I was... almost there to get the details.
In preparation for a scheduled interview I did the research,
re-listened to all the familiar tracks, re-read the bulging clipping
files and books. Until, when the interview was cancelled
at the last minute, why waste all that work?
Why not visualise an imaginary Virtual Interview…?
‘When Smokey sings, I hear violins…’
(“When Smokey Sings” by ABC)
Hull is a long way from Detroit. But late-winter 1966 I drive my Honda 305cc clear across from one side of Hull to the other, deep into the fringe-hazardous dockland old town, because the jukebox in the ‘Queens Head’ back-bar has the Miracles “Going To A Go-Go” on it, and we play it on repeat. Smokey Robinson wears many faces. He’s done this interview-thing before. How do you break through the fact that he’s talked to more journalists than are recommended for your mental health, and been asked every question you could possibly invent, plus countless more than you couldn’t? Only connect, perhaps by starting with a personal memory like that one? Check out the cuttings of old interviews. He tends to talk softly, politely. His voice is high and melodic, what more would you expect? When the mood takes him, he can provide answers that are way-briefer than the questions. ‘Yes’. ‘No’. Sometimes less. A nod of the head, stylishly of course, or a dismissive ‘uh-uh’. He’s been through this before. For you, this is the one-off you never thought you’d get to. He’s sitting down opposite you. Taller – at six foot, and neater, than you’d anticipated. Take a good look at his face. Light-skinned, light-green eyes. Unexpected, despite watching all that immaculate old TV concert-footage. The sharpest suits. The finest hooks. Film-clips and choruses that flash-flood you down nostalgia boulevard.So, another tour, more dates, don’t the attractions of performance ever get tedious? ‘Never, never, never, man. There’s always something left to do in show business. Another song, better than the last one. Another record. I love live work, it’s a big part of my life. The challenge goes on and keeps me feeling good. Retire? It would kill me!’
The Miracles were Motown’s debut signing. William ‘Smokey’ Robinson was only seventeen, still scoring excellent grades at high school, when he first met Berry Gordy Jrn. Smokey had already written over a hundred songs, neatly typed into a school notebook, ‘and they were all rhymed up pretty good’. It was 1957. It was Smokey who suggested that ex-Boxer Gordy should use his songwriting royalties from hits by Jackie Wilson to set up and distribute his own records. So Gordy quit his day-job in the Ford factory, borrowed $600, and the Miracles dancey “Way Over There” became the first release on his upstart Tamla label at the very dawn of the sixties. Then “Shop Around” broke both group and label nationally – an R&B chart no.1, climbing to no.2 on the Pop chart, although it was issued on the distinctive black/silver London records for its UK debut. Gordy had struck multi-platinum, and the young Detroit North Ender went on to provide him with a multitude of hits. The Beatles’ second album features a stand-out version of Smokey’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold Of Me”, a song of addictive masochistic-dependency. Yet even before that, schoolgirl Popstrel Helen Shapiro had covered “Shop Around” on the old green Columbia label. Then the Rolling Stones did “My Girl”, before Otis Redding got around to it. The Stones also later covered “Going To A Go-Go” as well. It must have been bizarre for Smokey, in far-off Detroit, to suddenly discover his songs were being fanatically collected, performed, and recorded by long-haired beat groups somewhere on the far side of the Atlantic. When did he first become aware that there were foreign audiences devoted to his music? Stranger still, that as Motown was sophisticating black music into a slick radio-friendly Hitsville USA – a calculatedly vanilla ‘Sound Of Young America’, the Rolling Stones and their blue-eyed Soul ilk were breaking back through onto the American charts with a rawness directly derived from Motown’s older discredited Chess rivals in Chicago.
