Fifty minutes backstage with Smokey Robinson
Looking into Smokey Robinson's enormous green eyes compares to nothing. Immediate and innate is the understanding that you're in the presence of someone very, very special. Someone not quite like everybody else.
Not that Smokey Robinson, 70 last month, he of the informal, one-name familiarity – Willie, Yogi, Smokey – could ever see himself through our eyes. That's what makes him Smokey. He walks among us, with us, stumbling across us waiting patiently backstage in Fort Worth last July as he glided past with an ear-to-ear smile on his face and not one handler at his heels. In his makeshift dressing room, he guides you to the sole leather recliner in the corner, as he perches on a metal folding chair two feet away like an eager schoolboy. Needless to say, his natural exuberance – jubilance, joy – ultimately emanates from said same seat of honor. The holy man will not be washing the beggar's feet today.
Time Flies When You're Having Fun, Robinson's first LP of original material in a decade, self-released last year on his Robso Records, led with a down-filled reading of Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" as its first single, but it's "Love Bath" sliding you slowly into the sudsy soak of music history. The singer's unmistakable coo – "put some water in the tub, and do the body rub" – foams atop the intimate elasticity of modern R&B, a quiet storm Robinson put name to, recalling a half-century of Motown standards, 1965's "Ooo Baby Baby" for a new generation. Add "Love Bath" to the next Smokey Robinson anthology.
"My first choice for a single was 'Love Bath,'" he nods. "That was my first choice because it's different. Nobody expects me to come out singing about taking a love bath with your baby."
Au contraire, Smokey, that's precisely what everyone expects. What no one expects is those green eyes.
Austin Chronicle: Time Flies When You're Having Fun is your first album of new material since Intimate in 1999.
Smokey Robinson: It is. It is. Yeah, it's been at least 10 years.
AC: Guess Time Flies When You're Having Fun!
SR: No question about it. That's why I called it that, because it really does. What brought that to mind is that we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown. My God, 50 years has gone by overnight – just like that [snaps fingers]. It's amazing. It seems like all that happened three weeks ago. But I love my life. I'm very blessed. When you live a life you love, that's a blessing. It just went by overnight, man.
AC: When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be?
SR: When I was 10 years old I wanted to be exactly what I'm being now. When I was 5 years old I wanted to be this. But where I grew up, it was my impossible dream, because I grew up in the hood in Detroit. So it was like my impossible dream. I never thought it'd come true. I never thought I'd be doing this for my livelihood. When I was 5 years old, I thought I was going to be a cowboy. So, umm [laughs], that didn't pan out. There were no horses in the neighborhood where I could hone my skills [laughing].
Later on in life, I played sports all the time. I played basketball and football for my high school, and I played summer league baseball. I thought, "Well, I'll just pursue baseball," because I really loved baseball. And I played baseball pretty good. "Well, I'll probably just pursue baseball." But all along, because I met the guys that I sang with in the Miracles ....
I met the first guy, Ron White, when I was about 10 years old. We all grew up in the same neighborhood, you know. And we formed the group when I was about 11. We were singing in school and at little parties – on the corner, at the recreation center, wherever we could, but never daring to dream that that was going to be our lives.
I always loved school. So when I got to high school, my thoughts were I was going to be a dentist. I started to pursue the college prep courses for dentistry, and, man, when I got to be in the 12th grade we started dissecting stuff. [Starts laughing] I hated that.
So fortunately for me, that started in the beginning of the 12th grade and I changed my curriculum. I changed it to electrical engineering, never thinking, like I said, that I'd be able to do what I'm doing. So I was taking electrical engineering prep courses for college; I graduated when I was 16. I graduated in June. Rather than starting school in September, I was going to wait until January because I was raised by my oldest sister. My mom passed when I was 10, so my oldest sister came back to the house, and by the time she came back to live in the house, she had six kids. So there was like 11 of us. I always had a job. I had a job from the time I was 10 years old. I did everything, delivering papers, shining shoes, worked at the grocery store around the corner and the drug store.
AC: Hence the song "Got a Job."
SR: No question about it – no question about it. And when I graduated high school, I started working – I'd started part-time in the 12th grade – for Western Union, delivering telegrams on a bicycle after school. When I graduated in June, the manager gave me a full-time job. Rather than going to school in September I just waited 'til January so I could save up money to buy books and clothes to go to college, and it just so happens that in August, I met Berry Gordy.
He was a songwriter himself at that time. Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol. I had several guys I loved, and Jackie Wilson was on top of that list. Berry Gordy had written all the songs. Whenever I buy music, even today – from the time I was a little kid, 6 and 7 years old – I always looked to see who wrote the music, who wrote the songs. I was always interested in that.
