When Smokey Robinson was a teenaged composer growing up in Detroit, he didn't think about his music in orchestral terms.
He just figured that was part of the process.
"That was the trend of music," says Robinson, 72, who performs this weekend with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the DTE Energy Music Theatre. "When I was a kid, the first Rhythm & Blues act I remember having strings -- other than somebody like Nat King Cole or Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra -- was the Drifters. They had a song called 'There Goes My Baby' and it had strings on there and it took the R&B and pop worlds by storm.
"After that, everybody started doing strings. That was when I was a kid, you know? Strings were popular, so they became part of your songs."
Robinson, of course, went on to a storied career, both with the Miracles and on his own and primarily at Motown, where he served as a vice-president. He co-wrote Motown's first million-selling single, the Miracles' "Shop Around," and wrote and produced the company's first No. 1 pop hit, Mary Wells' "My Guy" as well as the Temptations' signature tune, "My Girl." Robinson ran up 13 Top 20 singles with the Miracles, another three as a solo artist, and he's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, along with a National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor and honorary degrees from Howard University and the Berklee College of Music.
And the music he's created certainly lends itself to a symphonic treatment according to Nicholas Palmer, who will guest-conduct the DSO behind Robinson on Saturday.
"A lot of his songs led themselves beautifully to full orchestral accompaniment," notes Palmer, who's the musical director of orchestras in Lafayette, Ind., and Owensboro, Ky. "I think it's the melodic quality that Smokey brings to these pieces that are further enhanced by adding the orchestra to them.
"The more subdued pieces like 'Ooh Baby Baby' and 'Quiet Storm,' the texture of his music, the way it's written is so perfect when you add an orchestra to it. And the more dynamic pieces, like 'I Second That Emotion,' benefit form the brass and orchestrations. In each of these cases the orchestra really adds a fullness to the texture of the music."
Robinson is no stranger to working with the DSO. He's performed with the orchestra a couple of times before, usually at its home bases in Orchestra Hall or the old Ford Auditorium, and as a producer he often employed its musicians for Motown sessions.
"You knew they were the best musicians for that purpose, the DSO guys. That's what they do," Robinson recalls. "They read music and they read whatever you put in front of them and they're just the best musicians. They've been trained and they're just so adept at playing the music. I always had a big grin on my face."
Robinson is currently gathering material for what he says will be a "Spanglish" album, combining songs in English and Spanish, both original compositions and traditional Latin songs. He hopes to hit the studio for that soon, and he notes that his career has kept him busy enough that he was barely aware this year marks the 40th anniversary of him leaving the Miracles and briefly retiring from performing before launching a solo career.
"I had no idea...because it happened overnight, you know? Time just happens and it's just going by and it doesn't seem like that long ago to me," Robinson says. "I can only say I'm blessed, blessed, blessed that I've been able to be around all these years and people still come out to concert and they're packed out all over the world.
"I give credit to God that that's what happened to me, man. I feel like he's sustained me through all of this, and I'm grateful for that."
Smokey Robinson performs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $25-$85 pavilion only. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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