100 Greatest Artists

32

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Illustration by Rob Day

I used to go to the Motown revues, and the Miracles always closed the show. They were that good, and everybody knew it. Not flash at all. The Supremes had bigger hits. The Temptations had the better dance moves. The Miracles did it with pure music.

Back then the radio played the rougher stuff, like "Do You Love Me," by the Contours, only at night. Smokey Robinson — they played him all day. Everybody loved his songs, and he had a leg up on all the other singers, with that slightly raspy, very high voice. Smokey was smoky. He could rasp in falsetto, which is hard to do and perfect for a sad ballad like "The Tears of a Clown" or "The Tracks of My Tears."

Smokey wrote his own stuff, so he had an originality or individualism that maybe the other Motown greats didn't. He was a lyric man as well as a melody man, a musicians' musician. It's kinda like Hollywood, where you have the star, and then you have the actors' actor. Gene Hackman — when was the last time that guy gave a bad performance? Smokey was the Gene Hackman of Motown.

I grew up in the black neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I didn't think in terms of black music or white music. It was all just music to me. Smokey's first hit, "Shop Around," was one of the first records I bought. Later on, when my brother went into the service and I was the sole support of my mother, I was playing bars six nights a week, five 45-minute sets a night. This was '63-'67, and I could make the most money playing in a trio. We had a medley of six Smokey songs that we played at least twice every night: "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Shop Around," "Bad Girl," "Way Over There" and a couple of others. It was a survival move — the people demanded it. Also, if you were after a girl in the audience, it was always a good idea to do some Smokey.

Smokey was also known as the nicest guy at Motown, which you hear in his voice. I used to do a Canadian television show called Swingin' Time, and everyone from Detroit would show up: the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations. All of them nice people, but Smokey was particularly a gentleman. I saw him again around '87 at an awards show. I was able to tell him how much I appreciated his writing, and all the money I made playing his songs in bars. I have great memories. Thank you, Smokey.

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