Smokey Robinson Interview

Smokey Robinson Interview

Our guest on this episode of Art of the Song is Smokey Robinson. Smokey’s career spans over 4 decades, and he’s received numerous awards including the Grammy Living Legend Award, Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. He has also been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Smokey Robinson founded The Miracles while still in high school. The group was Berry Gordy’s first vocal group, and it was at Robinson’s suggestion that Gordy started the Motown Record label. We had the pleasure of talking with Smokey about the release of “Smokey and Friends,” an album of duets with some of his favorite singers.

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Viv: It’s our great honor and privilege and we’re just thrilled to be talking with Smokey Robinson today for Art of the Song. Smokey, thank you so much for joining us.

Smokey: Thank you Vivian, it’s a pleasure. You too John.

Viv: Smokey, would you tell us how you got started? We’ve all heard stories, but we’d love to hear them from you. How did you get started in music?

Smokey: If you’re going to go back to when I really got started, it was probably from the first time I knew I could hear as a baby because I can’t remember anything else that would have been my priority as to what I wanted to do with my life since I was exposed to music. There was music in my home. I had two older sisters, in between them and my mom we had music all day long of every day of all kinds that you could think of: the blues, gospel, jazz, classical, all of that was there. So that was probably when I got started with my idea of wanting to be in music. Now, professionally, I got started quite by chance. I was in the right place at the right time because Berry Gordy, who is the founder of Motown, and who is my best friend, was writing a lot of hit songs for Jackie Wilson, who was my #1 singing idol as a kid growing up. I had all of Jackie Wilson’s records. Whenever I buy records, even today, I look to see who wrote the songs. I always want to know that. Berry Gordy had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson up to that point. The group that I was with, we were called The Matadors at the time, we went to audition for Jackie Wilson’s managers and Berry just happened to be there that day. Now, he didn’t have to be there that day but he was. We didn’t have to go the day that he was going to be there, because he was turning in some new songs to Jackie, but we were. Like I said, I was in the right place at the right time. It was a God plan. 

Viv: It’s funny how those intersections get, I think, divinely guided.

Smokey: Absolutely. So we sang a few songs that I had written which impressed Barry. It didn’t impress Jackie Wilson’s managers because they didn’t like us at all. Anyway, Berry stopped me afterwards and asked me where’d I get the songs. I told him I wrote them. We struck up a conversation and we became really good friends. About a year or so, year and a half after that, he started Motown.

Viv: And brought you on board.

Smokey: Yes. 

Viv: Do you think that writing your own material so early on gave you a leg up, or was it a disadvantage?

Smokey: No, I think it was a leg up. Berry actually started to mentor me in songwriting when I met him because, like I said, I had at least a hundred songs in a loose leaf notebook from my school years that I had been writing songs, and probably three of them made sense all the way through. I usually had four or five songs in one song because they weren’t talking about the same thing throughout the song. But he started to mentor me and make me know that a song is a short book or a short movie or a short story that has a beginning and a middle and an ending that tie in together. When I met him he started to teach me and I started to learn how to write songs professionally at that point. 

John: What was it like writing back in the ’60’s? What were your inspirations and did you write by yourself or did you co-write with other people?

Smokey: Well, John, I co-wrote with other people but I write by myself also. And my inspiration back in the ’60’s was the same thing that it is in 2014. It hasn’t changed for me. My inspiration is life. And I write about life. And I’m not a moody songwriter where I’ve got to be sad and I can write some sad songs. Or today I’m going to be happy and going to write some happy songs. I can write a happy song when I’m sad. Or a sad song when I’m happy. Whatever inspires me at the moment, whatever I see or whatever touches me at the moment and I want to write a song about it, I’ll pursue that.

John: Do you still write songs today?

Smokey: Oh, all the time man. All the time.

John: Once you’re a songwriter it never goes away, right?

Smokey: Well, I hope not. I’ve gone through spells where it wasn’t happening as rapidly as it happens sometimes but, right now, it’s kind of flowing and I’m doing a lot of writing.