When I saw the Beatles at the Hull ABC they’d deliberately selected Mary Wells as their guest support. The Fabs were big Motown-fans. And Mary Wells was Motown’s biggest star. She was the first Motown artist to chart in the UK, with “My Guy” – one of a number of songs Smokey wrote for her (“Two Lovers” was another). It must have been weirdly disconcerting for the other members of the Miracles to see Smokey giving away his finest songs to other artists. How did they react? He wrote hits clear across the Motown stable, from the Temptations (on the first volume of their ‘Greatest Hits’ eight of the twelve tracks are Smokey songs, including “The Way You Do The Things You Do”) to Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar”), from the Marvelettes (“Don’t Mess With Bill”), Four Tops (“Still Water (Love)”), and the Contours to The Jackson Five. Then artists beyond Motown began recording his songs too, Linda Ronstadt (“Ooo Baby Baby”), Elvis Costello (“Head To Toe”), Bryan Ferry (“Tracks Of My Tears”), Aretha and Otis, and much more of the same, and that’s no shame. Someone estimated around four-thousand songs in total. So how did that operate? Did he specifically set out with a brief to script a hit for a specific artist, or did he write what came to mind, and then farm them out later as he deemed appropriate? After all, Motown operated on conveyor-belt principles replicated from Detroit’s auto-industry. He’s spoken of writing “My Guy”, then calculatedly gender-switching the formula to craft “My Girl”. Can genius arrive by equation? ‘Some people say they write from experience. Not me’ he commented. ‘I write songs no matter what mood I’m in. It’s my work, dig? When I write a sad song, it isn’t consciously because of some personal experience. I’ve never consciously written a song from personal experience. You see, I can just feel it. I just feel it, you dig? I can’t force myself to write about things that don’t naturally occur to me.’ Can creativity work to a schedule? ‘You can never tell in this business’ shaking his head ruefully, ‘I only wish I could.’
‘Not a day goes by that I don’t write something’ he told journalist Yvonne Roberts (‘Observer’ 2nd February 1992). ‘I’m not a moody songwriter, I don’t need to go to the Caribbean to produce. It’s a gift from god, it just comes. Matter of fact, you could say a phrase right now that might inspire me to write a song.’ He elaborates, out buying pearls with a friend, he told the sales assistant ‘I just hope the wife likes them’. ‘I second that emotion’ said the friend. A slip of the tongue, and the superfine “I Second That Emotion” became a hit in 1967 (no.27). And an even bigger hit two years later for Diana Ross & The Supremes with The Temptations (no.18). Startled to hear a new riff improvised by Miracles’ guitarist Marv Tarplin, who he’s worked with some thirty years, he found himself thinking ‘I’ll be doggone’. And the bitter-sweet “I’ll Be Doggone” was a hit for Marvin Gaye in 1965. ‘I hate to hear haphazard songs where it says one thing in one verse and then something else in the next’ he rationalises. ‘That’s a drag. Or a song which doesn’t mean anything at all and it’s a hit. You see a lot of those. They’re nothing, and they’re a hit. Very bad. For myself though, I’ve always believed in sticking to the basic thing that will never die, and by that I mean the relationship between man and woman. When that’s over, everything’s over. We have no new words or chords or notes. You’ve just to take the same tools and express them differently. Forget the moon in June, and never press the same buttons.’
Way back then, we grooved to the Miracles. But they weren’t really up there with the Temptations, or Wilson Pickett, or James Brown. It was possible to lose a Miracles’ record in the blizzard of more muscular punching soul. Yet oddly, as the years accumulated into decades, in retrospect, my appreciation of the craft and beauty of Smokey’s songs has only escalated. His writing skill. His melodies. His instantly-recognisable spun-sugar honeyed vocals woven into the swooping interplay of voices. Of course, there’s schmaltz and sentimentality, but we listen to Smokey where we wouldn’t listen to the bloated bombast of Alexander O’Neal, Luther Vandross, or even Barry White because there’s a vulnerability, a sensitivity behind even the most saccharine Smokey. The real hidden voice of soul. Mods and Soul-boys revered him from the start. They watched avidly as the Miracles did “Mickey’s Monkey” on the 1965 ‘Ready Steady Go’ Motown TV-special, a show guest-hosted by a gushing Dusty Springfield. They might even have made it to the groundbreaking – if poorly attended ‘Motown Revue’ tour, appearing through dismal March 1965 dates at ABC movie-theatres alongside The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and special guest star Georgie Fame. But it was only with “Tracks Of My Tears” – as late as May 1969, that the Miracles finally cracked the UK Top Ten. He’s told the story any number of times. ‘I was dealing with a sad story, a cat who’d been cut deep, hurt by heartache. I knew my man was suffering strong. What I lacked though, was a chorus…’ So what if you cried so hard that it etched channels into your face? That’s the way he described it. Like… yes, but surely it’s also a metaphor for other, more narcotic forms of addiction than love? Isn’t that what track-marks are about? And the seductive ache, the hurt you can touch?
