MARC MYERS WSJ.com 03/25/13
Asked to sing the very first song he wrote—for his sixth-grade play—Smokey Robinson leaned back on the brown leather sectional sofa in his home’s wood-paneled den. “The last verse went, ‘Good night little children, good night little children, it’s time to go to bed.'” Laughing, he continued: “My mother thought I was George Gershwin. She called people she didn’t even know to tell them I had written a song.”
With just weeks until the Broadway premiere of “Motown: The Musical”—which traces Berry Gordy’s founding of the label in 1959 and his role in the music that followed—Mr. Robinson, 73, was in a reflective mood. Back in the 1960s, Mr. Robinson was a key architect of Motown’s crossover sound as a performer, songwriter, producer and company vice president.
[image] Zina Saunders
As a composer, Mr. Robinson wrote 145 Billboard hits—including 18 No. 1 singles for Motown, such as “My Guy,” “My Girl,” “Tears of a Clown” and “Get Ready”—ranking him in 10th place (after Carole King) on Record Research’s list of post-1955 hit songwriters. As the first Motown act to have a No. 1 single and a million-seller, with “Shop Around” in 1961, Mr. Robinson’s Miracles combined cool confidence and energetic optimism to establish the label’s winning formula.
Dressed in a thin putty-colored sweater, jeans and trendy black slip-on sneakers with white bottoms, Mr. Robinson had just returned from the Venetian Las Vegas, where he is presenting Human Nature, an Australian vocal group that performs Motown hits. “Berry and I are competitive, but this show has nothing to do with that—the group is just doing Motown songs,” he said. “The Motown musical on Broadway is about Berry’s life.”
Mr. Robinson’s Motown career and Mr. Gordy’s life have long been intertwined. The pair first met in Detroit in 1957, when Mr. Robinson and his group—known then as the Matadors—auditioned at Brunswick Records, Jackie Wilson’s label. “Berry wrote songs for Jackie, so he was there that day,” Mr. Robinson said. “The other guys in the room didn’t like us much, but Berry followed us out into the hallway and became our manager.”
The following year Mr. Gordy insisted on a change. “Berry thought our name was silly, so we all wrote down new ones and put them in a hat. I wrote down ‘Miracles.’ We were four guys and Claudette [Rogers], so I wanted a name that was light and encompassing—without gender. Miracles was picked.”
When Mr. Gordy started Tamla Records in 1959 with an $800 family loan (the label merged with Motown a year later), Mr. Robinson became his right-hand music man. “There were just five of us on the first day,” Mr. Robinson said. “Berry sat us down and said we were going to make quality music with great beats and great stories—for black kids, white kids, for everyone. From the start, Motown was a place of fierce competition and collaboration. We all just wanted to make killer music.”
Each week, Mr. Robinson had to run the same gantlet as Motown’s other writers. Demos of new songs were played at Friday morning meetings, with the best ones assigned to different groups. “Only Berry and the creative people were allowed in. Everyone would listen and offer suggestions to make songs better. To this day, I still bring my new songs to Berry for honest feedback. He’ll say, ‘Smoke, I dig this’ or ‘Man, that’s garbage.'”
Growing up in Detroit, Mr. Robinson learned about music by listening to the records his mother and two older sisters played from dawn until lights out. “I sang along to everything—from Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to gut-bucket blues, gospel and jazz. In my teens, my vocal idols changed to Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon and Nolan Strong—in that order. I’m a high tenor, so they were perfect role models.”
Though he sang in his high-school glee club, Mr. Robinson said he did not study music formally—referring to his talents as “intuitive” and “a blessing.” “Berry’s first wife taught me about notes and chords, so I can read music today. But I’m not fluent to the point where you can show me sheet music and I can sit down and play it. I can’t do that.”
Mr. Robinson credits his mother with teaching him how to turn a phrase. “My mama often used colorful sayings and rhymes to make a point so we’d think about them and remember what she had said.”
The song that put Mr. Robinson and Motown on the map was “Shop Around.” “I originally wrote it for Barrett Strong—another Motown artist. His first hit was ‘Money (That’s What I Want).’ What do you do with money? You shop around. I wrote the song in 20 minutes—in a midtempo bluesy style.”
But when Mr. Gordy heard the demo, he wanted Mr. Robinson to record it instead. “So I did, but when we released the single, it sort of sat there,” Mr. Robinson said. “Two weeks later, Berry called me at 3 a.m. and told me to come to the studio with the Miracles. He wanted us to rerecord it faster—with more punch and urgency. When I arrived, everyone was there except the piano player, so Berry played it. When the new single came out, the record became a smash hit.”
Today, Mr. Robinson continues to find inspiration for lyrics in “everyday life”—overheard conversations, radio banter and even billboard ad copy. “I have a method now where I call my voicemail and leave ideas there until I can put them down on paper. You might say something to me during this interview and I’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s a great title.’ It happens for me that way.”
With Latin America now experiencing a digital-music boom, Mr. Robinson appears to be diversifying. “I’ve started writing new songs in Spanish, because I want to do a Spanish album. I’ve been working on my Spanish for the past four years.”
In the YouTube age, Mr. Robinson’s legacy has already been preserved in digital amber—allowing millions of viewers world-wide to access video clips of his early television appearances. Asked to show this writer a Miracles dance step from a 1961 “American Bandstand” clip of “Shop Around,” Mr. Robinson leapt up but was hesitant.
“I think we were just cross-stepping—with a kick and turn like this,” he said, demonstrating. “Honestly, though, I’m not the greatest dancer. [Motown choreographer] Cholly Atkins used to say, ‘I’m glad you’re the lead singer so I don’t have to teach you these steps.'”
Mr. Myers writes daily about music at JazzWax.com and is author of “Why Jazz Happened” (University of California Press).