Viv: Let’s talk a little bit about the music business and the recording industry. Beginning your career as a songwriter, you got rocketed right into the music industry. How do you perceive that that has changed over the years?

Smokey: Oh gosh, the music business has done a total 360, Vivian. It’s not nearly what it was when I started. It’s a whole other world now. Right down to how records are being made. Most records are being made at home now and people are making them. There’s a computer (program) called Pro Tools and probably nine and a half out of ten songs that you hear on ten records that you hear have been recorded on Pro Tools. There’s so many home studios now and so many guys that are just doing it in their garages, in their bedrooms, wherever they feel like recording it. If they’re technologically adept in doing something like that with Pro Tools. There’s still a few recording studios but it’s nothing like it used to be. We used to have reel-to-reel tape. It’s very seldom that anyone uses reel-to-reel tape anymore. It’s just a whole other thing technologically. I could be right here right now, you guys are in Albuquerque, and I’m in Los Angeles, and we could record a record right now, together, the three of us. Just make a record right now and have it so that it sounds like we’re in the same place at the same time. So it’s really really really a different method right now. I think there’s a pro and a con to that. The pro is that you have so many choices as to what you can do with the technical aspect of it and you have so many tracks. You could put each string of the guitar on a separate track if you want to and blend it again later on. But there’s something missing from that for me because the last record that I recorded, before this one, in fact the last two, I recorded with the musicians in the studio at the same time I was singing. Because there’s a feeling that happens there. I think that that’s what’s missing from, or for me personally, that’s what’s missing if I record over a track.

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John: Tell us about the recording of Smokey and Friends. How did you do that?

Smokey: Well Smokey and Friends was recorded, basically, the new way. It was. Randy Jackson, who is like a really good friend, I’ve known Randy forever, and he’s a great music man, and Randy is like a musical almanac. He can tell you records that you’ve never even heard of that were recorded in 1950 or tell you something that’s going to be recorded in 2015. He’s so knowledgeable when it comes to music and records and stuff like that. So it was a joy working with him because he’s a good friend. He’s my brother and he’s a great music man. One of the greatest joys for me in working on this record was the fact that normally when I’m in the studio I’m involved with the production and seeing that the arrangements are right and blah blah blah and all the stuff like that. All I had to do on this record was go to the studio and sing. And it was such a comfort knowing that it was in good hands. And all I had to do was go and sing.

John: Wow. How about the guest artists? Did they come into the studio at the same time?

Smokey: No, no they didn’t. The closest I came to that was when John Legend recorded “A Quiet Storm”. He was leaving out of the studio as I was coming in. But I had heard John sing “A Quiet Storm”. About five years ago he was doing a live concert and I heard him sing it. I told him, I said, “John, you should record that man”. And he said, “Oh I’ll think about that Smokey”. It turns out that here, he and I are recording it together. But what Randy did was, Randy contacted these artists, and he said, “What is your favorite Smokey Robinson song?” It didn’t have to be one that I had sang. Just one that I had written. And they told him that. The songs that you hear them singing on is their favorite Smokey Robinson song.

Viv: You’ve affected so many songwriters and so many people through the years. What do you think it is about your music that touches people’s hearts so deeply?

Smokey: You know, Vivian, I don’t know. I’ve written a lot of songs in my life but, if I knew that, I probably would have written triple that amount. But I don’t know. I just try to write a song, honey. When I’m going to write a song, I’m going to write a song. I want to write a song. I want to write something that would have meant something fifty years ago or today or fifty years from now. That’s how I approach it. I want to write a song.

Viv: I’m just thinking about that relationship with the audience that we create as performers and that you have that special bond in a live performance. Can you talk about that a little bit? Surely you play your hits, you play some new songs, do you ever take into account the audience and what they’re feeling when you’re playing?

