It has a storybook arc to it, really. Three dollars and nineteen cents started an empire that fundamentally changed music, and in some ways, the world. Of course, it’s not the money that did it, but rather the subtle insult the money implied. It was 1958, back when a quarter could get a cup of coffee and leave change for a phone call, but even then, $3.19 wasn’t a lot. Smokey Robinson, eighteen years old, was singing with a group called the Matadors, managed by twenty-nine-year-old Berry Gordy. The Matadors became the Miracles to give a feminine touch after Robinson’s soon-to-be wife, Claudette Rogers, joined the group, and they released a couple singles on End Records. The singles sold moderately well, and then the royalty check came. For writing, producing, and performing, Robinson, Gordy, and the rest of the group received $3.19.
At that moment, Motown was born. Legend has it that Robinson got in Gordy’s ear, told him that the only way to make money was to control the publishing as well as the writing. So, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and set up Tamla on January 12, 1959. That venture soon became Motown.
To say there is no Smokey Robinson without Motown would be telling half the story, however. The other half is that there is no Motown without Smokey Robinson either. Robinson was instrumental in building Motown—finding new talent, writing hit songs, and acting as vice president. By now, the story of his life has been told so many times, it seems more fairy tale than biography. But, in most accounts of his life, there is a deeper meaning that is often lost. Perhaps this is because although Robinson is a musician, music is only part of his significance. To get at the other part, you have to discuss racism and the civil rights movement.
Smokey was born William Robinson Jr. in Detroit in 1940. The common story behind his nickname goes that his uncle Claude called him “Smokey” because he loved cowboy movies. There is another version, however, and it cuts to the heart of Robinson’s social importance. In that version, the uncle called him “Smokey” in reference to his skin color. Robinson was born with light brown skin and blue eyes, and the uncle “didn’t ever want him to forget that he was black.”(1)
Robinson grew up in the same neighborhood as Diana Ross during Detroit’s golden age, a time when America was pumping out cars that looked like spaceships, and the city was a jumping metropolis. As a student at Northern High, Robinson was studying to be an electrical engineer, but he also sang in a street-corner doo-wop group. The group was called the Five Chimes, which became the Matadors, and they were far from unique. Around Robinson’s neighborhood, practically everyone was a singer. “There were guys in my neighborhood who could sing me under the table, but they just never got that break,” Robinson recalled.(2)
Robinson did get that break. In 1957, the Matadors set up an ill-fated audition with Jackie Wilson’s manager. The manager rejected them, but in a turn of events that only happens in movies, Robinson was stopped at the door by one of Wilson’s songwriters who was at the audition. The songwriter asked Robinson if he had any other material. With more than one hundred songs already written, Robinson simply went through his notebook, singing his ideas to an unimpressed Berry Gordy. Gordy saw some raw talent but found the songs immature and uneven. “Every song should have an idea, tell a story, mean something,” Gordy told Robinson.(3) Thus began one of the most significant creative partnerships of the twentieth century.
Two years later, Gordy started Motown. The year after that, he signed the newly christened Miracles and began grooming Robinson as his second in command. They cut “Shop Around” in 1960, and the song gained local recognition, but Gordy wasn’t satisfied. One night, he woke Robinson out of a dead sleep and told him to round up the Miracles and head to the studio to recut the song. Gordy upped the tempo, added some piano, and the new “Shop Around” sold a million copies and stayed at the top of the national R&B charts for eight weeks. Motown had arrived.
At this point, Robinson began his role as a political and social force. It went back to something Gordy told Robinson at the beginning of Motown. “We’re not gonna make Black music,” he said. “We’re gonna make good music. We’re gonna make music for everybody.”(4)
Motown did just that. By focusing on the groove, occasionally using a twelve-member rhythm section, Motown appealed to its core Black audience. By creating squeaky-clean acts with polished stage routines, it drew a White audience as well. The result was not only lucrative, it allowed Motown to break social barriers in a way that other entertainers and labels could not. As the Motown historian Bill Dahl put it, “Pop DJs might have sometimes hesitated to spin new platters from...Stax or Chess, assuming their appeal might be limited largely to African-American listeners, but they harbored no such qualms about airing Motown’s product.”(5)
Even so, the racial situation in America could not be changed with music alone. And, in 1962, when Gordy gathered the roster for the first Motortown Revue, the country was still bitterly segregated. While racism was nothing new to them, most of the performers on the tour—including the Miracles and the Supremes—hadn’t experienced the particularly sour taste of Southern segregation. At one stop in Mississippi, Bobby Rogers of the Miracles went into a gas station and was met by an angry White owner with his finger on the trigger of a gun. Rogers sprinted frantically back to the bus screaming, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!”(6) State troopers had to escort the Motortown Revue out of Mississippi.