Then there’s the superlative “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage” which – even after playing it across years, is still one of the few songs that has the ability to literally choke me up. No-one can break a heart like Smokey does, effortlessly falling just the right side of over-sentimentality. If there’s a more desolately beautiful song of hurt than “The Love I Saw In You”, I’ve yet to hear it. As the verses unfold and he stretches out the clever internal rhymes, her ‘untrue kisses’ lured him on ‘just like the desert shows a thirsty man / a green oasis where there’s only sand’. Her illusion of sweetness is used to rhyme ‘mirage’ with both ‘heartache’s camouflage’, and ‘the way you wrecked my life was like sabotage’, more ludicrous – yet more perfectly apt images are impossible to imagine. He dextrously springs the most unpredictable metaphor and simile, a writing process that’s quite unconscious if you accept the clues he trails to tease inquisitive interviewers. It was crusty old Ezra Pound who said that ‘every popular song has at least one line or sentence that is perfectly clear – the line that fits the music’. Smokey fits more than just about anyone else
Bob Dylan’s most provocative and repeated quote named Smokey ‘America’s greatest living poet’. Beyond anything else, the claim was intended as a teasingly calculated smart-ass stab away from the pretensions of literary academia into an alignment with street-Pop. But that’s not to imply it was also insincere. Smokey rhymes like no-one else in music, combining the honed writing-to-demand sparkle of the Brill Building with an ear for polished melody to challenge the best of Bacharach, Jim Webb or Lennon/McCartney. Only a handful of writers have ever fused the eloquent to the populist the way Smokey does on “Tracks Of My Tears” with ‘just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid’, or turn such marvellous economy as the couplet from “If You Can Want” that goes ‘just like ‘push’ can turn to ‘shove’, ‘like’ can turn to ‘love’…’. But has anyone ever asked Smokey about his favourite poet? There’s something about his current set that suggests he might nominate George Gershwin. Relating more to the traditional crafts of lyric-writing. As though he feels he’s parascended above R&B, or black music, and evolved into the more rarefied air of the ‘classic’ Great American Songbook Pop. Where the clever rhyme and lyric-fit reached its purest expression.
Packaged as a 2-CD ‘50th Anniversary Edition’ (2006) Smokey’s ‘Definitive Collection’ now comes bound-in with his thirteen-track ‘Timeless Love’ – interpreting velvety jazz and big-band Swing items from the decades before Soul existed. Taking knowing melodic liberties with Sammy Cahn’s “Time After Time” and Cole Porter’s “Night And Day”, the orchestra expansive and perfectly rehearsed for Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon”, plus songs by Kurt Weill and Gershwin. ‘Cats like Cole Porter were really writing songs. When you heard a song it meant something,’ he explains. He oozes new silky phrasings into the oh-so-familiar “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, emotes “You Go To My Head” and even transmutes “Tea For Two” into some kind of contemporary relevance. And sure, he does them immaculately… of course he does, you’d expect nothing less. While such studies are redirecting his own energies, to become more intimate than before, more personal. ‘I want to take my time now, and try to write standards, songs that will live for decades...’ But what about Jackie Wilson, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke…
‘The slyest rhymes, the sharpest suits,
in miracles made real…’
(“When Smokey Sings” by ABC)
When and why was he first called ‘Smokey’? Did his mother really advise him to “Shop Around”? ‘I was loved when I was a child’ he concedes, ‘I mean really loved. Perhaps that’s why I came through’. Influences? – ‘there were a group of things, but it boils down to one thing – the music we grew up with. The Spaniels, the Dells, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters, oh, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. Not only them, but the Five Quills, which is a group maybe you never heard of… because they were a group in our neighbourhood. And we wanted to sing better than them. There were ten-thousand groups in our neighbourhood, and we’d have parties, try to shoot them down, see who’s best.’ So who was best? ‘The Four Tops’ after only the slightest moment of hesitation. ‘That wasn’t even their name, Motown gave them that name. But they were the most dynamite group. They could really sing, they had harmonies together. They were the feared group.’
Smokey’s own purest doo-wop high falsetto bothered him at first. ‘Should a cat like me be singing like a chick?’ But soon it became his trademark sound. At nineteen he married fellow-Miracle Claudette Rogers. They stayed together twenty-seven years. But in his autobiography he admits ‘my heart was changing, my soul rearranging. It’s the man thing. The wandering eyes. I just can’t help it.’ A musician to his finger-tips, even his prose chimes like a lyric. Just as the closely-woven matrix of the Miracles harmonies enhanced his signature ‘sound’.