Smokey: You know something, Vivian? I am so very very very very blessed. I get a chance to earn a living doing what I absolutely love. I love the music world. I love writing songs. I love being in the studio. I love recording. I love playing with all the musicians and the singers and stuff. I love that. My favorite part of my work is performing. Is doing concerts. That’s why I still do concerts Vivian. Because I don’t get that anywhere else. There’s a magic that happens when you’re there with the audience and you’re there with your fans and they’re singing and you’re singing and we’re all having a good time together. You don’t get that…I don’t get that…anywhere else in life. So that’s why I still do it. 

John: Back in the ’60’s there was black music and white music. How has that changed over the years?

Smokey: Well, it’s changed a great deal. I must give the world credit. It’s changed a great deal. There’s not as much of that as there used to be. There’s probably still a little bit of that going on in the way an artist is viewed stature-wise. There’s still a bit of that going on, but not nearly what it used to be. So I’m happy, like I said, the world is making progress. And the world is making progress period. Not just in music, just in racial relationships period. I’ll be glad when we get to the point whereas people realize that we’re all just human beings and we’re all the same. If you skinned everybody alive you would not know who it was. All our organs are in the same place and everything. We all have red blood and there’s only four different types of it for us. When people get past the skin color, then we’re going to be in great shape.

John: Do you think music has played a part in improving race relations?

Smokey: Absolutely. Absolutely I think music has played a part in that.

John: How so?

Smokey: That’s one of my prides, that I’m proud about Motown. We broke down a whole lot of racial barriers when we came out. Prior to us coming out and making music that could be enjoyed by everyone, we’d go places in the south when we first started, especially in the south, where white people would be on one side, black people would be on the other side. White people would be upstairs, black people downstairs, or vice versa. And all this stuff was happening. After they caught onto the music, they had a common love. We’d go back and not only would they be dancing together, or sitting together, or being together, you’d see white boys with black girlfriends and black boys with white girlfriends. The music cut down and broke down a whole lot of barriers.

Viv: So it seems safe to say that music is a catalyst for a better world.

Smokey: I hope so. And I hope everybody starts listening. And fast. 

Viv: Yeah we need it, we need it so deeply.

Smokey: Look around the world and I hope they start listening fast. 

Viv: Smokey, in the world of music, life can get pretty crazy. It sort of fast lane. How do you stay centered?

Smokey: You know Vivian, I never forget my spiritual self. You see most people don’t realize that we are not just physical, we are spiritual beings, you see? And I’m a firm, firm believer in God, and I don’t think that this was an accident. They talk about the Big Bang and all that stuff like that. The Big Bang may have happened but if it did it was God’s will. The Big Bang happened when God said, “Let there be light”. You know what I’m saying? So I’m a firm believer in God, in his creation, and I never forget my spiritual self. And I don’t trip on Smokey Robinson. I don’t think, “Oh boy, I’m Smokey Robinson”. Forget all that. I’m just a man who is blessed enough to be able to live his life doing what he loves and making music, which is what I absolutely love. And so I got that job. God gave me that job so I’m not going to squander it. I’m not going to trip on myself and think I’m hot stuff and all that because it didn’t have to be. But it is. So I’m going to treasure it. 

Viv: Smokey, do you believe that everybody has a creative gift to share?

Smokey: I believe everybody gets a gift, Vivian. I believe everybody gets a gift. It doesn’t have to be music. It’s something. Everybody gets a gift. Some people never discover their gift. Some people never search for their gift. Some people just go along with life and whatever life presents to them, that’s what they accept. But I think everybody gets a gift of some sort. And if you find it, and if you develop it, then your life will be better.

Viv: Thank you so much. Tell us, what would you like us to know about this new record, “Smokey and Friends”?

Smokey: I’d like you to know that I’m really really really excited about it. And I’m so happy because I think that the treatment that has been given to it by Randy and the other artists have made these songs have new life and made them sound brand new to me. I listen to it and it sounds brand new to me. That’s wonderful for me.

Viv: That’s great. Smokey Robinson, thank you so much for joining us for Art of the Song today. We just want you to know how deeply we appreciate your time and your music.

Smokey: Well, thank you Vivian. Thank you John.

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