Smokey Robinson: Here's to you Mr Robinson

Smokey Robinson helped found Motown, wrote its greatest hits, and changed the face of popular music. Not bad for someone who doesn't think himself much of a singer, says Simon Price
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The Independent Online

'I am not a singer." When the greatest singer in the history of popular music - blessed with a voice which can melt glaciers, mend hearts, and break them again in the space of a syllable - fixes you with his green eyes and tells you this, it's a startling moment.

"I have never considered myself to be a great singer," he says, insistently. "I'm a feeler. And I feel what I sing, and I feel the songs all the time. Some of those songs I have sung thousands of times, I'm not exaggerating. And they feel different. And I feel like tonight's the first night I ever sang them."

Smokey Robinson is in town to pick up an award. Another award. This is a man who has already been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, received awards from presidents, a doctorate from Harvard, and is even about to be given a Kennedy Space Center honour. This time, it's the Q Award for an Outstanding Contribution to Music. It's easy to dismiss such an accolade. In Robinson's case, however, it couldn't be more apt.

Without Smokey Robinson, the course of 20th-century music would have been radically different. William "Smokey" Robinson was born on 19 Ferbuary, 1940, and raised in Detroit, Michigan. As a teenager he formed The Matadors and visited the offices of his hero, Jackie Wilson. There he chanced upon Wilson's songwriter, Berry Gordy Jr. Impressed with the young singer, Gordy mentored the group, renamed them The Miracles and released a couple of singles on the End and Chess labels, before teaming up with Robinson to form a record label of their own. In 1960, "Shop Around" became a Billboard R&B No 1, and the rest is history.

A founder member of Tamla Motown, the first black-owned record label ("The Sound of Young America"), he changed the music industry forever. As an artist he in particular (and Motown singers in general) influenced white acts across the planet, notably The Beatles (who acknowledged their debt by covering his song "You've Really Got A Hold On Me").

"One of the things I loved so much about that was that The Beatles were the No 1 act in the world. And they were white. And they were the first white act to achieve any status, who admitted, 'Yeah, we listen to black music, and we love it'."

This crossover appeal, he tells me, was always part of the masterplan. "You know, on the very first day of Motown, there was Berry Gordy, and four others of us. And Berry said to us, 'We are not going to make black music. We are going to make music for everybody. We are going to make world music: music for everybody in the world. Music everybody can enjoy, and listen to. We're gonna make music with great beats, and great stories.' And that was our goal. And we accomplished it beyond our wildest dreams ."

For all his achievements, I keep coming back to that voice. If I were stranded on the proverbial desert island, the only thing I'd need to keep me alive would be Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' Anthology. There's something angelically androgynous in his tone which crosses the gender divide.

Smokey looks uncertain. "Is that good or bad?"

It's good! It means you can connect with both sexes.

"Oh, OK!" he laughs. "When I first started to make records with The Miracles, Claudette [his then-wife] was in our group. And when we went to places for the first time, they expected her to be the leader! And I understand that, I really do."

A just-released DVD, The Definitive Performances 1963 to 1987, captures The Miracles at the height of their powers. Seeing Robinson - dapper, handsome, straight out of the famous Motown charm school, confident as hell - dropping low at the Apollo and making the girls scream, it's easy to understand how he became an idol.

Constant touring with The Miracles took its toll on Claudette Robinson's health.

"Basically that's why she had to leave the group. We were trying to have kids. We had seven miscarriages before my first son was born, and he was born to a surrogate mother. So yeah, it was rough."

Through the 1960s, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles had a run of hits - among them "Ooh Baby Baby", "The Tracks of My Tears", "Who's Loving You", "I Second That Emotion" and "Going To A Go-Go" - which were unmatched for quality even on a label as prolific as Motown. Smokey's persona - heartbroken but still optimistic - chimed with listeners. "Some songs I tell you exactly what the conclusion is, but a lot of songs I leave the decision up to the listener, you know? They're what I call 'mind songs'. Whatever it means to you, that's what it is."

It was lyrics like these which convinced Bob Dylan, famously, that Robinson was "America's greatest living poet", a head- turning remark at a time when the two artists weren't viewed as operating as in the same realm.

