By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006
SANTA MONICA, Calif.
How perfect: Smokey Robinson, forever the romantic, is about to explain his long-standing affinity for amorous expression, and his publicist has decided to dim the lights. Ooo baby baby!
Not that Robinson, America's poet laureate of love, needs help evoking the appropriate mood, even if he's sitting in a sterile record-company conference room. The suave soul man, one of the greatest songwriters in American pop, has been riffing on relationships -- on romantic bliss and conflict and crushing breakups -- for nearly 50 years professionally, mostly for Motown.
"Love never becomes passe," he says in explaining his core competency. "It's an everlasting subject with so many, many facets. Dances come and go; cars, political events and figures all come and go. But love always has significance. Love is forever."
And so, he says: "I basically just write about love. That's my subject."
Robinson wrote his first song 60 years ago, at the age of 6, for a school play about Uncle Remus. Since then, he has written, by his own estimation, "about 4,000 completed" songs. Many more exist in unfinished form.
His first hit, "Shop Around" -- the 1960 Miracles song that simultaneously landed Robinson, his group and his hometown record label on the national cultural map -- was about a mother imploring her son to find just the right wife. Not surprisingly, almost all of the famed entries in his catalogue are centered, one way or another, on matters of the heart -- usually heartbreak: "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage," "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" and that exquisite lament "Ooo Baby Baby," on which Robinson, singing the aching lead in his high, burning tenor, begs a woman for forgiveness.
Robinson's songs have always tended to be simple yet sophisticated, brimming with passion and sensuous melodies. He's an adroit wordsmith, too, with an understated wit and a terrific sense of rhythm; his juxtapositional couplets are his hallmark.
You treat me badly, I love you madly.
Although she may be cute, she's just a substitute.
You do me wrong now, my love is strong now.
I don't like you, but I love you.
"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.
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."