The Dec. 3 Sunday Arts profile of Smokey Robinson incorrectly stated that he divorced Claudette Rogers in 1980. The two divorced in 1987.
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The Ardent Tracks of His Years
"I know there are no new words and no new thoughts," Robinson says. "You've gotta use the stuff that's been there forever and ever, but you have to say it differently. I always tried to do that when I write a song."
Consider the Miracles' 1965 classic "The Tracks of My Tears." It started with a mournful guitar part written by his longtime sideman, Marv Tarplin. Upon hearing Tarplin's tape, Robinson knew he'd write about a man who'd been emotionally devastated. "So the first words I wrote were for the beginning of the chorus," he says. "Take a good look at my face, you'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace . . . that I love you? That I miss you? That I want to be with you?" He shrugs.
"All that was common. I needed to say it a different way. I thought about it for a long time, for days. And I was in my car when I thought: What if a person cries so much that when you look at their face closely, their tears would have made tracks, like footprints? The tracks of my tears -- that was it!" Four decades later, he still sounds excited about the breakthrough.
There have been many for Robinson over the years, especially during the '60s, by far his most successful and creative decade. Berry Gordy had started the Tamla-Motown label at Robinson's urging, and the Miracles were the label's marquee act. Robinson was cranking out hits for his group at a staggering clip, and he was also writing for other Motown artists: "My Girl," "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "Get Ready" for the Temptations; "My Guy" for Mary Wells; "Ain't That Peculiar" for Marvin Gaye.
Even non-Motown artists were getting in on the act: The Beatles covered Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," giving him additional credibility as a composer. Plenty of accolades would follow, including the time Bob Dylan famously referred to Robinson as "America's greatest living poet."
"God gives everybody at least one gift," Robinson says. "Some people never discover theirs. And some people, when they discover it, they never utilize it. But I got the gift of writing songs."
And yet, it took some work. Robinson and Gordy met when the Matadors, an earlier iteration of the Miracles, tried out for Jackie Wilson's manager, who thought the group sounded too much like the Platters. Gordy was a young songwriter who'd written some material for Wilson, and he was intrigued by Robinson, this baby-faced teenager who wrote from the heart, with clever and poetic turns of phrase. But Robinson's songs lacked structure and continuity, so Gordy started giving him critical feedback.
"It thrilled me that the criticism didn't bother him," Gordy says from Las Vegas. "That was a problem I had with so many of the people I worked with. I'd try to help them get better, but they took it personally. Not Smokey. No way. He took every piece of advice and made his work better. I was a pretty good songwriter, but he became one of the great songwriters of all time."
Gordy's relationship with Robinson developed into a perfectly symbiotic partnership: They wrote cultural history together and became famous and wealthy with each other's help -- Robinson more famous than Gordy, Gordy more wealthy than Robinson. Robinson served for years as Motown's vice president, and he named his son Berry, his daughter Tamla. The two remain tight to the point that Gordy even has his own room at Robinson's house on the outskirts of Los Angeles. (Robinson's legal residence is in Las Vegas.)
"Motown never would have been the success it was without Smokey," says Gordy, whose office telephone-hold music one day last month was "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." "He carried so many of the hits -- writing them, producing them, singing them -- and he always gave me inspiration. When things got rough, he was always there for me. We became friends right away, but he's been my best friend for more than 40 years."
Their friendship has outlasted Robinson's first marriage by two decades. (He and Claudette Rogers, a former member of the Miracles, divorced in 1980, after Robinson fathered a son by another woman. Robinson and Frances Glandney, an interior designer, married four years ago.)
Robinson is 66 now, but he more or less looks and sounds the same as he ever has: trim and boyish of face -- Gordy says, "It's unfair that he still looks like a kid" -- with striking green marbles for eyes, his mocha skin smooth and polished. About the only thing that's changed is Robinson's hair, which has gone from the early pompadour to an Afro to curls to its current style of tightly plaited jet-black baby dreads.