Smokey Robinson

"We are gonna make music for everybody."

It’s no small feat to be dubbed “America’s greatest living poet” by Bob Dylan, hardly an outside contender for the title himself, but then Smokey Robinson is truly a songwriter that has united his country in song – all 4000 of them!

Smokey – William to his parents – was born in Detroit in 1940. By the age of 25 he was Vice-President of Motown Records (serving under best friend and founder Berry Gordy), the lead singer of one of the label’s most successful acts, The Miracles, and had penned dozens of hits for most of its roster, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Four Tops.

Speaking to Clash upon the release of his new album, ‘Definitive Collection with Timeless Love’, Smokey clearly has no intention of resting on his laurels just yet.

You were born in Detroit in 1940. What are your earliest memories of your childhood and was yours a musical home?

Well I lived in a musical household in as much as my Mom and my two sisters – I had two older sisters – they were always playing music. My Mom sang in church and we had a little old upright piano there. There was music there.

How did music change with the advent of the “teenager” in the 1950s?

Rock ‘n’ Roll came out in my pre-teens. It changed the face of music, I guess, in that music got louder. Prior to that, those songs that are on that ‘Timeless Love’ CD of mine [a collection of early 20th Century standards], that’s the music that I heard. Those songs were written at a time when the song was king. When somebody wrote a hit song, all the artists either sang or recorded that song. The songs were the focal point because when those songs were written, everybody recorded them. The same songs were sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie’s Orchestra, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like today, you know, someone would come out with a hit record and if the song is good, maybe ten or twelve years down the line somebody will sing that song again. But the artist is basically the focal point nowadays. Back then the song was the focal point. So when somebody wrote a hit song – the Gershwins, Cole Porter or somebody like that – everybody sang that song.

Can you remember the very first song you wrote?

I don’t remember all of it but the first song I ever wrote I was 6 years old and it was for our school. I went to Dwyer Elementary School in Detroit. We had a class called Auditorium and in that class we did plays and stuff like that. So I was in this school play and my teacher had written this little melody and she let me write the words for it and I sang it in the play.

By 1955 you had formed with school friends The Five Chimes. This obviously wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll band, which were so prevalent in Fifties’ high schools – what kind of music were you playing then?

By that time I was old enough to buy my own music and Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol. Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter and people like that were the guys I was listening to. Then I had a bunch of groups that I listened to: The Dells, The Moonglows, The Spaniels, The Platters and people like that.

Touring as The Matadors in 1957, you met someone that was to have a profound effect on your life. Do you remember where and when you first met Berry Gordy?

How could I forget that? Of course! I met Berry Gordy at an audition that we had gone to for Jackie Wilson’s manager. At that time, Berry Gordy had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson. Whenever I bought records I always wanted to know who wrote the songs that I loved. So Jackie Wilson’s songs had been written by Berry Gordy. He was a songwriter in Detroit. He happened to be at that audition and that’s how I met him. We sang five songs that I had written rather than singing the stuff that was currently popular by other people. That caught Berry’s eye. He was very interested in the fact of where we had got those songs from and he came outside after the audition was over and approached me and I told him that. This was prior to Motown and all of that.

Soon after you changed your name to The Miracles with Berry managing you. Around this time it’s reported that you were the one to suggest to Berry Gordy he set up his own label. Why didn’t you do it yourself?

I was just a kid, man! (Laughs) I was only like 17 or 18 years old so I couldn’t do that myself.

What were Berry’s intentions for the label that was to become Motown?

I’m sure he wanted it to become what it became, man. But at the time we didn’t know it was going to become that. His speech to us on the first day of Motown – there were five people there; there was him and four others of us – he said: “We are not going to make black music. We are gonna make world music. We are gonna make music for everybody. We are gonna make music that everybody can enjoy and everybody can love. We are gonna make music with great beats and great stories.” That’s what we set out to do and apparently that’s what we did.

While writing your own material you were also hard at work writing for other artists. Would you consciously change your writing style at all when writing for someone else?

Yeah, because most of the songs I wrote for other people I had those people in mind when I wrote those songs. So yeah, I did. I considered myself writing a good song but at the same time tailoring it to the particular people that I was recording.

Who was your favourite artist to work for – who do you think did best justice to your songs?