So I had all of Jackie's records, and Berry Gordy had written all the hits. One of the guys in the Miracles, Ron White, his cousin told us that Jackie Wilson's managers were in Detroit and they were talent scouting. So we went down to audition for them. We had a girl in our group, my first wife, Claudette, and we went and sang for them. We sang five songs that I had written, 'cause we thought, "If we sing some original material, that'll really get us in." But it didn't work [laughs] 'cause we had a girl in the group and I have a high voice, you know. They told us when we sang the songs for them, they said, "Well you know, the world has already got the Platters." The Platters were the number one group in the world at the time. "And they've got a girl in the group. And the leader sings high. You guys will never make it 'cause you're just copying the Platters." So they rejected us.
Well, it just so happens that Berry was there. I thought he was waiting to audition, because I was 16 and he looked like he was 18, 19. I thought, "He's waiting to audition next." So we went outside and he came outside after us, caught us in the hallway. He said, "Hey man, wait a minute." So I turned around. He said, "Where'd you get those songs from that you sang?" I said, "I wrote them." So I'm wondering why he's asking me these questions. He says, "Yeah, I liked a couple of those songs." I'm thinking: "So what, man? You want to use some of my songs to audition?" But I was being polite even though I was very dejected. I said: "Thank you very much. I appreciate that." He said, "I'm Berry Gordy."
And my heart stopped [laughs]. I said: "Berry Gordy? You mean the Berry Gordy who writes the songs for Jackie Wilson?" He said, "Yeah." And man, I couldn't breathe [laughs].
Anyway, to make a long story short, I could always rhyme stuff. Ever since I was a little boy, I was writing poetry and rhyming stuff, but my songs, I would have five songs in one song. The first verse had nothing to do with the second verse. The second verse had nothing to do with the rest of the song. So he took me aside and said, "You got any more songs?" That was a mistake on his part, because I had a loose-leaf notebook with songs. So he takes me in this little room and I sang 20 songs for Berry that day. He never said, "I'm tired" or "That's it." He just critiqued every one: "No, man, you should ..." blah, blah, blah. "You've got all these songs in one song." He said: "You've got to make a song be one idea. You've got to make it be a short book or a short movie or a short story that has a beginning, a middle, and an ending that ties it together. And even if you don't have an ending, you've got to give people enough information so they can draw their own conclusion to what happened." He was very patient, and he and I became best friends. He was my mentor as a songwriter and taught me how to write songs professionally.
A year or so after that, he started Motown. That's how my dream started to come true.
AC: There are generally two trains of thought on songwriting: A) You're channeling it from a higher source, or B) you're the craftsman sitting in a room sweating it.
SR: Well, I'm not a laborer songwriter. I have labored over some, so I know what that is. Some you have to labor over in order to get them like you want them. Example: "Shop Around." "Shop Around" took me 30 minutes at the most to write – at the most. It was one of those songs that just flowed out. Before I could finish with the first verse, the second verse was coming out.
"Cruisin'," on the other hand, took five years. My guitarist, who just retired at the beginning of the year [Marv Tarplin], he was the source of so many songs for me. He'd put his riffs on tape and give 'em to me until I could come up with an idea for a song. He gave me the music for "Cruisin'," which I absolutely loved. I thought it was so intimate and so sexy and so warm. I wrote two or three songs to that music, and none of them fit.
It took me five years to write "Cruisin'," and the whole time I would be listening to the music because I loved it so much – just him playing the guitar. Finally I came up with three lines: "If you're gonna fly away, I'm glad you're going my way, 'cause I love it."
I love what? "I love it 'cause we're together."
"I love it 'cause you love me."
"I love it because you're so fine."
I was going through all these lines. Why do I love it?
One day I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, and a song came on the radio that I absolutely loved, the Rascals' "Groovin'." I'd be singing along [starts singing], "Groovin', on a Sunday afternoon." That's it! That's what it is!
I don't know where I was going, but I turned around and went back home, put the tape on. "I love when we're groovin' together." After I sang it, I said, "Groovin', that's not intimate enough for this music." Marvin's a sexy guitar player, and this was sexy. So I said, "That's not really it, but 'groovin',' I like the sound of that word." I said, "Okay, groovin' – what sounds like that? Cruisin'. I love it when we're cruisin' together."
What does that mean? I don't know.
People come up to me who have had bets. "Now Smokey, when you said, 'I love it when we're cruisin' together,' didn't you mean ...?"
I didn't mean anything. I mean what you mean. That's what I mean. Whatever "cruisin'" is with you and your partner, that's what I meant. That's how I left it. That's why I left it at "cruisin'." That could mean anything. It can mean driving in your car or making love. It can mean making out. Whatever you're cruisin' with your partner, that's what it means.
I don't know what it means to you [laughs].
AC: Ever have dreams that you're back in the Motown basement recording?
