Smokey Robinson Cruises Back to the Top - Rolling Stone
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Smokey Robinson Cruises Back to the Top

The thrill isn’t gone for the velvety-voiced vocalist, who’s still at his peak after almost 25 years

Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson, circa 1980

Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Smokey onstage in 1964, clad in one of four identical black and white outfits. Smokey at a celebrity golf tournament, wielding a driver and a big grin. A life-size Smokey cutout, its cardboard hands cradling a copy of his new album.

Photos, posters, gold records and assorted mementos fill almost every inch of the walls and counters in the comfortably cluttered, 18th-floor office of the Motown Records vice-president. Tucked away in a corner of the Motown complex, the office looks down on a line of cars creeping along Sunset Boulevard, past the Cinerama Dome Theatre and through Hollywood. The vice-president drives that way every night to his Beverly Hills home, and this summer he’s been hearing himself a lot on the car radio. With a gleeful smile, William “Smokey” Robinson concedes, “It’s as big a thrill to hear ‘Being with You’ as it was to hear ‘Got a Job’ that first time. Maybe bigger, because it means they’re still playing me after all this time.”

Wearing a purple sport shirt, matching dress shoes and off-white flared slacks, Smokey Robinson laughs with an infectious whine that’s a couple of steps higher than his much-lauded falsetto. And Smokey’s got quite a bit to laugh about: mainly the return of the velvet voice and the romantic songwriting pen responsible for a string of soul classics that began in the late Fifties with “Got a Job” and “Bad Girl” and carried on through the Sixties with “Shop Around,” “Oooh Baby Baby,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and scores more. Smokey made his comeback in late 1979 with “Cruisin’,” a left-field ballad that defied the disco craze, and he again scored with last year’s Warm Thoughts, as effortless and majestic an album as he’s ever made. And now there’s a Top 10 LP, Being with You, a Top Five single and a milk-and-honey voice sailing out of the radio once more to gently define the word crooning.

When Bruce Springsteen heard “Cruisin’,” he wanted to put it on an endless tape loop. And when Smokey Robinson saw “Cruisin”‘ hit, he must have sensed a major resurgence, since he hopped to it with those two follow-up albums.

“No, I didn’t sense any resurgence coming,” says Smokey, trying to sandwich in a brunch of eggs, toast and French fries between sentences. “When it happened, then I sensed that it had come. I had been resurged.”

It’s a comment typical of the take-it-as-it-comes, low-key modesty and elusive politeness you run into during an afternoon with Robinson. Maybe ‘run into’ isn’t the right phrase; like an especially agile halfback, Smokey somehow slips away from questions that require him to assess his own role or to discuss the grittier side of his career. He’s very proud, he says. Things are beautiful.

Of course, they are. When Robinson says he’s “a truly happy man,” there’s little reason to doubt him. He’s a devout believer who wears a ‘Try God’ pendant around his neck. He lives with his wife of 22 years, Claudette (a former Miracle), his father and his two kids, 10-year-old Tamla (named after the Motown subsidiary) and 12-year-old Berry (as in Berry Gordy Jr.). He loves music, golf and television, in that order. Bob Dylan once called him “the world’s greatest living poet” (in a later interview, Dylan said he’d really meant Arthur Rimbaud and didn’t know how he could have confused the two). He’s written some 4,000 songs and recorded hundreds that have made him a true poet of the soul – and a voice of the soul, too.

But his ever-strengthening vocal power is nothing special, he insists. “Anybody 50 years old can out-sing himself when he was 17,” he says in a voice made more nasal than usual by a sinus allergy. At age 17, he says, that affliction would have left him hoarse; at age 41, he’s ready to play the outdoor Greek Theatre in two days.

But one thing hasn’t changed over the last two decades. Smokey Robinson still writes love songs – innocent, open, ingenuous love songs like “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” which, Greil Marcus wrote, “made most everything that surrounded it on the radio seem faintly obscene.”

“Love is basically what we’re all about, man,” says Robinson. “We’re about our business, the nine-to-five trip, but our basic thing in life is love. It’s the most powerful force. It’s never passé, it’s not a fad. It’s always.”

Smokey adds that his outlook on love is not naive but pragmatic. “You had to be extremely careful in the Sixties. They were strict about what they’d play on the radio then.” And now? “I’m just trying to say things in a way that my kids can listen to. The world is in havoc nowadays, and anybody in a position to be admired by youth should utilize that in a positive way.”

