Smokey Robinson Helped Create Motown Sound

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alan Paul headlined “Smokey Robinson Helped Create the Sound of Motown”:

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Motown Records helped to define a golden age of American music, as rhythm and blues and rock and roll became the world’s dominant pop genres. Smokey Robinson played a double role in creating the Detroit-based label’s remarkable stream of hits. In addition to writing and recording songs like “Tears of a Clown,” “Kathy’s Clown” and “I Second That Emotion” as the frontman of The Miracles, he was also a vice president at the label, working as a producer and talent scout and composing songs for others, like the indelible “My Girl,” performed by The Temptations.

It wasn’t unusual for Motown performers and executives to collaborate. The label’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr., is a songwriter whose credits include Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” But nobody excelled in multiple roles like Mr. Robinson did. “We started out doing everything,” says Mr. Robinson. “We were promotion men and record packagers and anything else that needed to be done.”

Looking back, Mr. Robinson, 83, says he never paused to consider how to balance his different roles. “It was good to be young and unconscious of the differences in what I was doing,” he says. “It was all just a part of my life, and I didn’t consciously separate anything I did. It all ran together.”

Born William Robinson, Jr., and nicknamed Smokey Joe by an uncle, he grew up on Detroit’s North Side, with Diana Ross as a neighbor. Always music-obsessed, Mr. Robinson formed a vocal group, The Matadors, that performed at junior-high parties and school events. After graduating from high school in 1957, he planned to study electrical engineering, but when Mr. Gordy heard the Matadors perform at an audition, he took an interest in Mr. Robinson and began to mentor him. Before long, Mr. Gordy had changed the name of the group to The Miracles and released their first recording, of Mr. Robinson’s song “Got a Job.”

More than 60 years later, Mr. Robinson’s romantic crooning and unbuttoned shirt still elicit screams from front-row female fans. In concert, he sings most of his hits in their original keys, an impressive accomplishment after decades of performing. “His voice is a great instrument that allows him to bring it every night,” says Demetrios Pappas, Mr. Robinson’s longtime keyboardist and musical director. “He stays really consistent night in and night out.” One key to the elasticity and longevity of Mr. Robinson’s voice, Mr. Pappas believes, is that he “sings really softly, not straining himself and in total control of his instrument.”

It would be easy, Mr. Robinson acknowledges, to just tour behind his classic material, playing the songs “everyone knows and loves.” But he is still writing new music all the time: “It’s my inspiration,” he says. “It’s what I know and love. I write all the time, and I want to record that music.” His new album, with the intentionally provocative title “Gasms,” comes out April 28. His voice remains supple and soulful, as demonstrated on his current single “How You Make Me Feel.”

Mr. Robinson tried retirement once, after he left The Miracles in 1972. He and his wife at the time—Claudette Rodgers, a fellow member of the group—had two children, and he decided it was time to give up touring. “I didn’t want to not know my kids in their formative years,” he says. “I had been on the road since I was 16, and The Miracles…had done everything that a group could possibly do two or three times over.”

Instead, Mr. Robinson focused on working in Motown’s Los Angeles office. He was still writing and recording songs, but says he sincerely thought he would “never be on stage again in my life.” But after three years, feeling that he was “climbing the walls,” Mr. Robinson finally got back in front of an audience, and decided then and there that he wouldn’t retire from performing again until he had no choice.

Mr. Robinson attributes his spry and youthful look to doing “something athletic” every day and maybe also to the fact that he hasn’t eaten red meat in over 50 years. “I have always been active and tried to take care of myself because I don’t ever want to be old and decrepit,” he says. In December 2020 he had a severe case of Covid, which left him hospitalized and terribly weakened. He says that he has no memories of the first four or five days, before he “woke up in a hospital with an IV in my arm.”

A couple of days later, as he gained his strength, he got out of bed and started moving with the help of a nurse and a walker. He recoiled when she asked if it was like the brand he used at home. “I said, ‘I don’t have a walker! I’m only using this ‘cause you said I had to!’” he recalls with a laugh. “I really, really don’t ever want to be old.”

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Gordy remain very close. In February, the self-described “best friends” were honored together as Persons of the Year by the Recording Academy’s Musicares charity. The awards dinner featured 23 performers, including Motown legends The Isley Brothers, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder.

Mr. Robinson’s songwriting has been praised by many, including Bob Dylan, but he says that it was Mr. Gordy who really taught him how to compose. When they met, he had already written over 100 songs in a notebook; Mr. Gordy rejected all but two of them. “My songs were all rhymed up really good, because I could rhyme stuff from the time I was four or five years old,” he says. “But they didn’t make sense because while each verse was good on its own, they weren’t really connected.”

Mr. Gordy told him that a song had be like a movie or a short story, with a beginning, middle and end. Mr. Robinson began to study the art and was soon writing carefully crafted, beautiful story songs. “Luckily, I was working with great people under the helm of a music man,” says Mr. Robinson. “Motown wasn’t really about ego. It was about friendly competition and picking the right song for the right artist. We were all trying to be the best.”

He acknowledges that he will be best remembered for writing “My Girl,” whose worldwide appeal never stops amazing him when he performs it. People hear the simple, distinctive opening riff and start singing, he says, whether they speak English or not. Still, Mr. Robinson doesn’t think it’s his greatest composition. “I believe others have exceeded it in their place in the Great American Songbook,” he says, pointing especially to “Tracks of My Tears” and “Get Ready,” a 1966 hit for the Temptations.

But, he adds, he doesn’t care which songs people think of when they hear his name. “I just want to be remembered for my music, period,” Mr. Robinson says. “I want to be like Beethoven, with people playing my songs in 400 years.”

Alan Paul is an author, journalist and musician.

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