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The Miracle Man 22 Years On

ASIDE from being one of Motown's most consistently successful artists, William "Smokey" Robinson is Vice-President of the vast empire and was with the company literally from Day One. As a songwriter, few modern-day composers have been as successful as Smokey — Bob Dylan once referred to him as "the world's greatest living poet". Now, with Smokey enjoying his biggest solo success (via the single, "Cruisin"' and album, "Where There's Smoke") and about to begin a worldwide tour, the time is right for our roving reporters, Tamiko Jones and John Abbey to visit Smokey in his Motown office, high above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

JA: Smokey, let's start at the very beginning. When was that?

SR: 1954. We were at high school. It was always the same five people — Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, Ronnie White and myself. However, at the very beginning, Claudette's brother, Sonny, was singing with us. We were called the Matadors and Claudette and Bobby's sister had a group called the Matadorettes.

We started doing local amateur shows and school functions and things like that and then Sonny decided he wanted to go into the army. We had an audition for the guy who was handling Jackie Wilson at that time and since Claudette knew a lot of the songs we were doing, she came in and from that day on she became one of the fellas!

JA: What about the first recordings?

SR: Well, we recorded them in New York but since there was no Motown then, Berry sold the masters to George Goldner of End Records.

JA: Were you the Miracles by then?

SR: Yes.

JA: What about the Chess single?

SR: What actually happened was that we had started Motown before we went with Chess. The first records were cut in 1957 and released in 1958. In fact, Bobby Rogers and I have the very same birthday — we were born on exactly the same day in exactly the same hospital in Detroit, though it was fourteen years later that we met and found out. Anyway, the first record came out on our birthday, February 19, 1958.

In the interim period, while Berry was leasing our masters to End, he had started Motown Records but just for the Detroit area — Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint and Pontiac. The very first record was "Come To Me" by Marv Johnson. That was the very first Motown record — ever! And it was released on the Tamla label.

Anyway, the record became so big in those four cities that we could no longer handle it because we weren't set up for national distribution. So Berry in turn sold the rights to United Artists and since United Artists would only take the deal if Marv became a United Artists' artist, he stayed with them for a few years. Anyway, in mid-58 the Miracles recorded two more records and they were released locally on Tamla. The first was "Bad Girl" and it started to break in those four cities so again we couldn't handle it and Berry went to Chicago and sold the two records to Chess.

JA: Which was the first Tamla record to go nationally?

SR: It was by the Miracles — "Way Over There". What happened was that Chess released "Bad Girl" and it became the first record to ever make some noise for the Miracles around the country. It started us doing some gigs and travelling around. However, nobody was paying us royalties. They'd send in a long list of expenses for promotion and everything else — but no money! In fact, to this day, Berry has a check that he framed and keeps in his office from End Records. We had two records and "Got A Job" went to No. 1 R&B and was a big record in its time. So, for not only that record and the other side, "My Mama Done Told Me"; but also the second record, "I Need Some Money" and the other side, "I Cried". For those four sides — for producer's royalties, writer's royalties and artist royalties — we got a check for $3.19!

So, nobody was paying us and we had this record I'd cut in Detroit, "Way Over There". It was a funky little track and we were hopeful. We released in the Detroit area again and it was breaking so Berry and I were talking about what we should do. We knew what had happened with Chess and End so I said we should try and go nationwide with it ourselves this time…set up our own distributors and see what happened. Since nobody was paying us anyway we may as well not pay ourselves and take a chance — which we did.

Anyway, rather go with "Way Over There" as it was, we took into consideration that the Drifters had been doing records with violins for a couple of years and were the only ones doing so. Berry said we should go to Chicago and put some violins on "Way Over There" and then take it nationally. Which we did. And it succeeded and we were very fortunate to come straight back with "Shop Around" and that established the group, the company and everything.

JA: What are your most vivid memories of those early days?

SR: Probably, my most vivid experience was the very first day. That was the day Berry and I went up to Owasso, Michigan — where we were getting our record pressed — to get Marv Johnson's records so that we could take them to the radio stations. In those early days of Motown, everybody did everything — we all packed records, we all took them to radio stations — everything! So, Berry and I went to get these 250 records and it was in the dead of winter.