No, Smokey Robinson does not get worked up when talking about music. Until I mention how romance occasionally slips out of fashion: the rhythm-over-meaning orientation of some disco, the anti-romantic sentiments behind some New Wave.

He pounces on the latter reference. “I doubt whether New Wave will be here two years from now,” he says. “It’s just passing-through music. I don’t think there’s much coherency to it.” He begins heating up. “They’re getting away with murder as far as what they’re saying, how it sounds, the way they dress, the antics. I see punk rockers walking down Hollywood Boulevard smoking pot or blowing coke or whatever. That’s frightening. My kids better not be following that.”

Then Smokey cools off and says he’s not really worried. It’s a fad, he says – not like love songs or soul music. There’s no doubt in Smokey’s mind that ‘real’ music will prevail.

***

“Has he opened his big mouth yet?”

Robinson’s manager, Shelly Berger, has just interrupted our conversation and shoots the question at Bob Jones, the Motown publicist who’s been sitting in.

“It came up number one,” says Jones as Smokey breaks out laughing.

The problem here is that Motown has a silver-anniversary celebration under way for Robinson, but as he admitted to the Los Angeles Times recently, it’s only been 24 years since “Got a Job.” No big deal, but Smokey’s not supposed to talk about it. Anyway, Jones explains, Smokey was writing songs before he was recording them, so it is 25 years after all.

Actually, it’s more like 35 years, because Smokey wrote his first song at age six, when the first grader won the lead in a school production of Uncle Remus and wrote lyrics to a tune he sang to begin and end the show. Detroit’s ghettos were full of music in the Forties and Fifties; it helped make things easier, as Smokey later wrote in “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.” He grew up in the city’s poor North Side, frequently listening to the large record collection that belonged to his mother. “B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker.” Robinson is hushed, almost reverent, as he recites the litany of blues masters who were “the first inspirational thing I had.” Jazz records were there, too: Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine. Smokey would sing around the house and be assaulted by “50 million shut ups!”

When “Smokey Joe” was 10, his mother died and the family moved in with his older sister, who had 10 kids of her own, many close to Smokey’s age. In those days, the streets were filled with gangs and doo-wop groups. Smokey opted for the latter.

A junior-high group called the Chimes turned into the Matadors when they got to high school. A real career in music was everybody’s secret dream, especially with heroes around like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or Billy Ward and His Dominoes. “But a future in music was really just fantasy,” says Robinson. “You had to go to school, get an education and get yourself together.”

That was okay with Smokey, because he always loved school. But barber school didn’t excite him and dentistry turned out to be “really, really, really hard.” Besides, one day the Matadors – Robinson, Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, Ron White plus former Matadorette Claudette Rogers – landed an audition with Jackie Wilson’s manager. He passed on them, but they caught the ear of a young guy outside the hall. Berry Gordy Jr. looked over about 20 songs in Robinson’s notebook. He found one he liked.

That song, “My Mama Done Told Me,” became the B-side of “Got a Job.” But their name wasn’t right for a coed group, so the Matadors threw a batch of new titles into a hat; the Miracles beat out the Sparrows and the Gardenias. They then spent the next couple of years being shafted by white record companies (a total royalty of $3.19 for “Got a Job”), while Gordy struggled to start his brainchild: Motown Records.

“We were gung-ho, man,” Smokey says of Motown’s initial five employees. “We were going for the throat. But there were no advisers to tell us what would happen next; it was trial and error.” Everyone made $5 a week, but Smokey picked up extra money by cutting hair on weeknights and Saturdays. Mary Johnson’s “Come to Me” and the Miracles’ “Bad Girl” were released in 1959 on Motown in the Detroit area. The label’s first big success, though, came in late 1960 with the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” a million seller.

Motown and black music – for a while, the two seemed nearly synonymous – were part of a revolution. The Miracles, Mary Wells, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas barreled onto the pop charts and made the novelty and teen-idol records of the day look pretty silly. Gordy was at the helm, but Smokey was the resident boy genius, the 21-year-old who wrote songs for and produced Wells, Gaye and the Temptations along with his own group. It must have been heady stuff – starting out in a cold-water flat and turning into a hit-making machine every bit as effective as the automobile assembly lines across Detroit.

Heady? Robinson won’t go that far. “It was just my job,” he says. “It moved pretty fast. It was very gratifying.” Press him and he’ll admit it was terrific, too.

