Just when you think you’ve got it all sorted out in your own mind, just when you think you know how everything works, you can guarantee something comes along that blows you right out of the water. Every time.
It’s the early summer of 2007 and Smokey Robinson is due in Bournemouth. I request an interview – well, it would have been rude not to – but don’t expect a response. Then the phone rings late one afternoon. It’s the tour promoter. Smokey Robinson will do one newspaper interview for the whole UK tour and he wants to speak to me. In the moment it takes to say: ‘Yes, what time should I call him?’ I’m transported back more than 25 years to my school dinner hall. The lights are a little too bright and the edge of the dancefloor is clung to by packs of self-conscious youths nursing bottles of warm pop, waiting to make their moves.
In my newly dry-cleaned charity shop three-button suit, white button down shirt and polished loafers, I’m the prince of the school mods (at least in my mind’s eye). All of a sudden the pulse of Michael Jackson, the Pointer Sisters and The Pretenders is gone, the DJ puts the needle to the record and out comes Tears Of A Clown. Not the hit cover version by The Beat, but the original Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Best foot forward, I spin out on the floor lost in a whirl of soaring harmony, Smokey’s high tenor, such bittersweet lyrics and that driving beat. Sold on Soul and I’m 13-years-old.
Here we are in 2007 though and Smokey Robinson is on my phone. In my house. And he’s thanking me for doing this for me. Thanking me. Smokey Robinson is thanking me. He’s a model of old school charm and good manners. Polite, talkative, studiously humble and instantly charismatic, he can’t wait to hit the road.
Smokey, are you looking forward to coming back to the UK?
“Yes, man. I love it there. The first time I came was in 1963 and I was over there just a few months ago, I absolutely love it. Performing is what I love most. When I get out there and have a chance to go one on one with the people, oh man… I don’t give concerts for people, I do concerts with people and I have to say that although I’ve performed some of those songs thousands of times, when I get out there they are new to me, I swear it man.”
You’ve been doing this for the best part of 50 years now, what keeps you going out there for more?
“It’s the people Nick, the people. Sure, the physical demands of touring can be tough – I wish they could just beam me places – but it’s worth it, every night it’s worth it.”
Smokey, your biggest hits – The Tracks Of My Tears, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, I Second That Emotion, Going To A Go Go – are only surpassed by the ones you wrote for other people (My Girl, Ain’t That Peculiar, My Guy, Get Ready) in defining the Motown sound. Even your later hits like Quiet Storm, Cruisin’ and Being With You are unmistakably Smokey Robinson, I wonder how you can hope to ever come close to hitting that benchmark.
“I’m working right now on a CD of original material, I write all the time – it’s what I do.”
There was something in the way Smokey does the things he does that spoke to my teenage soul – and I wasn’t the only one by a long way. Encapsulating feelings and emotions in three-minute packages that could make you dance, cry, sing, anything, it opened the door to a wider, deeper Soul spectrum and made the world a better place. The music of black America has resonated with white British youth for 50 years or more – and continues to do so today. Why is that?
“You know something? Not to put the people in the States down, but I find that the people in the UK and Europe are more analytical about the music than people in the States. I mean they’re more in detail about the music. I come to the UK, man, and they know who played third violin on Tears Of A Clown – I don’t even know that!”
But you do know something about writing songs Smokey. So what happens, do you sit at the piano, tinker a few chords, a couple of words and out pops My Girl…?
“Well, that’s what happened with that! So I was doing a project on them, The Temptations. I’d been working on them for a while and I couldn’t get a hit on them and Berry [Gordy] couldn’t get a hit on them. So when I got the hit, when I had gotten the first hit record on them with The Way You Do The Things You Do, then all the writers and producers at Motown started to write for The Temptations, but they were using Eddie Kendricks as the lead, because he sang the lead on The Way You Do The Things You Do.
“My inspiration and my thoughts of doing My Girl were I knew that David Ruffin and Paul Williams were on that group and they had great voices, so if I could write some records for them they would have hits. I actually wrote My Girl for David Ruffin’s voice.”
“There’s no question about it!”
Did you ever wish you’d kept more of the other hits for yourself?
“No. I really don’t think like that, man, because I enjoy the fact that I had that influence on their career, they’re my brothers. So for me to have something positive to do with their career is a wonderful thing. All of them are gone now, with the exception of Otis [Williams], that were in that original group, but I love them man they are my brothers.”