SR: Nah. [Lets it hang then bursts out laughing.] I really don't. I really don't. I'm sentimental about the past. In reality, it's a huge part of my life. People ask me many times when I'm doing interviews, "Are you going to play any of your old stuff?" Of course! We'll play all of it [laughs]. Without it there would be no new stuff as far as I'm concerned, so we're going to play everything – the old stuff, the new stuff, the in-between stuff, everything. We do two and a half hours of having fun, and that's how I approach it. It always kills me when somebody comes backstage after the set, "Smokey, where's the party?" I just had the party!
My thoughts on the Hitsville studio and all that stuff still being there, the Motown museum and all that, I credit that to one woman: Mrs. Esther Gordy Edwards, who is Berry's oldest sister. Because of her it's still there. We have all of that memorabilia because of her. Because of her we have all that history. Mrs. Edwards was the head of our management department, and she'd take the tours out on the road. Every time we took a step, she was taking pictures. She would keep things, like all the placards and stuff. We would laugh at her, man. Thank God for her, because our history is there. And I go back to the Motown museum. The last time I was there was when Berry and I took the kids from American Idol to Detroit and showed them around the old studio – the museum, the pictures. It was a wonderful thing. They were flabbergasted. The studio is no bigger than this room here. Berry bought that house because it was a house with a garage attached to it, and we were going to make the garage a studio, which we did. We tore out the kitchen and put a window in there so we could look out into the garage and record. All that stuff is still there, and when I go back ....
Now many times when I go back I'll cry. I'll just cry. I'll look at all that, and it's amazing. Seventy-five percent of the people that I grew up with there are gone. I will cry. I don't think about being back there.
AC: Florence Ballard, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations – it's striking that the music is so joyful but that some of the personal stories are so tragic.
SR: Well, joy and tragedy go hand in hand. That's why the symbol for show business is a smiling face and a crying face. Joy and tragedy go hand in hand in life. We could not have possibly had a place like that without there being tragedy. There were too many lives. I'm very proud and happy when I tell people about it, because there is a Motown family, and there always was a Motown family. People thought that was a myth, "Well, they couldn't possibly be that tight." Yes we were. We were family, everybody there.
Michael [Jackson's] death took us so hard. I'm still trying to recuperate, but the news won't let me, because every time I turn it on they've got some other stuff on it. I'm really pissed off that they're dragging his kids through this. These are little kids, and it's all on the news. Please. Do you not have any feelings whatsoever? Don't you know these are children you're talking about here? They have to grow up and face people. But yeah, there's a Motown family, and a lot of the family is gone.
AC: You've had an extraordinary career. Was there a divine plan for it?
SR: Yes. I believe that God had the plan for me if I went after it. See God is omnipotent. God is almighty. But he's not a dictator. God gives everybody free will and free choice. God does not even make you choose him. He gives us all these choices. You can go this way or that way. One of those ways is his way. If you choose to go that way, then it's laid out there for you. If you choose to go the other way, that's your choice. You made that decision, so that's your choice. You made that decision, so that's what happens. There's a destiny for you down both those roads.
And sometimes you go down both of them, because I did. I had a horrendous drug trip, and I waited 'til I was 40, not when I was young and experimenting. I was 40. I couldn't have written my life any better than it was going. But drugs don't kill you off. You start experimenting, and there you are. So I did. And I was going down the other way, and God said, "Don't go down that way." "God, I'm grown – let me do what I want to do. I'm going that way." So I did. I screwed my life up for two and a half years. But you have a choice, and one of the ways that you can choose is his way.
South by Southwest Music Festival 2010 keynote speaker Smokey Robinson addresses the Austin Convention Center Thursday, March 18, 11am, then signs CDs at the South by Bookstore on the fourth floor, 2-3pm, followed by his appearance at Flatstock 24 downstairs in Exhibit Hall 1, 3-4pm. He also crowns the Motown Revue-like AOL/Spinner bill at the Austin Music Hall on Friday, March 19, 10pm.
'You've Really Got a Hold on Me'
Smokey Robinson penned (and produced) Motown brands "My Guy" for Mary Wells and "My Girl" for the Temptations, but the 4-CD box set Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection wrote the book. Except for (*), all songs were written or co-written by William "Smokey" Robinson.
A-SIDES ('OOO BABY BABY')
"Got a Job"
"You've Really Got a Hold on Me"
"I Like It Like That"
"That's What Love Is Made Of"
"Ooo Baby Baby"
"The Tracks of My Tears"
"Going to a Go-Go"
"I Second That Emotion"
"I Care About Detroit"*
"The Tears of a Clown"
"Being With You"
"Just to See Her"
B-SIDES (WHAT'S IN A TITLE?)
"Everybody's Gotta Pay Some Dues"
"What's So Good About Goodbye"
"Whatever Makes You Happy"
"I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying"*
"(You Can't Let the Boy Overpower) the Man in You"
"Show Me You Can Dance"*
"The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage"
"You Only Build Me Up to Tear Me Down"
"There's a Sad Story Here"