The highway was like a sheet of glass — pure ice. We were almost killed twice on the way up there and twice again on the way back! I'll never forget it. On the way back, we turned over into a ditch to avoid one of those tractor-trailor trucks that had lost control. It was a really hair-raising experience.

JA: Looking back, could you envisage what has since happened actually happening or was it a day-by-day growth situation?

SR: That's really a hard question to answer. We were very young — I was only seventeen. We weren't thinking of failure, of course, I was just happy to be doing something I liked — it was fun. I never dared to dream about it being a lifetime thing. All I was thinking about was the next day and going forward with the next record!

JA: How did you actually meet Berry?

SR: At the audition I mentioned, with the guy who was handling Jackie Wilson. When we got there, there was this guy sitting there and he looked as though he was probably fifteen years old! Anyway, rather than sing songs that were already in the market and currently popular, we sang five songs that I had written while going to school. One of the songs was "My Mama Done Told Me", which later became the flipside of our first record.

Anyway, the guy we auditioned for said he couldn't use us and because we had a girl in the group, we should be more like Mickey & Sylvia, who were very popular at the time. As we were leaving the audition, totally discouraged, this other guy came up to us and asked where we got the songs from. I said I'd written them and he introduced himself as Berry Gordy. Now I had every Jackie Wilson record so I knew right away who he was. I told him it was an honour to meet him because of his writing for Jackie and Etta James.

Anyway, he said he liked the song about "my mama" and I started to show him my notebook with all the songs in it. They were just songs that rhymed — they didn't have any continuity, but they rhymed! He explained to me how a song should be like a story, like a book, to get an idea across. Berry was very instrumental in my song-writing — he taught me a lot of things in those early days that I have never forgotten and that I still use today. So, that's how we met.

JA: Who were the artists you were personally involved with as a producer?

SR: I really learned on the Miracles. Once Berry saw that I was interested in that aspect — right after those first four sides — he took me with him on all of his sessions.

The first record I produced on my own was the first "Way Over There", with the funky track. Then, we went to Chicago and Berry reproduced it and added the strings. I had also produced "Shop Around" at the same session. It was originally intended for Barrett Strong as a follow-up to "Money". My assignment was to do an album on Barrett. But when I played "Shop Around" for Berry, he said he wanted me to sing it. So, we redid it. But even after we released it and it started taking off in the Detroit area, Berry wanted to change it.

I had gotten sick with the flu and the phone rang at about four in the morning and it was Berry. He said to get everyone in the studio right now because he wanted to re-cut "Shop Around" and couldn't get to sleep until he did it. He said he wanted to change the beat and that we'd have a smash! Of course, I thought he was mad — but I did what he said! And we re-recorded it that way. In fact, the pianist didn't show up so Berry played piano himself. Now that was an experience!

The next artist was Mary Wells. It happened that the first three or four records I did with Mary were smashes and that gave me confidence as a producer.

JA: Did you adopt a different approach for each project?

SR: I believe in artistic freedom and I don't think you should tell someone how to sing so, yes, I did adopt a different approach each time. I think you should explain the basics — the melody, the lyrics. Other than that, no restrictions. I used to always envisage the way the artist would sing my song as I was writing it.

You see, I hate it when a producer tells me how to sing. The producer should always be adaptable and allow artistic freedom. That was what was so great about working with Marvin Gaye. I would show him a song one time and I knew he would sing it even better than the way I had envisaged it. And the Temptations — they would always work so hard oh those deacon-type harmonies. It was Mary Wells' wish that I should show her the phrasing so perhaps I worked a little harder and closer with her because she wanted to sing the song the way I wanted her to sing it.

JA: Aside from the obvious technical improvements, is there that much difference between the way you recorded than as opposed to today?

SR: Yes, a heck of a difference. In those early days, producers and engineers were better — because they had to be. I don't mean they were more creative than the guys today. Or that they came out with better product. But you had to be on your toes. When I first started, everything was recorded in mono. You had one track, one take and that was it. No remixing, everything was right there. Today, everyone is so relaxed because there is so much you can do afterwards. You're allowed so much leeway.

