This should, by all rights, be the time of William “Smokey” Robinson’s life.
He’s in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Motown Records empire, where he was a signature artist and executive. His former group, the Miracles, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Robinson got his own several years ago). Already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, he received an honorary degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, an International Special Achievement Award at this year’s Ivor Novello Awards in London and the prestigious Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
And he has a new album due out next month. But Robinson’s reverie was severely tempered when he learned that his Motown “little brother” Michael Jackson died in June.
“It was rough for me, man,” says the Detroit-born Robinson, 69, who was the first speaker at Jackson’s memorial service July 7 in Los Angeles. “It was a huge shock. My psyche wouldn’t accept it at first. He was a young man and ... appeared to be in very good condition with all the jumping around and dancing and stuff like that. To hear he died from a heart (failure) was unacceptable, really.
“I’ve had three deaths that have shocked me like that — his and Marvin Gaye (in 1984) and Ron White, the guy I used to sing with in the Miracles (in 1995). I’m just hanging in there and trying to let things kind of subside, you know, and go on.”
Robinson carries on with one of the most accomplished careers in pop music, with a reputation as “America’s greatest living poet,” bestowed by no less than Bob Dylan. He has an enduring body of hits as a performer, both with the Miracles, on his own, and as a writer and producer — including Motown’s first million-seller, the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” and arguably its greatest song, the Temptations’ “My Girl.”
He’s also credited with convincing Berry Gordy, Jr. to start Motown in the first place, though Robinson says that’s not entirely accurate.
“I talked him into making (Motown) national and international,” Robinson explains. “We were local and he didn’t think we were ready to go national, and I convinced him that we were. We were having so many hits, locally in Detroit, and he would have to go to some other company ...
“So I just told him, ‘Y’know, why don’t we just do it ourselves?’ And he said, ‘You got that much confidence in me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I definitely have,’ and so we did it. And the rest is, well, it’s history, isn’t it?”
And Robinson is proud that he’s part of that history, not only as an artist, songwriter and producer, but also as a Motown vice president from 1961-88.
“The very first day when Berry started Motown, there was him and four other people there, and he sat us down and said ‘We are going to make music for the world,’ ” Robinson recalls, “and thank God that’s what we accomplished. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful blessing to be a part of that and to know that it has endured and that if it came out today it would be a hit again, and to know that generations upon generations upon generations of people all over the world have grown up to it and are still growing up to it. That’s just ... a blessing.”
Robinson hasn’t rested on his blessings — or his laurels, for that matter. He’s stayed active as an artist, even after leaving Motown in the early ’90s, enjoying intermittent chart success such as “Double Good Everything” in 1991. He launched a line of food products in 2004 and has been an “American Idol” mainstay, including mentoring the final 10 contestants on a Motownthemed episode last season.
And, he says, the creative muse remains very present in his life.
“Almost every day of my life, some kind of idea for a song comes to me — and I’m not exaggerating that,” Robinson says. “Almost every day of my life sees a melody or some words, a phrase, a thought — something. And many times, I don’t write ’em down or anything like that. If I get really excited about one ... I call my voicemail and put it on there so I won’t forget it.”
Some of Robinson’s latest ideas populate “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun,” which is due out Aug. 25 and is his first release on his own ROBSO Records label. Robinson wrote all the songs on the album except for a version of the Norah Jones hit “Don’t Know Why,” and the album — his first since the standards collection “Timeless Love” in 2006 — features guest appearances by Carlos Santana, India.Arie and Joss Stone.
“I titled it ‘Time Flies When You’re Having Fun’ ’cause that’s how I feel about my life,” Robinson says. “I feel so blessed that I get to live a life and earn a living doing what I love. I feel like it’s a gift from God, you know? And it’s just flown by. Fifty years have passed by overnight. And I feel like I’ve got more to give, too, so I can’t wait to get to that.”
A dozen reasons why we love Smokey...
“Shop Around” (1960): The Miracles’ first big hit was Motown’s first million-selling single.
The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (1964): Robinson (along with the Miracles’ Bobby Rodgers) brought the touch of gold to the Temptations for their first hit.
Mary Wells’ “My Guy” (1964): A double chart-topper (pop and R&B) that made Wells Motown’s first major female star.
The Temptations’ “My Girl” (1964): Nothing less than the most enduring and arguably the best song in the formidable Motown catalog.
“Ooo Baby Baby” (1965): Just when you thought there couldn’t be a purer statement than “My Girl,” Robinson had fans swooning to this Miracles recording.
The Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse” (1965): An atypically rough ‘n’ rowdy cut that’s often unjustly eclipsed by the Contours’ other hit, “Do You Love Me.”
“Get Ready” (1966) — Robinson brings da funk on a track that was a hit for both the Temptations and Rare Earth.
“The Tears of a Clown” (1970): Buoyant tune, sad lyrics — a classic that gave Smokey and the Miracles their long-overdue first No. 1 pop hit.
George Harrison’s “Pure Smokey” (1976) and ABC’s “When Smokey Sings” (1987): You know you’re good when you get these kinds of musical tributes from other artists.
“Just to See Her” and “One Heartbeat” (1987): Latter-day solo hits that brought Robinson back to the Top 10 on the eve of Berry Gordy selling Motown.
Smokey Robinson performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (July 23) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $35 and $55 pavilion, $15 lawn with a $44 lawn four-pack. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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