In a recent episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Smokey Robinson looked back at his astonishing run of hits at Motown Records in the 1960s, and much more. Some highlights follow; to hear the entire interview with Robinson (who has a new autobiographical Audible release, Smokey Robinson: Grateful and Blessed, out now), press play below, or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.
Decades before Kanye West promised to fix “Wolves” post-release, Motown founder Berry Gordy re-recorded “Shop Around” after it was already in stores.
“The record had been out for about two weeks,” Robinson says. “It was doing fair, you know. And so, three o’clock in the morning, one morning, my phone rang, I pick up the phone and say, ‘Hello.’ Berry said, ‘What are you up to?’ I said, ‘What am I up to? I’m sleeping!’ He said, ‘Well, man, “Shop Around” won’t let me sleep. Because you gave it the wrong treatment. I’m going to change the beat. I’m going to change the sound. I’m going to show you the feeling of it. And it’s going to Number One.’ I said, ‘Okay, man, great. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He said, ‘No, I mean, right now. Come to the studio right now.’ So I did. And everybody showed up except for the piano player. Berry’s a pretty accomplished pianist himself. So he played the piano on the record. And we record ‘Shop Around’ at three o’clock in the morning, change everything about it. And sure enough, it was our first million-seller.”
“Ooo Baby Baby” began as an improvisation.
“I call it a meant-to-be song,” says Robinson. “It was an accidental creative hit, because of the fact that it was just something spontaneous. The Miracles and I used to sing a medley of love songs by other artists in our show. We sang it everywhere we went. One night, we went to Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. There was a [doo-wop] group called the Schoolboys at that time, they had a record called ‘Please Say You want Me,’ which was the ending song of that medley. And the girls, you know, they loved it. And so at the end of it, rather than ending it, I just started to say, ‘Ooh, baby, baby.’ And the guys, who were so in tune with me, they heard me and they just started to harmonize with that. The crowd went crazy. So every night we started to do that, man, and they went crazy. So we said, ‘Okay, that’s it. We go home and write this.’ And that’s what we did.”
“I Second That Emotion” started as a malapropism by Motown songwriter Al Cleveland.
“We were Christmas shopping in a department store,” Robinson recalls. “He was getting something for his wife at one of the counters. And we were talking with the young lady who was selling the stuff. She said something, and rather than him saying, ‘I second that motion,’ he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I second that emotion.’ And the girl and him and me laughed. And then we were walking out of the store, and I said, ‘Hey, man, that’s a hell of idea for a song!'”
Motown’s choreographer eventually banned Robinson from dancing.
“Cholly Atkins, who taught all the Motown acts, would be showing steps to the Miracles and me,” Robinson says. “He’d say, ‘Okay, you stand over there. You just sing. I’m not gonna try to teach you the steps, because I’m not gonna have my step ruined by you.’ I’m not really a dancer, but I accepted that.”
His high, gentle singing style came from both male and female influences.
“The first voice that I ever remember hearing in my life was Sarah Vaughn,” Robinson says. “As far as I’m concerned, she and Ella Fitzgerald were instruments. They were just vocal instruments. Sarah Vaughan was the first big influence that I had as far as singing. And she happened to be a female. Then when I started to grow up, I started to buy my own records. I bought Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, and then Clyde McPhatter and Frankie Lymon and Nolan Strong [of doo-wop group the Diablos] and Ray Charles. Those are the guys that I idolized as singers, and they all sang high. So that was it.”
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