An interview with Smokey Robinson ahead of his Aug. 11 San Diego concert: ‘Retirement doesn’t work for me!’
The Motown music legend, fully recovered from his late 2020 bout with COVID-19, is eager to sustain his career for years to come
There is a very sound reason Motown music legend Smokey Robinson doesn’t perform “The Impossible Dream,” the classic song of hope and self-affirmation from the 1965 Broadway musical, “Man of La Mancha.”
“Being able to have a musical career was my impossible dream. I always wanted a musical career, but I didn’t think I’d get it,” said the 1987 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who is also a 1990 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee and the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song honoree.
Robinson, 82, will perform next Thursday, Aug. 11, in San Diego at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, where he last appeared in 2004.
“I love Humphreys and am very happy we’ll be back. We haven’t played there in many years,” said the tireless music great, who is fully recovered from his bout with COVID-19 in late 2020.
The iconic singer-songwriter will perform his second concert of the year on Aug. 21 at the San Diego Symphony’s new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park
The singularity of his career — first as a staff songwriter at Motown Records and the leader of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, then as a solo artist — has long been a matter of record. Or, as Paul McCartney once described Robinson’s impact on the early Beatles: “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.”
The fabled English band often performed the Robinson-penned Miracles’ classic “You Really Got a Hold On Me” and featured their version on “The Beatles’ Second Album” in 1964.
The six-hour-plus documentary will be exclusively shown by Disney+ over three nights on Thanksgiving weekend. It paints a markedly different picture of The Beatles than the 1970 documentary, “Let It Be.”
Some of the many other gems Robinson wrote or co-wrote include The Temptations’ “Get Ready” and “My Girl”; Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone”; and Mary Wells’ “My Guy” and “You Beat Me to the Punch.” Among his other credits are The Marvelettes’ “You Don’t Mess With Bill” and “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”; The Four Tops’ “Still Water (Love)”; and The Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse,” in which the six-man vocal group declares in song that they have only one requirement for their ideal woman: money.
Then there’s the slew of hits Robinson made with The Miracles that have been embraced by several generations of listeners. The list includes “The Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Going to a Go Go” (which was later covered by the Rolling Stones) and “Ooh Baby Baby” (which in 1978 became a Top 10 hit for Linda Ronstadt).
Two new albums coming
“I always want to start with a good song,” Robinson, a Detroit native, said.
“I was mentored by (Motown Records founder) Berry Gordy and he stressed the importance of always wanting to have a good song right at the start. I want to write songs that, if I’d written them 50 years before now, today, or 50 years from now, it will mean something to you. When I start to write a song, I hope it’s a hit.”
Robinson recently completed a new album that he hopes will be released later this year. He is two songs away from completing a Spanish-language album.
Equally intriguing, Robinson and a group of collaborators are now in the script-writing phase of what will either be a biopic feature film about his life or a TV mini-series.
Does he have a preference?
“Well, in a mini-series, they can cover more,” Robinson said. “They think there is too much ground to cover in two hours. We haven’t got to casting yet, so I’m not going to even attempt to answer the question of who should play me yet. There are so many wonderful actors out there — and some that I haven’t even seen.”
Robinson spoke at length to the Union-Tribune in a mid-July phone interview from his Los Angeles home. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: You like to play golf. How’s your game?
A: Right now, not bad, but don’t tell God I said that!
Q: Do you ever get musical ideas when you are playing a round?
A: Songs come to me at any time. There’s no pattern for me, there’s no time, or place. I’m sure some songs have come to me on the golf course.
Q: When that happens, do you just take out your phone?
A: Nowadays, I can do that — take out my phone, call my answering machine and put it on my voice mail.
Q: What about before cell phones?
A: Back in the day, I used to jot it down on the score card or whatever. Wherever inspiration strikes, if I can document it, I do.
Q: You didn’t write the song “Hey Western Union Man” for Jerry Butler. But you were a Western Union Man, delivering telegraphs in real life, when you were a teenager in Detroit.
A: Oh, yeah! I’ve had almost very job you can think of. I was one of 11 kids being raised by my sister and her husband. I worked at the grocery store, the drug store, the shoeshine parlor. I was a paper boy, I delivered telegrams. You name it, I’ve done it.
Q: Did your day jobs make you more determined to have a musical career?
A: No, man. I always wanted a musical career, but I didn’t think I’d get it. I was growing up in the ‘hood and didn’t think I’d get a musical career — especially not one that is like this. I didn’t know it was possible.
Q: Was there a turning point where you realized it was possible?
A: Yeah, when I met Berry Gordy (in 1957). He was very encouraging. He started to manage The Miracles and me about a year or a year and a half after he started Motown (in 1959). When I met him, it became possible to me. He was just a songwriter himself at the time.
Q: Is it true Berry put you and The Miracles on a $5 a week salary?
A: No, no, that was after he started Motown. ... I was one of the first five employees at Motown and that’s when he paid me $5 a week, not The Miracles. I was with Berry at Motown since day one. There were five of us. We did everything. We boxed up the records, put the labels on them, shipped them out, everything.
Q: What inspired you and Bobby Rogers to write “First I Look at the Purse” for The Contours?
A: (laughs) Come on! I don’t know. I have no idea. That was more than 50 years ago! But The Contours were the kind of group who could sing that and get away with it.
Q: Ray Charles told me he made his musical mistakes before anyone knew who he was, and that — by the time he became a recording artist — he had smoothed out the rough spots. How about you?
A: No, man, I never looked at it like making musical mistakes. I started when I was 16, so I didn’t have too much time to make any mistakes about anything, especially musical mistakes. Being able to have a musical career was my impossible dream, so I didn’t make too many musical mistakes before then. There wasn’t any time.
Q: You grew up almost next door to Diana Ross, around the corner from Aretha Franklin, and across the street from The Four Tops and The Temptations. No screenwriter could make something like that up.
A: That’s going to be in my movie, all the people that grew up in this same ‘hood. That’s a remarkable thing and it’s wonderful to have known those people — and to have known them from when we were kids and to see what happened with their lives.
Q: Before the Four Tops became the Four Tops, they were a jazzy vocal group called The Four Aims and Joe Henderson played sax for them at one point. How much has jazz influenced you?
A: Jazz, rock, classical, blues, spirituals — they’ve all had an influence on my music and career. Because I grew up in a home where all of that was being played. I had two older sisters and they were playing (records by) Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Patti Page and Frank Sinatra. The first voice I remember hearing in my life was Sarah Vaughan’s.
I heard B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and The Five Blind Boys at home, and Bach and Beethoven. I had a great house of music when I was growing up.
Q: I know you were a fan of singing cowboy movie stars as a kid. Was Herb Jeffries one of them?
A: Well, yeah. Herb was the only Black cowboy I ever knew or saw back in those days. There were not many Black cowboys, especially not ones who were allowed to be in movies.
Q: The great pianist Eubie Blake still performed concerts in his mid-90s. How long do you see yourself continuing to tour and record?
A: I’m going to be the George Burns of this, baby! Retirement doesn’t work for me!
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Tickets: $149, plus service fees
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