Not only would they be in the same area, but they’d be mingling with each other, and dancing with each other, and talking to each other, because they had a common love there with the music.Smokey Robinson
As the tour drove through the jaws of segregation, it managed to break a few teeth along the way. Mary Wilson of the Supremes remembered the tour’s effect on audiences, saying, “People wanted to dance. But when they started dancing, they forgot where they were sitting. And that segregated audience became integrated.”(7) Robinson felt the sinister side of the situation. “There were times when we were lucky to come out alive,” he said. “It was like they hit you in the face and say, ‘Take this and see if you can get back up.’”(8)
Not only did they get back up, they got stronger. By 1964, Motown was a humming hotbed of creativity. It was the biggest independent record label in the nation, and more importantly, it was the most successful Black-owned business in the nation. At a time when many were seething under the weight of Jim Crow in the South and urban decay in the North, Motown presented a radically new picture of Black people to the country. It was a picture of crisp suits, talented performers, brilliant businesspeople, and an integrated corporation.
Robinson became more indispensable to Motown with each year, acting as vice president, talent scout, career manager, and writer for Mary Wells (“My Guy”), the Temptations (“My Girl,” “Get Ready”), Marvin Gaye (“I’ll Be Doggone,” “Ain’t that Peculiar”), and the Marvelettes (“Don’t Mess with Bill”). He also continued his string of hits with the Miracles, including “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Tracks of My Tears,” and “Going to a Go-Go.” Robinson was hitting his artistic peak, and it is no coincidence that both Motown and the civil rights movement were peaking as well.
But as the ’60s wore on, Robinson wanted to spend more time with his wife and children. In 1970, just off of their biggest single ever—“Tears of a Clown”—Robinson told the Miracles he was leaving. “It seemed like we’d done it all,” he said later. “I was proud of the success, but, man, I was tired of touring.”(9) In light of his departure, the New York Times summarized his social importance: “When Smokey Robinson leaves the Miracles,” Charlayne Hunter of the Times wrote, “an era will have ended, an era marked by sit-ins, freedom rides, school desegregation, and Freedom songs.”(10)
During this period, drastic changes were happening at Motown as well. In 1972, after working in Los Angeles for several years, Berry Gordy finally closed the Detroit headquarters, leaving many artists with the difficult choice of uprooting their lives or no longer being part of the company. Robinson chose the former, moving Claudette and the kids out to L.A. He released solo albums throughout the ’70s, and although his smooth, polished soul was at odds with the disco craze, Robinson remained influential. His 1975 album, Quiet Storm, spawned an entire radio format of the same name, and his 1979 hit “Cruisin’ ” was one of the biggest of his career.
Then came the ’80s. Few artists from the soul era made it through the ’80s unscathed, and Robinson took it particularly hard. His father died, and Robinson felt that Claudette, who had been with him for a quarter of a century, wasn’t quite there for him anymore. He started seeing another woman who became pregnant with his child, and he began using cocaine. Claudette demanded a divorce, and Robinson moved out. Living alone in an apartment, hooked on cocaine, estranged from his wife, girlfriend, and new child, Robinson had never been lower. Then, he lost Motown. In 1988, Gordy sold Motown to MCA, and Robinson’s run as vice president ended.
Robinson was relatively quiet during the ’90s while he put his life back together. He got clean, became a born-again Christian, and released his first gospel album, Food for the Spirit, in 2004. Since then, Robinson has reemerged with customary grace and tenacity, appearing on American Idol, starting his own label, and releasing an album of new material last August called Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.
He recently talked about the new album and his career from a hotel in New Jersey. At sixty-nine years old, Smokey’s voice still bursts with joy and vitality, leaving no doubt as to the reason for his uncommon success.
As someone who has seen this country change from segregation and Jim Crow to the first Black president, do you think your work with Motown had a role in that change?
Oh, absolutely, man. I’m very proud of that fact too. I’m very proud of the fact that we had a huge hand in changing the racial prejudices that were going on. Because when we first started to become popular, we would take tours of the Motortown Revue to the South, and we’d play these big arenas. And the stage would be in the center, and White people would be on one side, and Black people would be on the other side, or White people would be upstairs, and Black people would be downstairs, or vice versa. And, after the music started to take hold, we’d go back to those same places, and not only would they be in the same area, but they’d be mingling with each other, and dancing with each other, and talking to each other, because they had a common love there with the music. Even intercontinental, man, because the United States was in a cold war with Russia, and our acts were going to Russia, and they were very well received. So, I think we did a lot to break down a lot of barriers.
