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Smokey Robinson's Motown Memories

Soul great on his new album and high notes from the past - writing hits, hanging with Stevie Wonder and more

August 4, 2009 4:15 PM ET

Smokey Robinson is practically synonymous with Motown. Not only did he pen some of the most enduring and instantly recognizable songs of the past five decades, but he served as the label's vice president for over 25 years. And while he may no longer record for Berry Gordy's imprint, Robinson is helping celebrate Motown's 50th anniversary this year, and his latest release, Time Flies When You're Having Fun, finds him as smooth and soulful as ever. The record features guest spots by Joss Stone ("You're The One For Me"), India.Arie ("You're Just My Life") and Carlos Santana ("Please Don't Take Your Love"), and its leadoff single is a sultry cover of "Don't Know Why." The frequent guest of American Idol recently spoke to Rolling Stone about writing his biggest hits and being complimented by Bob Dylan.

What's the story behind stocking Time Flies When You're Having Fun with so many vintage soul sounds?
Time Flies When You're Having Fun came about because that's how I feel about my life. Last year we started to celebrate — we're going to celebrate straight through 2010, we're having a three-year celebration of the 50th anniversary of Motown. So that's gone by overnight to me [laughs]. It seems like it's been maybe 10 years ago, and here it is 50 years. I'm very blessed, and I'm living the life that I absolutely love. I love every aspect of my work, and when your job is something that you love like that, time flies.

And also, I recorded it live. When I say "live," I mean live in the studio, the old fashioned way, when you have the musicians in there playing while you're singing. We had a ball — I have a lot of great musicians on there. Guys that I have known forever and ever. When you have everybody in the studio at the same time, it's like doing a concert. Everybody gets a chance to feed off of each other, everybody gets a chance to feel each other. You just don't get that recording everybody separately.

How did the special guests get involved?
I have three guests, and they are all my really good friends, who I've known for a long time. I've known Joss since she was 15 years old, I've known Carlos for thirty-something years, and I've known India for 10 or 12 years. I was introduced to India by Stevie Wonder. It was a joy recording with all of them. They're the only people that I actually overdubbed, because I had the tracks recorded, and my voice was on there.

How did you decide to cover "Don't Know Why"?
"Don't Know Why" is one of my favorite songs — I loved it since the first time I heard it by Norah Jones. You have to really pay attention to what "Don't Know Why" is saying, to really get the fact that it is a love song, and it's one of regret. It's an abstract song, but the melody is so beautiful, and it's such a great song. I love great songs, man. So I just chose to do my own rendition of it.

Do you think there can ever be another Motown?
No, I don't. I don't think anything like that will ever happen again. Nothing happened like that prior to it, and I doubt seriously if anything like that can happen again. It was too phenomenal. As far as I'm concerned, Motown was a once-in-a-lifetime musical event, that will never happen again.

Are there any modern day artists that remind you of Motown artists from the past?
There are a lot of talented young people out here, singing and writing and performing songs. So any one of them could have been at Motown. I'm not one of those people who sits back and says, "The music of today is ridiculous," because that's not true. There's always been negative music, and our waters run off of the negative now. All news is negative. Every time you turn on the news you're hearing a bunch of negative stuff — all the death and the this and the that. The negative gets all the attention. So I think people have given negative music the forefront, and that's not so.

Who are your favorites current artists?
I'm a fan of Maxwell, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Nelly. I got a lot of them, and it runs the gamut. I listen to everybody — all kinds of music, all the time.

What are your memories of writing "Shop Around"?
"Shop Around" was actually a song that I wrote for an artist that we had at Motown at the time named Barrett Strong. And Barrett Strong ended up being a hell of a songwriter — he and Norman Whitfield wrote so many wonderful songs for the Temptations. Barrett had a huge record, "Money (That's What I Want)."

See, songwriting is so unique for me, because some songs take a long time to complete, and some songs just flow out. I had completed "Shop Around" within 30 minutes — I'm not exaggerating that. It was just one of those songs that flowed out like water. I was very excited about it for Barrett. I went and got Berry, and we went down to the piano at the studio, and played and sang it for him. He said, "No, man, I want you to sing this song." So he and I went back and forth about that for about 20 minutes, and he finally convinced me to sing the song. "Shop Around" I recorded with the Miracles, and it had been out for maybe two or three weeks, and Berry called me at 3 in the morning, and said, "Get the group together and come to the studio," because he was going to re-record "Shop Around," and change the beat and the sound of it. That's what we did, and it went to Number One. It was the first million seller that we had at Motown.

What about "The Tracks of My Tears"?
I credit that song to my guitarist, who has been with me forever and ever — he just retired last December. His name is Marv Tarplin. He is the source of so many songs for me, and "The Tracks of My Tears" is one of those songs. He had that guitar riff, and he gave it to me. Like he always did — he put it on a tape, gave it to me, and I listened to it until I could come up with a song for it. So Marv Tarplin is the source of the track.

And "The Tears of a Clown"?
We always had Christmas parties at Motown, and all the artists and all the employees came. Stevie Wonder came to me at the Christmas party, and said, "Hey man, I've got a track, and I can't think of a song to go with this. I want you to take it, listen to it, and see what you can come up with." I did, and it was "The Tears of a Clown." The little thing that goes [sings the song's opening melody], reminded me of the circus, so I wanted to write something about the circus — that I thought was heart wrenching. So I wrote about Pagliacci the Clown, but I kind of personalized it.

Bob Dylan once paid you a great compliment, saying you are "America's greatest living poet."
I think it was a fantastic quote and Bob is my friend. I've known Bob forever. That was a very flattering thing to say. Bob is a very great songwriter himself. One of his songs is one of my favorite songs in life: "Like a Rolling Stone." That's one of my favorite songs ever. That was fantastic for me.

How would you like Michael Jackson to be remembered?
I would like Michael to be remembered in as much as he was probably the greatest overall artist that there's ever been. His legacy should be that. He changed the face of music — he changed the face of delivering a song. He changed the face of videos. I would like him to be remembered for that. And he was a philanthropist — he was a very generous man. He did a lot of charity stuff that people didn't even know about. He was constantly giving.

Would you like to share a memory of Michael?
One of my fondest memories of Michael is what I thought of him at 11 years old, singing my song, "Who's Loving You." And singing it like he had been living for 40 years, because "Who's Loving You" is a song about somebody who had somebody that loved them, but they did the person wrong, and the person left them. And then they're sitting around, brooding about it, because they realized that they made a mistake, and they're wondering who this person is loving now. So at 11 years old, he couldn't have possibly known that — but that's how he sang my song.

Out of all the artists that have covered one of your songs over the years, which is your favorite?
I have none. As a songwriter, when I sit down to write a song, I'm wanting to write a song — if I had written it 50 years before then it would have had meant something, today it's going to mean something, and in 50 years it's going to mean something. There are millions and millions of songs, so [artists] have a vast choice out there. But if they chose one of mine, I just love the fact that as a songwriter, I've accomplished what I set out to do. And many people who have recorded my songs are songwriters themselves. I'm very flattered by it — I don't critique them, I just love them.

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