But the road wasn’t always hospitable. At first, it meant nights cooking their own meals in hotel rooms because restaurants wouldn’t admit blacks, and shows performed on stages that sat in the center of the hall, with whites on one side and blacks on the other. That got better, but the schedule was no less hectic. Throughout the decade, the Miracles toured incesantly, but when his wife had a son after several miscarriages, Smokey wanted out. “I wanted to show my son how to play baseball, to run. To show him whatever a dad shows his son.

“But just as I was getting ready to leave, ‘Tears of a Clown’ became the biggest record we ever had. It catapulted us into another financial echelon as far as what we made on dates, and I felt that the band was entitled to reap the benefits.”

He finally left in 1971, moved to L.A. with Motown and became a full-time executive, signing checks and scouting for new talent. “It wasn’t a job I really loved,” he recalls. So after two years, he resumed his musical career full time.

The hits came sporadically: 1973’s “Baby Come Close,” 1975’s “Baby That’s Backatcha” (from A Quiet Storm, his first widely acclaimed solo album). Then came disco, which Smokey calls “the most damaging thing to happen to the music business since its inception, because it became so big so quickly that all the companies jumped on the bandwagon with a lot of albums that never sold.” Motown even talked Smokey into joining that bandwagon; his concession was a remake of his old Temptations hit, “Get Ready,” and there’s no mistaking his delight when he tells how that song failed and he had a surprise hit with “Cruisin’,” a ballad Motown thought was “just another Smokey Robinson love song.”

Warm Thoughts, which contained Stevie Wonder’s “Melody Man,” signaled a real artistic rebirth. As soon as the album was released, Robinson went to producer George Tobin with a batch of songs he thought Kim Carnes might like to use to follow her hit cover of his “Warm Love.” But Tobin convinced Robinson to record the songs himself, took over as producer (giving Robinson his first break from that job in years) and turned what was going to be a socially conscious message album entitled Food for Thought into a gorgeous disc of love ballads.

Robinson is already planning a Tobin-produced followup for the fall; in the meantime, he’s going to release two of his own production jobs – an album by his backup band, Quiet Storm, and another by his nephews Keith and Darrell, who’ve been asking him to record them since they were about 12 years old (they’re now 20 and 21; he made them finish high school). He runs a stable of staff songwriters with a critical eye and plans to produce, direct and act in movies. His first film project, he says, cost him a fortune: Big Time was never distributed, and Motown’s last-minute efforts couldn’t bail him out.

But while he’s waiting for an appropriate film, he’s always got records. Smokey is even toying with the idea of re-recording some of his oldies. “There’ve been two generations since those songs came out,” he says incredulously. “I love it when a 16-year-old kid asks me to sing ‘Bad Girl.’ He wasn’t even born then! Those songs are part of my life. They’re my legacy.”

Smokey’s legacy figures prominently at the Greek Theatre two nights later. Thin and trim in an immaculate white shirt, white pants and tan knee-high boots, he stands center stage with graceful assurance.

There are some troubling moments, most notably in the audience request segment that makes up the final hour of the show. “You say it, we play it” is his motto tonight, and he plays lots: a one-verse rendition of “Shop Around,” raucous workouts on “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Going to a Go-Go,” an ancient Motown employees fight song called “Hitsville U.S.A.” that was personally requested by Berry Gordy. But did a fan really call out for “Baby Come Close” as Smokey was winding up the show, conveniently enabling him to dust off the extended version of that song and end the concert in a blaze of special lighting effects? Sometimes it’s hard not to be a little cynical.

You can’t be cynical about the Smokey Robinson voice, though. Earlier, Smokey had said, “Anybody can sing a good song.” Surely that’s why he never says anything critical about the dozens of cover versions of his numbers, from Linda Ronstadt to Peter Tosh to Aretha Franklin to the English Beat.

But the fans who packed the Greek didn’t come to hear just anybody sing. They came for the warmer, older version of that voice that had flowed out of the tinny speakers in their first car or filled the dark corner of that Sixties party with “You Can Depend on Me.” Take the black woman who rushed the stage with a scream when Smokey came close; she was dragged back to her seat by her escort and a security guard before she could reach the lip of the stage. At least one of her wishes was granted when Smokey sang a velvety version of her request, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” Anybody can sing a good song? Try telling her that. 

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