A wrinkle in time ago, a Chinn/Chapman group called Smokey emerged from Bradford. It was mid-1975. They were advised to change their name to Smokie to avoid litigation from Motown. By then the label was enjoying a $40-million turn-over. And Motown was evolving, well advanced in the process of splitting its acts in two. It began by adding ‘Diana Ross &’ to the Supremes credits. Then it was Martha ‘Reeves’ & The Vandellas. Soon, it was ‘Smokey Robinson &’ the Miracles too. The next step was divorce, and twice the chart acts. The Supremes had hits. So did Diana Ross. Smokey had hits (starting with “Just My Soul Responding” in 1974). So – briefly, did the Miracles, with replacement frontman William Griffin (remember “Love Machine” in 1976?). Was that the plan all along? Was it part of a corporate policy over which he had little control? Or was it merely… inevitable? In fact, as he’s pointed out, the separation would have come earlier. Instead, a guy called John Marshall of UK Motown intervened, he lifted a previously overlooked four-year-old album-track, “Tears Of A Clown”, and issued it as a single in September 1970, giving the Miracles their only UK no.1. A success that was rapidly repeated in America, revitalising the group and extending their career for a few years more.
Smokey rode every aspect of the sixties, writing and producing, harmonising and performing, while also working as vice-president within the administrative structure of the company, the architect of some of its finest moments. There’s got to be a million stories there. But where to start? Yet it was only later that he developed dependence problems with cocaine. Perhaps that was due to Motown’s relocation from the hard industrial disciplines of chilly Detroit to the laid-back hedonism of Los Angeles? But no, says Smokey. Los Angeles? ‘I adore the place. It has so many celebrities, I don’t have to allow my life to be a prison. I can run, play golf, meet people, act normal.’ Perhaps it was the changing times, the loss of the corporate ‘family’ vibe as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Smokey spun-off into their own separate star-continuums. And as the politics got harder. After all, Smokey was changing tack too, and was soon contributing some pretty uncompromising tracks himself. “Just My Soul Responding” is based around a Native American tribal chant performed by Navajho singer Tom Bee, emphasising a more direct lyric-content than anything he’d attempted before. Starting ‘I was born and raised in the ghetto, my skin is black’ it then questions the on-going Vietnam conflict with ‘don’t try to tell me I’m unpatriotic, I deserve an explanation’. But no. Apparently the coke thing was nothing as profound as that. ‘I got into cocaine’ he admits, ‘ninety-nine percent who get off on drugs get off having fun with their friends. And I mean fun. Then, one day, they look up, and the fun is killing them. I was doing nothing but sitting at home alone, listening to my answering-machine and taking this stuff. My head would be pounding, veins bulging, heart going on, cold sweats, shortness of breath and still I’d be taking the stuff…’ Until he found Jesus. But all the while, despite some flawed moments and lack-lustre albums, there were more major landmark hits such as 1979’s feel-good “Cruisin’”, the smoky-hued no.1 “Being With You” (1981) and the infectious “Just To See Her” (1987) to re-establish his credentials as a poet of the close-up zone while proving beyond doubt he’s still more than capable of doing the do.
Now, he’s vegetarian, teetotal, and he works out. How does he set about selecting a set-list to perform from such a wealth of back-catalogue? Are there songs he particularly enjoys singing, and – conversely, are there songs that are now too difficult for him to perform? He’s spoken of deliberately lowering the pitch of his ethereal falsetto to a counter-tenor, adjusting it to accommodate the changing range of his age. What other preparations does he undertake for a tour? Does he have regrets – ‘no’. A smile delivered with all the confidence that four decades of success can bring, ‘if they’d given me a questionnaire the day before I was born asking what I might like to be, I’d fill it out exactly the way I’m living…’
‘I believe in miracles,
if you can dream it, it can be done…’
(“Sweet Harmony” on the album ‘Smokey’ Motown, 1973)
VIRTUAL INTERVIEW BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
Quotes sampled and mix/matched from ‘SMOKEY: INSIDE MY LIFE’ by Smokey Robinson (Headline Books £14.95), references also lifted from John Laycock (‘Melody Maker’ 5th February 1972), Yvonne Roberts (‘Observer’ 2nd February 1992), Jacoba Atlas (‘Melody Maker’ 15th September 1973), Jane Ennis, Richard Williams and many others, to whom respect and grateful thanks are extended.