And in a way, you paved the way for guys like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, and the hip-hop entrepreneurs. What are your feelings on hip-hop?
Well, you know, most of those guys would tell you the same thing, man. Most of those guys that you mentioned are friends of mine, man, especially Russell. We did pave the way for them in a sense, man. Somebody has to pave the way for everybody, you know what I mean? My thoughts on hip-hop are that hip-hop has become the mainstream music, man. You will find many people who will knock hip-hop or rap and give it a bad name, and that is so foolish to me, because there are some kids out there making some great music, man. You see, Travis, we live in a world where the negative gets all of the attention. This is not only true of music, this is true of life itself. Every day when you look at the news, there’s only negative stuff on the news. I think that every city, and every town, and every little village in the world that has TV, it should be mandatory that they have at least two or three stations that give nothing but good news.
I wasn’t expecting Time Flies When You’re Having Fun to be such a sexy album. How did it come about?
I’ve been writing those songs for about the last five years. You know, I write all the time. There are actually about six or seven songs left that I recorded for this particular CD that are not on there. I write as it comes to me. I’m not a mood writer where I need to be happy to write a happy song or sad to write a sad song, or I need to take two or three months to go off to the mountains or somewhere so I can write. You know, I write almost every day of my life, man. I just consider it to be a blessing for me. It’s all original material with the exception of two songs that are on there: “Don’t Know Why,” which is a Jesse Harris song made popular by Norah Jones, and then I have a hidden track on there, “I Want You Back,” which was the first hit song for the Jackson 5 when they first came to Motown [in the late ’60s]. One of the very first songs I recorded on the very first session was “I Want You Back,” because I had always wanted to do an adult version of that song and do it kind of jazzy-like. And so I recorded it, and I had gotten a bunch of them pressed up, the CD and the albums, because albums are back, you know? And so I got a bunch of them pressed up, and then Mike [Jackson] died. I didn’t want to list it on the album, then, because I didn’t want people to think that I was exploiting his death or anything like that. He was my little brother, so I would never do anything like that. And for even those who might have thought something like that or said something like that, I didn’t want to give them the chance to even say or think that.
I read that you’ve written something like four thousand songs. Has the process of writing songs changed for you?
It’s the same for me, man, because I always want to write a song. That’s my goal every time I sit down. I recognize the fact that the first time I record it, if I record it myself or give it to somebody else, perhaps I might not give it the right treatment, so the masses of people will not take to it. But if it would have meant something fifty years before I wrote it, or right now, or fifty years from now, then it has the possibility of someone else picking it up and saying, “Hey, I like this,” and recording it in a way that the masses will accept it. I always try to write a song, man, and I’ve always been like that. So it hasn’t changed for me.
This is kind of an impossible question to answer, but if anyone can do it, it might be you. What makes a hit song? How do you know when it’s a hit?
You never do.
You never know. You just hit and hope, man. You just hope that you’ve done a great job and that it will be a hit for you when people hear it, because you never really know.
One thing that set you apart from other soul writers of the time, and something I still notice in your music, is the use of jazzy chords, like minor sixths and sevenths. Where did that influence come from?
I had such a great jazz influence in my life as a child growing up. I had two older sisters and my mom, and music was played in our house all day long—all kinds of music. There was gospel, there was classical, there was jazz, there was blues, there was everything. I guess the great majority of the time I was hearing people like Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine, and Frank Sinatra, and Patti Page, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, and people like that who had that flavor of music. I was very influenced by that music, and I guess it had a great impact on me, man.
Do you remember when you first realized that you could sing?
According to my two sisters, I’ve been singing ever since I opened my mouth. [laughs] They told me that many times they were upset at me. My youngest sister was fourteen when I was born, and my oldest sister was seventeen when I was born. They said that on the weekends especially, I would get up singing to the top of my lungs, and they didn’t have to go to school that day. They could sleep in, and they’d be yellin’ at me. And my mom would tell them, “Stop yellin’. Let him sing if he wants to.” So I’ve been singing since I was a baby, man, since I can remember. I’ve always tried to sing and write songs. The first song I wrote that anybody heard other than my mom and me, I was six years old, and I was in an elementary school play, and my auditorium teacher let me write some words to a melody she was playing to a play I was in. I’ve been trying to write songs forever, man.
You come from an era of iconic soul singers—guys like Otis Redding and James Brown—who had kind of an edge to their voice, but your signature is that smooth falsetto. Is that just how it came out, or did you do that on purpose to separate yourself from them?