I enjoyed writing for everyone, but probably my very favourite, I had two: The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. I enjoyed working with them so much. I enjoyed working with Mary Wells and The Marvelettes and everybody that I wrote for. I wrote some songs for almost everybody at Motown. I just enjoyed working with the Motown artists. They were my brothers and sisters. We were all in the same stable and we were not only label mates but we were friends and we hung out together and did social things together. So I knew them all very well and I enjoyed working with them.

We are not going to make black music. We are gonna make world music. We are gonna make music for everybody.

Your songs have stood the test of time and are as popular now as ever. Why do you think they have endured so?

My first and foremost thoughts when I sit down to write a song is that I want to write a song. I’m not interested necessarily in writing a hit record; I want to write a song. A song has the chance to live on and on and on forever and ever and for people to re-record it and re-sing it from now on. And a song that if I’d written it 50 years before then it would have meant something, at that current time it means something, and 50 years from now it’s gonna mean something. THAT’S a song, and I always try to write a song.

‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ was covered, among others, by The Beatles. That must have felt great to have the world’s most famous band – who were quite able to write their own songs – cover one of yours?

Oh absolutely it did, no question about it.

How much did the popularity of The Beatles affect the sound and music of Motown? So many people were turned on to music at that time who hadn’t been before.

I’m sure they did, man, as well as Motown had an affect on them. The thing that I loved about The Beatles was the fact that they admitted that. They were the first big huge white act in the world who admitted that they grew up listening to Motown had had an affect on them, and I really appreciated them for saying that.

The success of Motown was really the first time black music had been sold on such a big scale to a white audience. Was this a conscious attempt to break racial barriers?

Absolutely. And we did. Like I said, we just wanted to make music for the world that anybody and everybody could listen to and enjoy and didn’t have any racial overtones or anything like that.

Did you encounter any racial problems?

Oh of course, sure. There was prejudice everywhere. When we went on tour, the first time we went somewhere the people would be separated. The white people would be in one area and the black people would be in another area. The whites would be upstairs and the black people downstairs or vice versa. But when they started listening to the Motown music we would go back again and they’d be dancing together and sitting together and stuff like that.

You threatened to leave The Miracles in 1969 but stayed, although eventually split in 1972. Why did you decide to leave the success and comfort of the group?

Because I had children then. My kids were born and they were very small and I wanted to be with my kids. The Miracles and I were gone all the time, man. And The Miracles and I had done everything that a group could possibly accomplish – we had accomplished it three or four times. I didn’t feel like at that point since my kids were there and I was road weary that I was giving 100% as I always had to the group. So I felt like I was more of a handicap than an asset at that point.

You developed an addiction to cocaine in the 80s, apparently after a fairly drug-free life. What led to this career low and how did you recover?

You know something? It didn’t really affect my career because it was like in secret. It wasn’t a publicly known thing until I wrote my book, and I wrote my book to help other people. It wasn’t like it was an out-front thing that was going on and everybody knew that Smokey Robinson was on drugs. That’s not what happened with me. Mine was very private. With the exception of my close friends and my family it was a private happening. But I wrote my book so that people who are tempted or who get off into drugs could know that you don’t have to be; to expose myself so that people could see that drugs don’t discriminate. They don’t care who you are or what you’re doing. I did the cocaine thing for about two years and I was dead. I go now and I speak everywhere. I speak in schools and churches and rehabs and gang meetings and jails; I speak almost as much as I sing. I haven’t had any drugs since 1986, and I didn’t start doing them until the end of 1983. I just want to help people; that’s why I exposed that.

Your voice still sounds as sweet as it did 40 years ago. What’s your secret?

You know, people ask me that all the time, and I just tell them the first and foremost thing is to take care of yourself. When you’re a singer your voice is your instrument and your voice is the first thing that goes if you’re dissipating and being destructive with your body and with yourself. So I just try and take care of myself. I try to stay in good health; I work out, I run or walk, I don’t drink or smoke or any of that and I just try and take care of myself.

You’re still writing and recording and have notched up over 4000 songs. What keeps the inspiration coming?

God gives everybody a gift. Some people just never discover what their gift is or put the time into trying to find out what their gift is. They get sidetracked by other things that they want to do or that they think that they should be or think that they should be doing, but God gives everybody a gift. So that’s my gift. I know that and I enjoy it. I enjoy my life. I enjoy what I do. I can’t think of anything else that I would have rather done with my life than what I am doing.

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