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

smokey robinson
Gems/Redferns
Smokey Robinson
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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.

Interviewed, he was like a bright salesman for a progressive company. Yet his politeness, good nature, and respect for all performers, while the cliched public attributes of a showman, seemed also the virtues of a man beyond vanity. He and his group, he said, "just dig music, jazz, pop, rock and roll, folk, blues, or whatever."

On Bob Dylan: "Here's a cat who's really trying to express what he sees the world as being. He's writing the real of what he sees, not trying to cover it up or paint it up." Some Beatle lyrics escape him, like "I am the Walrus," "but on that one, the feel of it and the things they had going made it a great record, man. I think Lennon and McCartney are two of the greatest songwriters ever."

With Smokey, Stax-Volt is also "great" and he's very happy that his old friend Aretha is doing well with material that suits her ("She's Aretha all the way down now"). He also thinks that all the cover versions of his songs are "great."

Up at the top of his great list (also on it are Henry Mancini, Bacharach and David, Otis Redding, baseball, basketball, swimming, and Motown – "one big happy, spiritual family, man") are the Miracles. "We've stayed together because we legitimately love each other. Some groups, everything becomes more important to the group than the members. You see groups of cats, and they're falling out about a different girl or this and that. It's a drag.

"Staying together has a lot to do with the way you treat people and the simple aspect of being lucky that people dig you for that long – because people don't have to dig you. This is one thing that recording artists get off into where after they've had a few hit records they think it's them. They think, 'well, if I was the milkman, when I was coming down the street all the girls would come out of the house and say "oh, he's coming with the milk," and tear their clothes off.'

"That's not true, man, it just comes along with the business. When you can no longer accept the fact that you're a human being and singing is just your job and along with the glamour part of entertainment comes the screams and the yells, then you're in trouble. But we want everybody to know we thank them because they've been so wonderful down through the years."

If he talks like Mr. Nice Guy, there is nothing effete about Smokey. On stage he leads his group with a sure hand, and starting with jokes, then moving from call and response ("Everybody in the audience who wants love to come to 'em tonight, say 'yeah,' like this, 'yeeaaahh'! Everybody!"), to some leaping with "Mickey's Monkey" and finally to romance with "Ooh, Baby," he wrings everything out of his crowds, now mostly at colleges or nightclubs. If his music isn't strictly speaking a very funky soul music, it has all of Smokey's soul in it. Done within the limits of Top-40 hit machine, and even within those of the more precise Motown machine, his music transcends them.

"My theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea and tells a story in the time allotted for a record. It has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.

"A lot of the things you hear by us, we had to splice down for radio time. Like 'Second that Emotion.' It was 3:15 when it was done and Berry – who has an ingenious sense of knowing hit records, it's uncanny – he heard it, he told us, 'It's a great tune, but it's too long, so I want you to cut that other verse down and come right out of the solo and go back into the chorus and on out.' So we did and the record was a smash. He's done that on quite a few records and he's usually right, man.

"I've just geared mysef to radio time. The shorter a record is nowadays, the more it's gonna be played. This is a key thing in radio time, you dig? If you have a record that's 2:15 long it's definitely gonna get more play than one that's 3:15, at first, which is very important," he said, sounding – incongruously for he was lying casually on a motel bed in his bathrobe – like the junior exec, again.

"But it's no hang up because I'm going to work in it and say whatever I'm going to say in this time limit. It would be a hang up if I wrote five minutes of a song and then had to cut it up. But cutting 30 seconds or a minute doesn't make that much difference."

He was not aware that for many people in rock and roll, the Top-40 has become an irrelevant concern. "I think that anybody who records somebody approaches it with the thought in mind that these people can be a smash. I don't think anybody thinks, 'Oh, they'll never be a Top-40 act, but here, let's record them and not be in the Top-40.' Everybody who approaches this, approaches it with the idea of being in the Top Ten because it's the only way to stay in business, and let's face it, this is the record industry, one of the biggest industries going nowadays.

"So we're just going to try to stay abreast of what's on the market. This what hangs a lot of jazz musicians up. I've seen cats in little clubs who are jazz musicians through and through. They would not play a note of rock and roll ever. Nothing. And they're starving to death.

"Now this gets to the point of ridiculousness to me. I don't think that they love jazz anymore than I love what I'm doing, but it just so happens that right now what I'm doing is more in demand than jazz. But you can believe if it came to a point whereas jazz was what was happening and nobody was buying this type of music and I was starving to death, I'm sure I'd write some jazz songs.

"The market, man, the market is people. It is the kids who are buying the records. This is the people you're trying to reach. I think that satisfying people on the whole if you're in business is more important than self-satisfaction."

He thought for a minute if he has a side of himself that demands satisfaction free from industry and market limits. "Well," he said, "thinking hard and talking slowly, "I could go into the studio and record a tune that's thirty minutes long if I want to satisfy my personal thing. I could record a tune that's longer than a LP, just record it, have a disc made, take it home, sit back, and dig it. But, you know, I don't think I would. If somebody did, man, great. But I don't think I'd do something like that."

This story is from the September 28th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 18: September 28, 1968
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