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American Routes Shortcuts: Smokey Robinson

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Smokey Robinson

This is American Routes, our program about Detroit, the Motor City, Motown, and here's where the rubber meets the road from recording studio to assembly line for Smokey Robinson. Smokey is one of the enduring figures of American music and a lover of the Motor City. Born William Robinson in 1940, he came out singing from a tough Detroit neighborhood and went on to become a songwriter and producer for Motown Records. Smokey's sweet songs and falsetto voice helped define the sound. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Tears of a Clown," "Ooh Baby Baby" were among his many hits. He wrote "Get Ready," "My Girl," and "My Guy" for others: the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the list goes on. Let's hear from Smokey about where it started.

Smokey Robinson: I guess I had a pretty normal childhood for somebody growing up in the ghetto section of Detroit. I mean I grew up in a neighborhood where Diana Ross lived right down the street from me, and Aretha Franklin lived around the corner, and the Four Tops lived two blocks over, and the Temptations lived about four blocks away. You know, this was where I grew up. It was the era of the doo-wop groups. And in Detroit at the time you were either in a gang or a group. And so I chose to be in a group.

[music]

Nick Spitzer: There is a long sort of history of–in the quartet say–of people who do sing the high tenors in the falsetto. Did you have a sense that you had a voice that could go where you go?

SR: Well, I've always had a high voice. See, I guess that's why I picked my singing idols to be guys with high voices. I had all of Jackie Wilson's records, and I had all of Sam Cooke's records and all of Clyde McPhatter’s records and Frankie Lyman. And even when I was in high school, I was in the alto section. That's just how I sound and who I am.

[music]

SR: The Miracles and I, we were not called the Miracles at that time, but the Matadors. We all had the high water pants and the short waist coat jackets. And we went for an audition for Jackie Wilson's managers. And Berry happened to be there that day because he was gonna turn in some new songs to Jackie Wilson. So he comes outside after we are finished, after we've been rejected, and he questioned us as to where we got the songs from. And I told him that I wrote them, and he said, well, there were a couple of them that he liked. He said, yeah, he said, "I'm Berry Gordy." I said, "You mean Berry Gordy who writes for Jackie Wilson?" He said, "Yeah, that's me.” You know, so then my lip dropped down to the ground. I had a loose-leaf notebook of about a hundred songs, and I must have sang 30 of them for Berry. And he never ever said, "Okay man, that's enough," or "Okay. I'm tired," or any of that. He just critiqued every one. And about a year or so after I met Berry, we started Motown. So, you know, the rest is history.

[music]

NS: We think of this gleaming grand Oz of Motown, but you know, it really was people, voices, songs, getting together. Could you say a little about the process of creating songs for yourself in that studio setting?

SR: We had a great family atmosphere, a lot of young people making music, even though we were highly, highly competitive with each other. See, Hitsville was also a unique place because all the guys in all the groups we really hung out there. We'd be playing cards. We'd be playing chess. We'd be playing ping-pong. And so it would be nothing for me to be in a room doing something, and Norman Whitfield would be recording something of Marvin Gaye and run in and say, "Hey man, Smoke, come in here and put some hand claps on this record," and I'd go in there and do it. That feeling and that camaraderie and all that comes across in that music.

NS: I have to note the guys were singing quite a bit about the girls.

SR: Well what better subject for a guy to sing about?

NS: My girl.

SR: Absolutely.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.