From the streets of Detroit, a man named “Smokey” rose to achieve what no one expected. He recorded 36 Top-40 hits during a career with Motown Records that started in 1959, and continues today. A recipient of the Grammy Living Legend Award, a National Medal of The Arts presented by the president of The United States, and a 1988 inductee into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, Smokey Robinson sat down with Larry London for a look into what it takes to make a career last as long as his.
Smokey Robinson has been in the music business almost 50 years as a songwriter, producer, and performer. He was described by Bob Dylan as "America's greatest living poet."
"I think my favorite part of my work … my business, is performing,” says Robinson. “I love being in a studio. I love writing songs. I write songs all the time. I love making music. The reason that I still perform is because it's my favorite part. I get a chance then to [be] one-on-one with the fans. I get a chance to be with them. I get a chance to react with them and have them react to what we're doing onstage. I always say, I never do a concert for people; I do a concert with people. We have a fun time, a good time.
I can be feeling bad, but when that music starts it perks something up in me or the alter ego comes out or something. It's always fun."
Robinson has recently released a collection of songs by some of America's greatest songwriters.
"These songs are the first that I ever heard. They were written when the song was king."
He describes what it takes to make a hit.
"I wish there was like this one little thing that I had the secret to. That I would know, 'OK, this is a hit.' (laughs) Because you just never know. My formula going into the studio, I always want to start with a song. When I sit down to write I'm trying to write a song. I hope it's a hit, but, if it isn't, it's a song and it has a chance. If I had written it 50 years before then it would have meant something to people. If I write it now it's going to mean something to people. Fifty years from now its going to mean something if it's a song."
Robinson knows about writing hit songs. He has penned Number One songs for Mary Wells, The Temptations, and for his own group, The Miracles. His career in music began when he met Berry Gordy, and helped found legendary Motown Records.
"I'm so proud of Motown and of being affiliated and being there from the first day. Because Motown has grown into something beyond any of our wildest dreams, those of us who were there on the very first day, there were five of us: Barry Gordy and four others. To know that it was internationally, what it is, and what it means to the world is very, very, very special for me.
Many times when you are in other countries, the promoter who brought you there, after the concert that evening, will take you to the "in spot" [most-popular nightclub]. We go to this little club, and these guys are on stage, and they're playing and they're singing, and the guy is singing and you close your eyes and you think it's The Four Tops, they're here and they're singing. So when the set was over, he came off stage, and I go over to the guy who was singing lead and say 'That was fantastic', and he says, 'No comprendo' ['I don't understand' in Spanish]. He doesn't speak English. (laughs) But he knew that song verbatim. That's the impact that it's had on the world.
Smokey Robinson's impact on music has been enormous. His voice and songs were the soundtrack for a generation of baby boomers [Americans born between 1945-1960]. As a solo artist, he inspired a radio format known as "The Quiet Storm."
This year, Robinson was selected as one of five Kennedy Center Honorees in recognition for his lifetime of achievements in the arts. He was introduced by Caroline Kennedy as: "A quiet storm from Detroit's East End. His songs made us all wish he was 'our guy'."