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Smokey Robinson: Meet the Reigning Genius of the Top 40

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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