"Well, we actually were! He's a folklore-type person. But we were both songwriters. We were both singers. We were both entertainers. I know Bob, and I knew Bob then. In fact, his wife Sarah and I went to acting class together. For any of your peers to say something like that is flattering. Bob is a hell of a songwriter himself..."

As a songwriter, Robinson was generous, saving many of his finest compositions for other Motown acts, notably "My Girl" for The Temptations. And as well as being a Motown artist, he was also one of the management (his official position was vice-president).

"I was a liaison, basically. A lot of the artists would come to me and complain; from an artistic standpoint, I understood some of their grievances. And Berry Gordy's my best friend. So whatever it was, I told him straight up. I didn't have to be diplomatic. But I was in a position to explain to the artists what was going on behind the scenes."

As the Sixties drew to a close, Robinson's corporate responsibilities began to take over, and he decided to leave The Miracles. But not before one huge - and surprise - hit.

"Tears of a Clown" was first recorded in 1966. "It was actually originated by Stevie Wonder. He said 'I can't think of a song for it, but it's a great track. See if you can write a song for it'." The song languished as an obscure album track until 1970, when word reached Motown's London offices that it had taken off on the burgeoning Northern Soul scene.

"And the lady in London told the powers-that-be that this is a smash hit. And it was. It became No.1 in the UK, No.1 in Europe. I had another record ready to go in the States, and Berry said 'Hey man, we're releasing "Tears Of A Clown" here too', and we did, and it was No.1 there. It was the single biggest record that The Miracles and I had in our entire career."

In the years after, while his contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder became album artists and took increasingly political stances, Robinson developed a new, more mature, sexy, late-night soul sound.

The Eighties, though, were not a happy time for Robinson: his marriage collapsed. The prime reason was cocaine. Now fully clean, Robinson's a national anti-drugs spokesperson. It's a subject which breaks his benign serenity, and sparks something approaching a rant.

"I tell everybody: drugs are so sneaky. They're so cunning. And they don't discriminate. They don't care who you are. Now, weed is a mild drug. I'm not promoting weed, but that was my thing. I was fine with that. But I never tripped out until I started cocaine. And I never snorted cocaine. I used to buy the rocks, break them up and put them in my weed and smoke it, cos that's the only way I liked it. So I did that for two and a half years man, and I was a walking corpse. I had lost so much weight. It got to the point where Berry Gordy told the controllers at Motown 'Don't give Smokey another dime'."

Since cleaning up, Robinson has kept himself busy, performing and sporadically recording (and also running a food company, SFGL, making low-preservative, low-sodium frozen gumbo). He speaks about God often, as soul singers, particularly former drug addict soul singers, do.

He has watched the troubles of his Motown contemporary, Michael Jackson, with sadness. "I've known Michael since he was a child, and I feel bad that he's gone through what he's gone through. I love Michael, so I just hope he can get his life together."

Of today's artists, he rates Alicia Keys, Maxwell, Norah Jones, John Legend and even Beyoncé Knowles. I ask him if he can hear his influence on contemporary music, and he says he doesn't - "But I tell you whose influence I hear a lot: Stevie Wonder. Justin Timberlake is like a cross between Stevie and Michael Jackson."

Next year, he'll be back in the UK to perform selections from both. But after nearly 50 years perfoming, can he still hit those high notes?

"It actually becomes easier. I am in better shape than I've been in my whole life, because I consciously take care of myself... I do yoga, I run, I walk, I'm doing a weightlifting programme, I try to eat healthily, and I don't smoke or drink... I consciously dropped my keys when I became a solo artist - I don't sing as high, because I choose not to - but I could hit those notes."

Nowadays, Robinson alternates his secular singing with a parallel gospel career, and his previous album was a spiritual one.

"I guess it was a declaration that I have a very, very wonderful relationship with God. And I feel very close to God. And I feel that God is very close to me."

Right now, he's not the only one.

* 'Smokey Robinson - The Definitive Collection 50th Anniversary Edition / Timeless Love' and the DVD 'Definitive Performances 1963-1987' are both released by UMTV