No, you know, I’ve always had a high voice like that, man. Even in high school; I sang second soprano in high school. It’s always been like that for me. I just naturally have that kind of voice. When I was younger, when I was on the road, I went through a couple of voice changes. You know how guys do. You get to the point where [feigns voice cracking], and your voice is doing whatever it wants to. It was very trying being on the road at such a young age and having to go through that and sing at the same time. But, other than that, it’s always been the same way.
You’re considered one of the great singers of all time, but are there any songs you think you could’ve sung better?
One of the biggest records I ever had in my life was “Cruisin’.” It just so happens that when I was recording “Cruisin’,” I was on a deadline. The vocal you hear on the record is like a scratch vocal, because I was so hoarse that day when I recorded it. So, I had to leave it like that and put it out.
That’s funny to hear, because, as a listener, you just accept it as the final product, and it sounds amazing.
Well, thank you. [laughs] When I listen to it, I know it’s a scratch vocal, and I didn’t get a chance to rerecord it. And maybe it’s better that I didn’t, you know? [laughs] Maybe it’s better that I didn’t get a chance, because it was number one. Maybe I should try that on all of them.
I wanted to ask about that legendary period of Motown that you were a part of with people like Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations. Looking back, are there any memories that stick out?
Just the energy of it, man. It was a very energetic place to be, and there were so many wonderfully talented people there—the writers, the producers, the artists, and so on and so forth. We were extremely competitive with each other. However, it was a competitive thing that also included love, because we loved each other. We were there for each other even though we were being competitive at the same time.
So many of your songs from that period are about relationships, and they were written when you were young. Now that you’ve had several decades of life experience to put into them, do you sing them differently, or does the meaning change?
I might sing them differently as far as interpreting them vocally, but as far as what I feel about them, it’s still the same. Some of those songs I’ve sung thousands upon thousands of times, and I guarantee you, every night they’re new to me. I’m having a ball, so every night they are new to me.
It isn’t hard to keep the songs fresh?
Not if you love it. Out of all my work, as far as what I do musically, performing is the one I love the most.
Tell us about “Tracks of My Tears” from 1965.
“Tracks of My Tears”—I would have to say Marv Tarplin. He is one of the most prolific music people that I have ever known in my life. He was my guitarist from 1961 up until this past December, when he retired. So many, many, many songs you could say to me, and I would have to say his name first. Marv Tarplin is the origin of “Tracks of My Tears.” He had that guitar riff, like he did for so many songs. He put it on tape for me until I could come up with a song for his guitar riff. He was the inspiration for that song. I guess, the idea—I had the first three lines of the chorus before I had any of the rest of it. I had, “Take a good look at my face / See, my smile looks out of place / If you look close, it’s easy to trace that I miss you... / It’s easy to trace that I’m sorry you’re gone... / It’s easy to trace that I wish you were back...” And I was going through all those “It’s easy to trace...what ?”—you know? And one day, I was in my car, and I was thinking—what if a person had cried so much until, if you looked at their face closely, you could see where their tears had left tracks in their face?
“Tears of a Clown” from 1967.
Stevie Wonder. That track that you hear on that record, Stevie Wonder had already recorded that track. He wrote that music, and he had already recorded that [instrumental] track, and he could not think of a song to go on that track. He gave it to me to think of a song to go with that track. And so, when I heard the track first, you know the [sings the opening riff], that is [similar to the circus music of] Ringling Brothers or Barnum and Bailey, you know what I mean? So I wanted to write something about the circus on that track, and I didn’t want to write about animals or anything. I really wanted to write something personal for people. So there’s an old tale about an Italian clown named Pagliacci who was just the talk of the circus. I mean, people went to see him rather than the animals and the other clowns. Then, he went back to his dressing room, and he was very sad because everybody loved him, but he did not have a woman who loved him. [In the opera Pagliacci, the character Canio who plays the clown Pagliaccio learns of his wife’s infidelity and confronts her during a performance and kills her. –Ed.]
“Ooo Baby Baby” from 1965.
“Ooo Baby Baby” was an accident. It started onstage. The Miracles and I used to sing a medley of love songs by other people, and one night we were onstage—it was a theater in Washington, D.C., called the Howard Theatre—and at the end of that medley of songs, I started to sing, [sings] “Ooo baby baby,” and then the guys, we were so in tune to each other, they just started to harmonize with that, and the people went crazy. So, we decided we would just do a song
Let’s end on a new one, 2009’s “Time Flies.”
First of all, the title for the album—I called it that because that’s how I feel about my life. Time flies when you’re having fun. I’m having a ball. It gets more precious all the time to me. So that’s what the title of the album depicts. But the song is about lovers. The song is about somebody that you love and—even though you might see them every day—when you get up to go to work, or when you go to the store, the feeling that you have for them, it’s like, you can’t wait to be with them again, and the time you just spent with them went by instantly.