It's one thing to withstand the test of time, another to transcend it entirely. Smokey Robinson's music has managed to become part of our collective DNA, thanks to a string of hits with the Miracles that includes "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Going to a Go-Go," "I Second That Emotion" and "The Tears of a Clown."
A Detroit native who moved to Los Angeles in 1972, the much-revered "King of Motown" estimates that he's written, or co-written, 90 to 95 percent of the songs he's sung. And in an age when so many veteran performers throw together bands haphazardly, Robinson and his touring band have their own shared legacy. Most of its members have been with the singer for at least 10 years, a couple of them more than 20.
In fact, until recently, the group also featured Marv Tarplin, who co-wrote "The Tracks of My Tears," Going to a Go-Go" and Robinson's solo hit, "Cruisin'." "He had been with me since the days of the Miracles," says Robinson of the guitarist, who'd racked up close to 50 years with him before retiring last December.
For his part, Robinson has no plans to call it a day, or even to slow down for that matter. Time Flies When You're Having Fun, the first release on his own Robso label, reached No. 10 on the Billboard R&B chart last year. The album includes guest appearances from India.Arie, Joss Stone and Carlos Santana. But the star of the show is still Robinson's high tenor vocals, which continue to inspire singers ranging from Mayer Hawthorne to Raphael Saadiq.
Last week, Robinson took time out to talk with the Indy about his early days in the music industry as well as his nonstop songwriting regimen, rigorous touring schedule and eclectic musical obsessions.
Indy: So, how much time do you spend out on the road these days?
SR: Well, I've been out on tour since January, and I'm just finishing up. I've been out for a little more than I wanted to this year, though, I can tell you that. It's been insane. We've been traveling all over the world this year.
Indy: Did you go anywhere you haven't played before, or is there nowhere you haven't been?
SR: There's places I haven't been before, but no, we didn't go to any of those places.
Indy: What would those places be?
SR: I've never been to Africa. I've never been to Russia or China.
Indy: Why not?
SR: It's just that the last offer I had to go to Africa was during the apartheid thing, you know, so I most certainly was not gonna go under those circumstances. And after that ended, I just never got the right offer to go there. And I've never had any offers to go Russia or China.
You know, China's just really opening up. A good friend of mine — a guy named Bobby Taylor who used to be a Motown artist, he was with a group called the Vancouvers — he moved to China. And I saw him three or four months ago, he was back in the States, and he was urging me to come to China. In fact, he was trying to get me to move to China.
Indy: He wanted you to move to China?
SR: Yeah, that was his suggestion. [Laughs.] He's producing some Chinese artists and he's got a great thing going over there. I produce all the time, but I'm most certainly not going to move to China.
Indy: During the first decade of your career, you recorded an album every year, which was the deal back then for a lot of artists. What were the pros and cons of that approach?
SR: Well, you know, I just think that the market demanded that you had to do that, if you wanted to keep up. See, back when I first started — when Berry Gordy first started Motown — the concentration was on singles. But then albums started to take hold, and that became the focal point for marketing. And nowadays, it's a whole different ball of wax.
Indy: Did you see that coming?
SR: If I had seen that coming, I would have been so prepared, Bill, I can't tell you. [Laughs.] Nobody saw it coming. The advent of the computer changed our entire world. Not just the record business, but everything.
Indy: So what would you have done differently?
SR: I would have just been ahead of the curve. I would have had all the music ready to be downloaded while people were still actually paying for it. [Laughs.]
Indy: The way most artists actually get paid now is through touring. But I assume you're still getting royalties from a lot of your work, true?
SR: Yeah, my royalties are probably my financial base, but touring has been very important, to keep yourself out in front of people. And the only reason I tour now at all is because I love it. That's when I get to go and be with the fans and have a good time and make new fans. You know, it's my joy. I mean, it's very, very, very tiring — the traveling and all that — but once we get out there and the music starts, man, it's a party. We perform for 2½, three hours, and that's just my release musically.
Indy: I know that there are songs you have to play, but which of your classic hits are your favorites to play?
SR: I don't have any favorites, they're all my favorites. But one thing I can say is that, for me, I never slough on them, you know what I mean? In other words, every night they're new to me. And I've sung some of those songs thousands upon thousands of times.
Indy: Your early years at Motown were a legendary time. I'm wondering what stories you might tell your grandkids that really stand out from that period.
SR: Um, gosh, I guess the fact of me being at Motown, and meeting Berry Gordy before he started Motown. I would tell them that story. Because I grew up in the hood, in Detroit, man, and I am living my wildest childhood dream at this point.
I think God arranged for me to meet Berry Gordy. You know, I was auditioning for Jackie Wilson's managers. Jackie Wilson was my No. 1 singing idol in those days. And the group — we weren't called the Miracles then — we were just young teenagers. And Berry Gordy, who had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson, happened to be at that audition. And we sang some songs that I had written, and then Jackie Wilson's managers rejected us. [Laughs.]
Indy: What were the songs?
SR: That we sang?
Indy: Yeah, any that we would know from those days?
SR: No, you know, I had a loose-leaf notebook with a hundred songs, man. So we figured that would get us over, because we had our own material.
Indy: They wouldn't let you play all hundred?
SR: No, we sang five of them. And one of them that Berry liked was called "My Mama Done Told Me," which turned out to be the flipside of my very first record with the Miracles.
Indy: What inspires you to write?
Indy: Is it always that interesting?
SR: What, life? Oh yeah, on a daily basis, on a minute-to-minute basis, you know? I'm not one of those writers who needs to go off to the mountains for two months and isolate myself so that I can write some songs. About 10 years ago, either ASCAP or EMI sent me a log of my songs, and there were about 4,000 of them then. And I've been writing since. I write all the time.
Indy: That's crazy. How many songs a year is that?
SR: I have no idea, man. I have a lot of ideas jotted down on pieces of paper. And that's one thing — you asked me what would I have done differently — I would have saved every little piece of paper that I ever jotted an idea down on. Every little cardboard box, every little matchbook, everything. I would have saved all that stuff, because it would be invaluable now.
Indy: You could donate it to some library.
SR: Absolutely. Or I could donate it to the Motown Museum in Detroit.
Indy: What songs have you heard recently that you've been really impressed by?
SR: Well, you know, I listen to everybody. And right now, one of my favorite songs is by Usher, "There Goes My Baby," which is off his new record. I love "Unthinkable" by Alicia Keys. I love "Pretty Wings" by Maxell. I listen to everybody, man, I don't close myself off. I listen to rap, I listen to hip-hop, I listen to Bach and Beethoven. [Laughs.]
Indy: So what are your plans for the future?
SR: My plans for the future are to continue what I'm doing. I love it, and I'll probably be the George Burns of this end of the business if things go like I think they will.
I tried total retirement from show business when I retired from the Miracles, and after three years I was climbing the walls, so that didn't work for me. So right now, I have no plans to retire. And you know, I'm married to a wonderful woman — her name is Frances — and I have three wonderful adults. People ask me, "Do you have kids?" No, I have three adults, and I have grandchildren and, you know, I'm just gonna enjoy my life, man.