Smokey Robinson talks Bob Dylan, ‘My Girl’ and why he doesn’t like ‘African American’
He’s been cutting two records, one in Spanish, the other in English. Playing a little golf, too. And he checked on the grape harvest in the pre-fire Napa Valley for his eponymous wine company.
But during the pandemic, Motown legend Smokey Robinson is performing only one concert – Saturday in a virtual gala for the PACER Center, the Bloomington, Minnesota-based nonprofit that works with children with disabilities and combats bullying. It will be a streamed performance.
“I rented out the Roxy, a little club here in Los Angeles,” Robinson said. “The film crew came in. I have a six-piece band and three singers. No audience. It was really weird without an audience, but we had fun because I hadn’t seen everybody in a long time. The last actual concert that we did was in February.”
Robinson filmed the performance exclusively for PACER in early October.
Even though he hasn’t been performing during quarantine, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer keeps his voice in shape because he sings all the time. In the car, in the shower, on the golf course.
“There’s no telling where I’m going to start singing. It just comes out. Whatever comes out,” he said. “I might be singing Sam Smith or Marvin Gaye. It might be something I’ve never heard.”
More important, he says, he keeps himself in shape, the key to preserving his sweet, supple vocal instrument.
“Young singers ask all the time: ‘What do you do? Do you get lemon and honey?’ The best remedy is to keep yourself in shape. Exercise, walk, run. I used to run marathons, but my knees got bad on me. I walk almost every day. I have a dog and I walk him a couple miles. I do my abs, and I lift a few weights. I stretch every morning. I’ve been doing yoga for about 35 years.”
The Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee – who has penned countless Motown classics, including “My Girl” and “Tracks of My Tears” – is always writing.
“I’m not a writer who needs to isolate myself and go to the mountains to write. Writing happens for me. It’s like an automatic thing. It can happen anywhere or anytime.”
His latest composition is “How You Make Me Feel,” which he thinks will be on his next album. He’s also recording an EP in Spanish. (His housekeeper of 15 years helps him with the language.)
In a phone interview last month from his Los Angeles home, Robinson, 80, talked about his poetry, racial issues, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan as well as the inspiration for some of his smash hits.
— On his poem ‘Black American’
He presented a version years ago on “Def Poetry Jam,” Russell Simmons’ HBO show. Then recently on YouTube, Robinson posted a longer version of the fiery, provocative piece in which he rhymes “dominion” with “opinion” and “exotic” with “neurotic.”
“I absolutely cannot stand for anybody to call me an African American. I hate that any Black person in America is called an African American. That’s a sellout to me,” he said, the tone and intensity of his amiable voice suddenly morphing. “Everybody stems from Africa. According to the scientific data we have, the first people on Earth were in Africa.
“With all the Black people that have done things to develop this country, done the labor and fought in the wars, we deserve to be called, at this point in time, American Americans, if you’re going to call us anything. Why not just an American? Why do we have to be African Americans? I know it was probably adopted by some Black people for power. Why they did that I do not know. It’s unacceptable to me.”
— On his love of rhyming
He remembers sitting at age 3, with his mother’s sister, who would write poems in a little brown book, and he’d try to rhyme words with her.
“And she’d say, ‘Oh, baby, that’s good.’ I guess it may be hereditary to a certain extent. I’ve always been able to rhyme stuff.”
Since 2012, Robinson has presented “Words,” performances of his poems, in front of small audiences in Los Angeles.
— On Bob Dylan calling him America’s greatest living poet
“Bob’s my brother. He and I have talked about that many times. He’s one of the iconic musical people of our time. For that dude to say that, that’s a great compliment.”
— On winning the Gershwin Prize in 2016
“It was one of the biggest honors of my life,” he said of the Library of Congress award for popular song that has been presented to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Carole King, among others. “Gershwin music was some of the first music I ever heard.”
Robinson had two older sisters who exposed him to jazz, including Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and his mother introduced him to gospel music, including the Five Blind Boys, as well as bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
“For me to be even mentioned with Gershwin in the same sentence is incredible to me,” he said.
— On Aretha Franklin
When the two singers met, she was 5 and he was 8. Her father, renowned Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, had just moved his family to Detroit, and Robinson hung out with Aretha’s brother Cecil.
