[This transcript is excerpted from an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]
Viv: It’s our great honor and privilege and 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 Berry. 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.
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 give me songwriting help 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 songwriting 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.