JA: Has the spontaneity been lost?

SR: Only from one aspect. I believe that when I used to record with the band I sang better and that seems to go for everyone almost. More feeling. A lot of times today, I wish I had a hand mike with me so that I could sing there and then while the rhythm tracks are being cut. It's because that is when I most feel it and I do miss doing it that way, yes.

JA: Do you feel it is more difficult to reproduce a recorded sound or stage today?

SR: I don't think so, no. I think it's easier because of all of the technical advancements. They didn't have those advantages back then. As a group, you were lucky to get two mikes! It should be very easy to duplicate your sound today.

JA: You are obviously in favour or technical advancement. Is there anything else you'd like to see invented that would make your life easier personally?

SR: Only if you could get a portable isolation booth that could be put around your body so you could move around in the studio and sing with the band.

JA: As a songwriter, where do you get your inspiration from?

SR: From God…I believe very strongly in God. He is the creative force and the songs just come. I have written songs on assignment but most of them have just come.

JA: How many songs have you has published?

SR: About 1,500 — though I've probably written about 4,000.

JA: Do you have favourites?

SR: Not where I could pick one — because I try to put everything into all of them. I imagine I have maybe ten or twelve favourites, thought Right now, my favourite "Cruisin"'!

JA: Do you feel that "Cruisin' compares with some of your greats?

SR: Compares? To me, "Cruisin' is like a formula song because Man Tarplin wrote the music and his music has inspired me to write a lot of songs. We actually started on that song about a year and a half before moved out here and I've been living in L.A. for seven years. I've changed it twice completely. It was originally to be called "Easy Riders" and was originally written for a Text Missing group that I was going to record at the time.

About three years ago, I started to work on it in the studio but I hated it at the time because I wasn't singing it right. So, I canned it. And every time a new session would come up, I'd start on it again and it never seemed right to me. On the

"Where There's Smoke" album, we did some other things to it and it came out right. I never usually have a favourite song on my own albums but that happens to be my favourite on this album.

When I finished the album, I was really excited about "Cruisin'" and I played it for Berry and the people at the company. But they all went crazy for "Get Ready" because disco was happening so I thought maybe they were right because I had lived the album and maybe someone hearing it for the first time could be a better judge and have more objectiveness than me. Everyone was frantic about "Get Ready" and it took off in the discos — but the radio stations would not play it. They didn't like it.

Just before Christmas, we did a charity show for underprivileged children sponsored by WVON in Chicago. Not only was I happy to do the show for such a good cause — but especially for WVON because they started "Cruisin'". The guy there did a telephone interview and he asked me to come to do the Christmas show. But he said not to sing "Get Ready", they didn't want to hear it. Chicago wanted "Cruisin"' and sure enough, that's where it took off and it snowballed from there. It made me very, very happy and I was especially elated because it took me away from disco.

JA: Out of interest, do you think disco hurt you?

SR: For a moment, disco occupied the music world. What's happening now is that disco is going back to taking its own space. So, everything isn't disco anymore and it is subsiding. Which again makes me very happy! But I did think I needed disco records — hence, "Get Ready" and another tune in my album, "It's A Good Night".

I didn't want to be hard-nosed about it — I just wanted a hit! I think most artists who recorded disco records felt the same way.

JA: Going back to writing again, do you consciously write material for other artists today?

SR: Yes, I do — but not that you could hear today. I have some songs that I wrote for my band, A Quiet Storm, and their album will be released soon. I also wrote a couple for my nephews, Keith & Darrell. But the songs they had written for themselves were so much better than the songs I had written that I didn't use my material. They write really good songs.

This was like a boyhood promise to them because they've been writing songs since they were twelve years old and they were always asking me to record them. And I would always tell them 'no' until they were finished high school. 'But what about Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5', they always came back with — so I said I would record them when they could show me their high school diplomas. So, they did! But they are my only two outside projects. And, of course, I am just finishing off my own new album.

JA: Has the success of "Cruisin'" changed your direction for this next album?