Most artists have a sense of when they’ve hit pay dirt – a comedian will feel a great gag when they write it, a painter will know a special canvas from a routine daub – do you know when you’ve really nailed a special song?
“I write about life and love, man, and when I sit down to write a song I’m not really thinking about is this going to be a hit, or is this going to be a good record – my first and foremost thought is: write a song.”
Smokey, a lot of your songs are about universal experiences, but do you wrote about things that happen in your own life?
“No Nick, I don’t because if I had written it 50 years before then it would have meant something to people then; and when I finish it up now it’s got to mean something to people now; and 50 years from now it’s still got to mean something to people. So it has to have a chance of longevity, it has to have a chance of life if I write a song. Well, that’s how I approach it.”
You write about everyone’s life?
“Exactly. Like I said, I write about life man. I write about what I see going on around me, I don’t have to experience it all myself. Some things I do, but you know, I see what’s going on around me and I write about that.”
When I think about my favourite Smokey Robinson songs there are some that weren’t huge hits bit should have been – The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage is just one. What are the songs that you feel should have been bigger for you?
“You can’t think like that, man. It’s like golf. You play golf?
“OK, well golf is one of those games where you never know what’s gonna happen from shot to shot. So it’s like that, like life. You never know what’s gong to happen from song to song. You just write the songs and put them out there and see what happens; and there it is.
“You never know when it’s going to be a hit. Like I say, I give all my songs the same effort. I just wanna wrote a song, a good song and I go in the studio with that in my mind every time. And I know that if I do that then it has a better chance.”
Do you have favourites?
“No, man, no, no. They’re like my kids!
And, like your kids, are they ever really finished?
“I don’t consider them finished until I feel like they’re finished. I change them, Nick, of course I do. I’ll change them at home, in the studio, wherever I am. I wanna know that when I listen to them, if I hear to them on the radio or wherever I hear them, I wanna say: ‘I gave it my all.’
“You mentioned The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage earlier. Well, a great inspiration for me writing songs also has been my guitarist Marv Tarplin, who co-wrote that with me. He comes up with these fabulous guitar riffs and puts them on tape for me and I just see what I can write to them. The biggest records I’ve ever had were music that he had written like The Tracks of My Tears and Just A Mirage and songs like that. He came up with the guitar riffs for those and I wrote for the guitar riffs.”
Bob Dylan famously called you America’s greatest living poet. That’s some accolade?
“Well, I feel good about that, man. Bob is a wonderful writer himself, a great talent. I’ve known Bob for many, many years and I love Bob. You know when you hear Bob Dylan you know right away, you don’t even have to think about it – that’s Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, you know what I mean?”
Of course. He’s got this thing like you have of articulating the way we feel without being obvious – and even when it is obvious it’s said in a way you perhaps wouldn’t expect.
“Well Nick, I think that that’s what I have to try to do as a songwriter. There are no new words, there are no new ideas, there are no new thoughts, there are no new notes on the piano or the guitar.
"So – within the framework of using all the words and all the notes and all the ideas and stuff that have been used time and time again – you have to try to see a way of saying that has never been said. That’s what I try to do.”
But not every songwriter is a Smokey Robinson or a Bob Dylan and all artists try their hand at someone else’s songs, cover versions. How do you feel about the way people do you songs Smokey?
“I love it, I love every one of them. Absolutely I do man because like I said I’m a songwriter. When somebody records one of my songs, that’s why I wrote the song, not just for me or who I wrote it for at the time to sing it, I wrote it for the world. So when somebody picks up one of my songs and sings it man, that’s wonderful to me. And most of the people who have recorded one of my songs are songwriters themselves. So that’s a double bonus.”
Do you ever feel you’re as good as they say you are?
“No I don’t man, because I feel blessed. You know, I get to live a life doing what I love. I earn a living doing what I love, that’s a blessing. So I’m blessed, man.”
Are you ever going to retire?
“When I retired from The Miracles and said I gave up recording and performing, I was miserable, man. I was Vice President of Motown and I would go to my office each day and do my office stuff, but I was miserable, man. I missed it.
“When I went back to it, I said I was going to carry on forever!”
That’s good news. Now, can you make my day and tell me you’ll do If You Can Want on tour?
“Ah, no man, no man. Listen, I haven’t sung that since I was with The Miracles, but I’m impressed and really pleased you know that one Nick. Thank you, it’s cool.”
You’re right, Smokey. It is. Very cool indeed.