Blige) who’ve lined up to pay their respects to their favourite Smokey-penned songs.
In such esteemed company, Clash didn’t hesitate in joining the party.
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In revisiting some of your most popular songs for this new album, did you rediscover anything during the recording?
I can’t take credit for the songs or the record like that. Randy Jackson, of American Idol fame, is the producer of the record, and the idea to do this record was actually conceived by my managers – they thought that it would be good for me to re-record some of my popular songs with other artists. So Randy was hired by the record company to do that, and he contacted the people who are singing on this record and asked them what was their favourite Smokey Robinson song. It did not have to be one that I had sung, but just one that I had written. So the songs that you hear on this record by these people are their favourite Smokey Robinson songs.
It makes the album quite personal then; it comes from a place of genuine respect.
Exactly, and that’s the beauty of it: it comes from them. Randy let them do their version and then produce it in their manner. All I had to do – for the first time in many, many, many, many years – was just go into the studio and sing.
You must be so proud that these songs have enjoyed an eternal appeal?
Oh, absolutely I am. When I write a song, I hope [it’s] a song that’s going to last forever.
You always wanted your songs to be different. You admired proper songwriters like Gershwin and Bacharach but were working to a more pop format. What did you want your songs to be?
If I can write a song, and if I can say ‘I love you’ differently than it’s ever been said, I’m gonna try and do that. It attracts attention.
When you were writing for other singers, did you think about what might suit them, or were you just following your own muse?
I did think of what would suit them. I used to try and craft words that I thought they said well. I knew these people intimately – they were my brothers and sisters; we were growing up right there at Motown together. See, at Motown, we were not just business partners or stable mates or anything like that; we were actually friends and family. We treated each other like family. There’s a thing called the Motown Family, and we’ve always had that. Some people think it’s mythical, but it’s not, and for those of us who are still alive, we still have the Motown Family, and it’s always been that way. We were growing up together. We socialised – we went to each other’s homes, had dinner at each other’s homes, we hung out, we did things in the evening, and had picnics and things like that together. So it was like a family there, so I knew these people well, and I knew what suited them, so it was relatively easy for me to write for them.
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If you’re rich or poor, black or white; drugs don’t care. Drugs do not discriminate. When you open that door, they’re coming in…
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By the end of the ’60s you were already considering retiring from The Miracles, as you were working as vice president of Motown and on the business side of things. Did you enjoy balancing those two roles?
Oh, I loved it, because I was like a mediator. I was right in the middle. I had the best of both worlds, because my office was originally designed to induct new talent and to work with the talent, and by me being an artist also, see, I knew what the artists were thinking – what their grievances were – because we talked all the time. We were together, we hung out, so I knew what their grievances were, and if they were legitimate, then I could take them to the company. And I knew what the company was doing for these artists, even if the artists didn’t know, and I could relate that to them. So it was a unique place to be in, and it was a great position.
Was it that position that ultimately led you away from performing and recording?
No, man. First of all, we had been singing on the road – when I say ‘we’, I mean The Miracles and I – since I was about 16-years-old, man. And my first wife, Claudette – who was in The Miracles – and I were trying to have kids, and we actually had seven miscarriages before our oldest son was born. So, my oldest two kids were born, and I just didn’t want to leave them all the time, because The Miracles and I were gone 90% of the time. So there was a lot of factors involved in that - me being tired, my kids being born, and Berry [Gordy] moving Motown out to Los Angeles and I, as an officer of the company, had to move. There were a lot of factors involved in that, a lot of stuff going on.
By the early-’70s the emphasis had shifted from singles to albums, and Motown’s artists responded brilliantly, with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder producing masterpieces. Were you tempted at that point to get back to making music?
No. Marvin and Stevie and whoever else was in show business at that time had absolutely nothing to do with that decision. I just missed it, and after about three-and-a-half years or so, Berry could feel me missing it, and he’s the one that came and told me to get back and do what I loved. He’s my best friend, so he could feel me and he could see what I was going through, even though I was trying to hide it from everyone, and I missed it so much. I wasn’t thinking about Marvin or Stevie or any of that – I just missed it.
You became addicted to drugs in the ’80s, at quite a late stage in your career. Was it because you were working so hard the reason that it never happened before then?
No, man. I just didn’t feel like doing it. (Laughs) I’m a drugs spokesman now for the United States. I haven’t had any drugs now since May of 1986. I speak at schools and rehabs and rehab graduations and churches and gang meetings, and I always tell people that there’s this myth that goes around that people think there’s this mysterious figure comes and offers you drugs and you say, ‘Well, okay, I’ll try it,’ or he takes it to the playground and our kids say, ‘Oh yeah, let me have some of that.’ That’s not true. People do drugs, man. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who do drugs start doing drugs with their friends, with the people that they love and they trust, and these people love and trust them. And that’s how it begins, because you think you’re having fun. You’re not – you’re doing something to yourself, but at the time you think it’s a great thing to do. You think you’re having fun and you’re enjoying it, and then you look around and fun has killed you. And drugs do not discriminate. Drugs do not care who you are or what you’re doing, what your lifestyle is, where you live, if you’re rich or poor, black or white; drugs don’t care. Drugs do not discriminate. When you open that door, they’re coming in.
Bobby Womack once told me that he felt he had the responsibility to carry on working in tribute to his friends and the artists who’d died along the way. Do you feel you’re lucky to still be here, still working and enjoying what you do?
Yeah, I guess there’s a bit of luck involved, but I feel blessed. Blessed is a better word for me. I’m blessed, and God sustains me. I’ve been blessed to be able to be in this life that I love so much that I wanted, that I craved as a child and it became my life, and to be around and be viable in it for this long, it’s a blessing, and I don’t take it for granted whatsoever.
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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Hayley Louisa Brown
‘Smokey And Friends’ is out now. Find the man online here.
This interview appears in issue 99 of Clash magazine – details and purchase links.