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Smokey Robinson: Meet the Reigning Genius of the Top 40

Today's "greatest living poet" crafts songs that transcend the limits of Motown and Top-40 and are infused with Smokey's soul

September 28, 1968
smokey robinson
Smokey Robinson
Gems/Redferns

Smokey Robinson is the reigning genius of Top-40. Since the Beatles and the Beach Boys dropped out of the single-then-follow-up-album pattern aimed at the AM teenage listener, William "Smokey" Robinson has had the field to himself.

The lead singer of the Miracles, writer of almost all their material and that of many Motown groups, a prolific producer, and a vice president and charter member of the Motown Corporation, Smokey is what DJ's call with gushing enthusiasm, "an all around entertainer." He is a combination Sam Cooke, Paul McCartney, Lieber and Stoller, and George Martin. But no one has done it all as well and as long as Smokey, and none with quite his style and easy grace.

Now 27, Smokey (known as "Smoke" to intimates) has been writing and singing since he did a tune for a first grade skit in which he played Uncle Remus. He wrote poetry as a kid too, but dropped it in junior high when he started the Miracles as a street corner harmonizing group. He and his group – Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore, Claudette Rogers, and Claudette's brother who left not long after – were then 12 years old and they are still together.

Aretha Franklin was a neighborhood friend too and they grew up hearing the blues and gospel, but successful black music then was the multi-voiced sweet sound of groups like the Penguins, the Platters, the Drifters, and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers. That's the sound Smokey wanted. In 1957 the Miracles got their first audition.

"We auditioned for this guy, but he didn't like us," Smokey said recently, "with me and Claudette (she's my wife now), he wanted us to be like Mickey and Sylvia. But Berry Gordy, Jr., was there – he was doing pretty good then writing songs for people like Jackie Wilson and Etta James – and afterwards he called us over and asked to see our songs. We had a book of about 100 I had written, and he liked only one, but he didn't just say the rest were garbage. I must of went through 68 of those songs with this cat and on every one I'd say, 'What's wrong with this one?' and he'd say, 'Well, you left off this or you didn't complete your idea on that,' which really started me to think about songs and what they were. Gordy, man, that cat more than anyone else helped me get my thing together."

A debt is also owed the other way. Gordy signed with the Miracles as their producer and with the money made from a series of solid hits like "Get a Job" and "Bad Girl," leased to big companies for distribution, started Motown in 1959. The company's first hit was a Smokey-Miracles song, "Way Over There," and it was "Shop Around," a 1961 millionseller that put the company on its feet financially.

Working together, Smokey and Gordy created the Motown Sound. In the early days they collaborated on both writing and producing, and Smokey's executive job was "artist development." But it was primitive Motown: instead of having strings, big bands, and complex tracking, they were lucky to have a sax or piano with the rhythm section. As the business grew, Gordy stopped writing and Smokey either wrote the songs himself or built lyrics and a full melody out of riffs suggested by the Miracles' guitarist Marvin Tarplin or out of ideas sparked by members or the whole group.

By now Smokey doesn't know how many songs he's written. Some never made it, but there have been dozens of hits, each in its own way perfect. There's no formula, but all have a certain liquidity, a subtle and simple elegance. Smokey makes it look easy. There is a strong beat, a sure bass, and then a seductively harmonized melody whose turns are exactly matched by the lyric's mood.

Bob Dylan (press releases say) has said that Smokey is "today's greatest living American poet." It may be. Take "I Second That Emotion":

Maybe you wanna give me kisses sweet,
But only for one night and no repeat.
And maybe you'll go away and never call.
But a taste of honey is worse none at all., (Oh little girl)
In that case I don't want no part (I do believe)
That that would only break my heart
But if you feel like loving me, if you've got the notion,
I second that emotion.

John Lennon thought enough of the "I'm Crying" refrain in the sweet "Ooh, Baby," to cop it for "I Am the Walrus." Smokey can be baroque in playing with words and their repetition ("Beggars can't be choosey, I know that's what people say/But though my heart is begging for love, I've thrown some love away/I'm a choosey beggar, and you're my choice") or he can get right down home and basic as in "You're My Remedy" that he did for the Marvelettes:

Don't call a doctor
A nurse is worse
Cause a pill won't heal my pain
When I'm feeling blue
You know what to do
To make me feel right again.
Sometimes I get to tremblin' and a shakin'
Like a leaf shakin' on a tree
The doctor wants to s'pect
I'll be a nervous wreck
But you're my remedy.

While his new songs have a smooth sophistication (as "If you can want, you can need; if you can need, you can care; if can care, you can love; whenever you want me, I'll be there") his early songs were right in the fifties' – early sixties' teen groove. "Shop Around" defines the form:

When I became of age my mother called me to her side
She said, 'Son you're growing up now, pretty soon you'll take a bride,'
And then she said, 'just because you've become a young man now
Still some things that you don't understand now,
Before you let her hold your hand now
Keep your reason for as long as you can now,'
My mamma told me, 'You better shop around.'

"Tracks of My Tears," perhaps his best song, starts with a simple guitar riff, picked up by the bass and accented first by the drum and then a few lovely "too doo oh's" by the group, and then Smokey sings alone "People say I'm the life of the party/Cause I tell a joke or two/Although I might be laughin' even though downhearted/Deep inside I'm blue," and then with everything building, out comes the chorus, "Take a good" (drum smash) "look at my face oh-oh-oh/You'll see my smile" (another smash) "looks out of place/If you look closer it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears." By the end Smokey's voice is riding high over an incredible sweep of music, throwing in "ooh's" and "yeah's" until there's nothing more to say.

"That song," said Smokey, "started with a riff Marvin Gaye came up with. We worked it over for two months trying to get it in the pocket. When we did, we took it into the studio and did it, doing three other tunes that session too."

Smokey does four tunes an afternoon because he is a Top-40 hitmaker, a professional. He is Mr. Motown; small, agile, and very lightskinned, his physical presence is the opposite of the late Otis Redding's. In his dressing room after a show at a plush, white middle class club in San Francisco, he whipped off the orange handkerchief he had put over his closely razored process when he noticed pictures were being taken; the do-rag, apparently, is not the Motown image.

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