He has one of the most recognizable voices in music.
And over the course of 50 years, R&B/Soul maestro William "Smokey" Robinson Jr. rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most praised singer-songwriters in history.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Robinson grew up in a "house full of music," where on any given day, you would hear the sounds of such heavyweights as Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, and Duke Ellington. Early on, Robinson displayed a knack for songwriting, penning his first song at age six for a school play. Half a century later, the man dubbed the "King of Motown" (Robinson has produced over 30 Top 40 hits for the record label), has authored more than 1,000 songs for such artists as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Motown's first vocal group The Miracles, of which he was a founding member.
The 'Quiet Storm' singer recently spoke with BlackVoices.com about his latest projects 'Time Flies When You're Having Fun' and 'Now and Then' (which includes old and new songs), his Motown Years, coping with the loss of famous friends, and why the Apollo Theater is near and dear to his heart.
Congrats on your NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Album for one of your latest releases, 'Now and Then.'
Smokey Robinson: I'm very excited about that. I have two new CDs out. One is called 'Time Flies When You're Having Fun' and the other one is called 'Now and Then.' 'Now and Then' is made up of six songs from 'Time Flies' and six of my vintage songs that I recorded at some of my live concerts last year -- like 'Ooh Baby Baby,' 'Tears of a Clown' and 'Tracks of My Tears.'
You've written more than 1,000 songs. Are there any songs that you've written that are extremely special to you?
SR: They're like my children. I give them all the same effort. Some of them are just more accepted than others (laughs). When I enter the studio, the first thing I want to start with is the song. When I sit down to write a song, I'm trying to write a song that, if I had written it 50 years before, it would've meant something. And today it's going to mean something -- and 50 years from now it's going to mean something. I can't tell you what my favorite song is. I can tell you what my favorite album is.
My favorite album of all time is 'What's Going On' by Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye was my brother. I miss Marvin so much. I would go to his house when he was writing 'What's Going On,' and he would tell me, "Smoke, God is writing this album, man." He said, "I'm just sitting here at the piano. I'm just a catalyst for God, because God is writing this." And when you listen to the album, it's prophecy. It's more poignant today than when it first came out.
The Motown years were a special time. I can't think of any other record label in history that has produced or served as a platform not only for some of the greatest songs in music, but also the greatest artists. From start to finish, Motown had the formula for producing hits. Do you think the music industry will ever see anything close to it again?
SR: Motown, as far as I'm concerned, is a once-in-a-lifetime musical event. There had been nothing like Motown prior to Motown. I doubt seriously that there will ever be another Motown. Berry Gordy is my best friend, and we talk all the time. We [recently] talked about the fact that on the very first day of Motown, there were five people there, and he sat us down and said, "We are not going to make just black music. We are going to make music for the world. Music that the world can enjoy and everybody can relate to." And that's what we set out to do. Motown grew into something beyond any of our wildest imaginations.
What has it been like working with consummate artists such as Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Rick James?
SR: It's like if you made gumbo and every ingredient that you put in there you loved. Well, see that's the way it was for me. Those guys are my brothers, and they're still my brothers, even those who are gone. In my heart, they're my brothers.
Motown was unique. We did family stuff together. We did everything together. The original Hitsville building where we recorded, it was not only a place that you worked. Everybody hung there. There is a Motown family that still exists. Those of us who are alive are still in that family. And we still have that same relationship. Some of us don't see each other for months or years at a time, but when we see each other, it's like we just saw each other yesterday.
Berry has this saying, "Motown people cannot NOT love each other." Because we do. Under any circumstance we love each other. We're always there for each other. It's just an amazing thing. It's indescribable to be with those guys. It's like being with my brothers.
Your tribute to Michael at his memorial in 2009 was touching.
SR: I've had three deaths in my life and now a fourth one with Teena Marie. Those deaths were sudden impacts –- Marvin Gaye; Ron White, who I grew up with and who was in the Miracles with me; Michael Jackson; and now Teena. Those sudden-impact deaths are a tough bullet to bite.
Michael was my little brother. I regret the fact that I didn't get the chance to spend time with him in his later years like I used to. Fame has different levels. Michael got to the absolute optimum of fame. He never really had a normal life. When Michael was a little boy, he was the man. And when he was the man, he was a kid because he missed his childhood. He got to the point where he couldn't do anything without being mobbed. I really felt bad that I didn't get a chance to spend some type of time with him to normalize his life and let him know, "Hey, man, you're a person. First and foremost, you're a human being and you have people who love you just because you're you, and not because you're Michael Jackson." I think he needed that.
When the film 'Dreamgirls' came out in 2006, there was a great deal of speculation that the story was based on Motown.
SR: The original play was about three girls from Chicago. It had nothing to do with a record company. Jennifer Holliday, who is a wonderful friend of mine, was the lead in that. She was absolutely awesome, and it was a great play. Then, the guys who did the movie turned it around and tried to make it a pseudo Motown and tried to make my best friend, Berry, seem like he was a gangster. So, I highly protested that. The guys who wrote 'Dreamgirls' probably knew nothing about Motown. I just don't appreciate anybody trying to paint that image of Motown. But they apologized, and I accepted their apology. And there it is.
The Museum of the City of New York recently opened the exhibit 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.' What are some of your fondest Apollo memories?
SR: I love the Apollo; the Apollo is tradition. The Apollo is one of my favorite places in life. I grew up at the Apollo Theater. It's near and dear to my heart.