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
Even his singing voice has somehow remained intact, though there's a secret behind that. In the 1970s, when he left the Miracles and went solo after a brief retirement that almost nobody remembers -- in large part because he released two solo albums during his supposed hiatus --Robinson decided to stop singing quite so high.
"I always had a high voice," he says. "But I dropped my keys, because I wanted to play nightclubs. I felt like the really high sound I had when I was singing with the Miracles was not conducive to playing where I wanted to go. And you know, I don't think I would have lasted this long had I not done that."
Long known as one of the nicest men in the music business, Robinson is gentlemanly and friendly. He even offers a hug at the end of a meeting, despite having never previously met the reporter. He seems to go on autopilot during interviews, repeating the same stories he's been telling for decades now. But they're no less fascinating.
For instance, ask about Detroit in the late 1950s and into the '60s. A thrilling time. It was raining talent, preternaturally gifted musicians pouring onto the streets, into the studios.
Robinson plots out an invisible map of his old neighborhood on the conference-room table.
"I lived right here," he says, pointing. "Aretha lived right there. Diana Ross lived right here. The [Four] Tops lived right there, and the Tempts lived over there. And scores of others who never became famous all over. There were people singing everywhere. We used to have group battles, people singing on street corners. It was really beautiful, man."
Gordy brought the talent together, then presented the packaged result to the world. The world, of course, responded with overwhelming approbation. But it was hardly unanimous, especially at the beginning, when 2648 W. Grand Blvd. wasn't yet known as Hitsville, U.S.A., the epicenter of a musical movement that would change the culture.
"When we first started Motown, there was still a bunch of racial tension in the United States," Robinson recalls. "There were some areas around Detroit -- Birmingham, Dearborn, Grosse Pointe -- where if you were black, you'd better be working for somebody in the area, and you'd better be able to prove that you were working for them. Well, we put out a few records, and we started getting letters from the white kids in those areas, and they'd say: 'We have your music, we love your music, but we can't let our parents know that we have them, otherwise they'll make us get rid of them.'
"After we'd been going for a couple of years, we started getting letters from their parents: 'We're so glad our kids had your music, because we love your music, too.' I treasure that. I'm so happy for what we achieved. It was wonderful."
And then Robinson, speaking of and from the heart yet again, says: "There was so much love."