Robinson recalls going over to the Franklin house for the first time.
“They had money. It was a strange place where we grew up because in the middle of the ‘hood, man, there were two blocks that were affluent.
“So we walk in, and they had great furniture and all that, and we hear this music coming out of this little room. We hear this voice singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ So we look in there and here’s this little 5-year-old girl sitting at the piano playing and singing like she damn near did before she died. Five years old! She was awesome.”
— On Marvin Gaye
“Marvin and I were tight. We were together almost every day of our (adult) lives. When he was writing ‘What’s Going On,’ I’d go to his house, and he’s sitting at his piano and he’d go, ‘Smoke, God is writing this album, man.’ I’d listen to it. God wrote it because it’s prophecy. The stuff he was talking about on that (1971) album is way more poignant today than it was when it came out. It’s my favorite album of all time by anybody anywhere.”
— On ‘My Guy’ (1964)
Robinson penned some hits, including “Two Lovers,” for Motown singer Mary Wells that had a calypso R&B flavor, inspired by then-hot Harry Belafonte. “So when I wrote ‘My Guy,’ I wanted to change her flavor,” Robinson said. “I wanted to put her in more of a pop-sounding flavor.”
— On ‘My Girl’ (1965)
One night while driving home from a three-week tour of one-night stands with his group the Miracles, it was Robinson’s turn at the wheel, and he started humming a melody that became “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” with the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks on lead vocals.
But Robinson knew that David Ruffin, another Temptations member, was a standout singer, too.
“So David with his gruff voice like that, if I can get him to sing something sweet, I think it’s going to be a hit,” Robinson recalled. “People asked me many times: ‘Why didn’t you keep “My Girl” for yourself?’ Because if it hadn’t been for David Ruffin and Temptations, I probably would have never ever written ‘My Girl.’ They inspired that. I thought it was a great subject for him to sing about.”
Oh, it wasn’t about a particular girl. And it’s Robinson’s most popular song – “as a songwriter, it’s become my international anthem.”
— On ‘Ooo Baby Baby’ (1965)
In concert, the Miracles used to sing a medley of love songs by other vocal groups. They’d typically close with the Schoolboys’ 1957 hit, “Please Say You Want Me To.”
“One night we were in Washington, D.C., at the Howard Theatre and we’re singing the medley,” Robinson reminisced. “At the end of it, rather than ending it, I started singing ‘ooo baby baby’ and the guys in the group – we’d grown up together – they just started harmonizing with that and the crowd went crazy. So we started adding that every night. Then we said, ‘That should be a song.’ So we wrote it.”
— On ‘Tracks of My Tears’ (1965)
Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin – who collaborated with Robinson on many hits including “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Going to a Go-Go” and “Cruisin’?” – gave the lyricist a tape featuring a catchy guitar riff.
Said Robinson: “I’d come up with the first three lines of the chorus. One morning, I was looking in the mirror. Shaving. I’m looking at my face and I said, ‘What if someone cried so much you could see tracks of their tears on my face?’ I don’t know why. I said that’s the song.”
— On his 1970 hit ‘The Tears of a Clown’
When Stevie Wonder couldn’t come up with lyrics for a tune he’d composed, he asked Robinson for help.
“I listened to the tape, and I thought that’s Barnum & Bailey/Ringling Brothers,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to write about animals or trapeze artists or anything like that. I wanted to write something that would touch people’s hearts.
“When I was a child in school, someone told the story of Pagliacci, a great Italian clown who was the star of the circus. He was so loved. Everyone would just cheer him. Then he’d go to the dressing room, and he’d cry because he didn’t have that type of affection and love from a woman. So ‘Tears of a Clown’ is a personalized version of the story of Pagliacci.”
— On ‘Being With You’ (1981)
“I did not write that for me,” Robinson noted. “I wrote that for Kim Carnes.” After she had a 1980 hit with a version of his “More Love,” he quickly penned four more tunes for Carnes that he pitched to producer George Tobin.
Tobin was taken by “Being With You” but he loved Robinson’s voice on it. They debated for 25 minutes about who should record it. “Finally, George said, ‘Come to my studio tonight and we’ll make a demo for Kim,’?” Robinson explained.
In the end, they released that demo under Robinson’s name – and it became his last No. 1 song.