SR: Definitely — I have got right down into what "Cruisin'" is all about this time.

JA: I want to go right back to your departure from the Miracles — were the reasons given then the real ones?

SR: That's why I always try to tell the truth because I don't want to have to think about what I told "Blues & Soul" the last time before I can answer a question like that.

The reasons I left were because, firstly, my son had just been born and I was tired of having to keep saying to him; "I'll see you in a month, or a week or three weeks". He was very precious to me because we had had many miscarriages before he came into the world. And, at that particular time in my life, I was becoming fed up with everything that had anything to do with show business — with the exception of actually being on stage performing…I have always loved that. And I probably always will. I was also happy to be with the guys because we had grown up together. There were no backstage frictions or conflict.

But the travelling, the living out of a suitcase, the hotels, the food! I had reached a point where I would rather have eaten your tape recorder! I had had it! So, I thought the best thing to do for everydoby concerned would be for me to back off. I didn't feel that my input was as positive as it had been. If you notice on the last two or three albums I did with the group, I didn't write or produce most of the stuff. I had conked out.

JA: Do you ever miss the group when on stage?

SR: First of all, I have never done a show in my life where I wasn't nervous before actually going on. I always had the same kind of anxiety and until I get out there and sing the first four bars or so, I can't relax. The first few gigs I did as a solo artist were very strange to me because there was no Pete, Bobby and Ronnie. I had no-one to play off and it was kinda frightening.

JA: Do you feel you've lost some of the visual effect?

SR: Probably so — but I don't miss it personally. I really enjoy being a solo artist.

JA: Have you any regrets about the split?

SR: Yes — that I took a three year hiatus after I actually left. Because it meant starting all over again from scratch. I think that if I had gone right into recording — even if I didn't do any dates — it would have kept my name alive.

JA: Have you ever considered recording the group again?

SR: I wouldn't mind. Right now, I'm very anxious and worried about Bobby and Ronnie. Bill Griffin and I keep in constant communication because he lives here. He's on his own and trying to make a record deal for himself. Pete has left the group entirely so Bobby and Ronnie have got two entirely new guys and are revamping the group to record back in Detroit. I hope they hurry up and do it because it'll become really hard for them to start again as time goes on.

JA: Do you think it was very difficult for them to survive when you left?

SR: Only psychologically. Because, before I left they got Bill in. I didn't get involved in finding the replacement because I wasn't going to have to live with the guy. So, they did their own rehearsals.

About nine months before I actually stopped, Bill went everywhere with us and he and I became very close. I tried to explain to him how he'd have to overcome a helluva psychological thing because people who didn't know better would keep coming up to him and asking hom if he was Smokey Robinson. He needed to be extra strong to deal with it since people always attached us together. I still get letters today — in fact, I just got a petition from a radio station in Chicago asking us to go back together again.

JA: Can you ever see that happening in any shape for form?

SR: I don't know — I don't think of it in that light. As far as my career is concerned, I feel very, very blessed. This is my 22nd year and I feel blessed to still be doing what I'm doing. The record, "Cruisin'", is a trip for me because a lot of people — especially whites — come up to me and say how glad they are that I'm making records again. What can I say — but thanks! I can't really get into telling them that I've been recording all the time, can I?

JA: But you haven't been as visible as you were in the Miracles days.

SR:…I've only done maybe one tenth of the gigs we would have done. When I was in the group, more people were involved. The other guys had wives and families to support and feed and their only income was being on the road. So, I spent the great majority of my life being on the road.

JA: Unnecessarily?

SR: No, because their families were my families — we had all grown up together. It was something I had to do. Now, as a solo artist, I'm experiencing the greatest freedom I have ever known in this business. I don't have to go on the road. Apart from two charity shows, the last touring I did was in Europe and I came back from there in November 1978.

And I don't feel guilty. If I'd been in the group still, I'd have started feeling guilty in February. And even in the studio, I can try a lullabye if I want to — or a skat jazz tune. And it it's a flop, it only hurts me.

JA: Do you run the risk of complacency?

SR: No — because I still want hit records. I still want to be a person who writes good songs. It just gives me more freedom to explore and stretch out.

JA: When you compare these days with the days when you packed records, it's a change, isn't it?

SR: Yes, it is. People ask me now what do I do as Vice-President of Motown. To be truthful, I do very little of anything as V.P. My office was originally intended for inducing and co-ordinating new talent. I am the V.P. in charge of Artist Relations.

In the old days, all of the contracts — the Supremes, Four Tops, Contours, Temptations — I was the one who signed them and I coordinated them with producers. I did the Supremes and Temptations myself when they first came to Motown but I assigned the rest to producers and writers. And I stayed very busy right up until 1971 — just before I left the group and moved out here.

Today, we have fifteen people doing the job I used to do. I'm still available if needed and if I see something I feel I ought to be involved in, I will. But, basically I'm home free and in the studio. I've been living in the studio — night and day. Especially in 1979. My duties as an executive don't require me on a day-to-day basis.

The roughest time I ever had as a V.P. was when we first moved here and I had to sign the payroll checks. I was spending my whole time signing checks! Esther Edwards and I were the only V.P.'s with signing authority — and she had stayed in Detroit. But the past three or four years have been very light for me.

JA: Do you reflect on those years as the good old days?

SR: Not really. To me, these are the good old days — right now. Because I feel free and very content. I'm glad it hasn't made me complacent.

JA: Do you feel a lot was lost when the company left Detroit?

SR: I think we lost something, yes — but I also think we gained something, too. We lost Detroit. For a long time after we left, it was hard for us to get our records played in Detroit. People don't know that. I think Detroit felt let down by us.

I remember seeing a newscast on TV the day we actually closed the building and left and the guy made it like an obituary. He was standing in front of the building on Woodward and really looking sad. It was a big let-down for the people there. And it was our roots so we were sad, too. We'd put Detroit on the map for something other than automobiles. It was a hard blow for everyone. But coming out here, we were able to get off into many other avenues of entertainment. We became more than just a record company. We became an entertainment complex — getting into movies and television, things we could never have done in Detroit.

JA: Do you feel that Motown could have happened in another city other than Detroit?

SR: I really don't know…I look upon it as the will of God. It was meant to be. I'm not a religious person in that I don't go to church — I wish I did but haven't found a church that I like and believe me, I've tried. But I believe strongly in God. I'd like to see church outside where they don't pass the basket around and where a dude can come naked to worship if he likes to.

If you look back on those early days, it was all spiritual to me. The Motown sound was spiritual. It came from the people who made it happen. When we first started being successful, people were coming from all over the world to record. They thought the Motown Sound was in the air in Detroit and that if they recorded on the freeway, they'd get the Motown Sound! What they didn't know was that we recorded our people in Nashville, Chicago, New York — all over and we still got the Motown Sound. Why? Because we had the people who made happen.

It was a spiritual thing. Look at the names of the groups who were making it happen — the Miracles, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, the Temptations. All those biblical names. Perhaps it would have happened somewhere else — but it didn't. It happened in Detroit.

JA: Do you think there is anything special about the talent in Detroit?

SR: No, I don't think so. It's everywhere. I think it's in Newburg, Mississippi but they don't have an outlet there. When we started Motown Records, it became an outlet for talent in Detroit so talent was coming out of the walls and we had the pick of it all. But there are so many telented people all over the world.

JA: Do you still have any ambitions to achieve?

SR: Are you kidding! First, I want my next record to be a hit! I'd also like to act and I'd like to get more involved in movie producing.

JA: What efect did your involvement in "Big Time" have on your career?

SR: It was an education — and oh how I paid for my education! No-one would back it so I paid out of my own pocket. I never got a distributor for it so I ended up paying through my teeth, through my nose! However, "Big Time" was the greatest creative experience in my career. To be right there from the formulation of the script-writing until the final print goes on the screen. That's invaluable and I am interested in doing more.

JA: Any ambitions on a more personal note?

SR: I would like to be a better person. To see if I can really love my enemies. To get to the point where I don't really dislike anybody. There have only been a few people in my life who I actively disliked and I hope that I can overcome even that. And I am very serious about that…

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