Our colleague Michele L. Glymph recently had a chance to sit down with 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song honoree Smokey Robinson. Their fascinating conversation will be released in the coming weeks as a video, but we’re pleased to offer you a sneak preview!
(MG = Michele L. Glymph; SR = Smokey Robinson)
MG: In many ways Motown was the first crossover record label. When you realized that white kids were buying your records did that change anything in terms of your creative process, or did you intend to cross over from the very beginning?
SR: On the very first day that Berry started Motown there were five people present and he sat us down—and that’s five including him, four others and him. He sat us down, he said “I’m going to start my own record label and we’re not just going to make black music. We’re going to make music for the world. We’re going to make music for everybody. We’re going to make music and we’re always going to have great beats and great stories. And, we’re going to pay attention to that. We’re always going to have great quality control of our records, but we’re not just going to make black music. We’re making music for everybody and that’s what we set out to do. I’m very proud and very happy that we accomplished that mission. In the early days—I regret this—there are certain things about your life or about your career and so on that you regret. One of my regrets is the fact that when we first started we were local. We were in the Detroit, Michigan area—Anne Arbor maybe Flint, sort of around in there. There were areas around Detroit, like Grosse Point and Dearborn and Bloomfield Hills, and places like that, whereas if you were black and in one of those areas, you’d better be working for somebody and you’d better be able to prove that you’re working for somebody who lives there, ’cause they were taboo to black people. Off limits, you know what I mean? So we started to get letters from the young white kids in those areas—“Hey man, we got your music and our parents don’t know that we have it, because if they knew we had it perhaps they might make us throw it away, but we got your music and we love it.” So, we got those letters and we read them, none of us thinking to keep them. Can you imagine how invaluable those letters would be today, right now? A year or so later we’re getting letters from their parents: “Hey man, we found out our kids had your music so we listened to it to see what it’s about. We love it. We’re glad that you’re making music that our kids can listen to.” How invaluable would those letters be now, you know what I mean? But nobody thought to save them. We didn’t think to save those letters, because we were moving, we were just starting. We were young and doing our thing and so “oh, these are great,” but nobody thought to save them. I regret that.
MG: As a songwriter, what was it like writing songs for musicians such as Marvin Gaye?
SR: Well, as a songwriter I was very privileged to be in a place that had a stable of artists that was so phenomenal and so incredibly talented. It was a joy for me to be able to write songs for the artists in Motown, because they were my brothers and sisters. We were not just stablemates, you know? We had and we still do have the Motown family. People think that’s a myth—“Oh they couldn’t possibly have been that tight. They couldn’t possibly have loved each other like that.” But we did and we do. For those of us who are still alive, when we see each other it’s like we saw each other yesterday. And we’re hugging and kissing on each other and loving on each other like we just saw each other. And sometimes we don’t see those people for a year, six months, two years, you know? But we still have that Motown family thing. So, we’ve always had that and it was a joy to me to be able to contribute something positive to my brothers’ and sisters’ careers. I was very happy to write for any of them and it just gave me joy and you know some of the songs that were really big hits—people have come to me and said to me—I’ll use “My Girl” for an example. You have no idea how many people have come to me in my life and said to me: “Hey Smokey man, don’t you wish you’d have kept ‘My Girl’ for yourself and you and the Miracles could sing it?” No, I don’t. I don’t wish that for one second. I had never wished that, because were it not for The Temptations I’d probably have never written “My Girl.” “My Girl” was an assignment song. I was doing an album. Berry wanted me to do an album on The Temptations, ok? So I’m doing this album and the very first big hit that they had was a song that I wrote called, “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” And so all The Temptations could sing and I used Eddie Kendricks’ voice for the main lead vocal on “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” So at Motown we had a policy whereas any producer or writer could approach any artist and say, “Hey, I’ve got a song for you” and if the artist liked that song they were free to record that song on that artist, ok?
The producers and writers at Motown jumped on The Temptations’ bandwagon after “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and they were all using Eddie Kendricks to sing their lead vocals. I knew that David Ruffin and Paul Williams were in that group, because I worked with them all the time. I figure I’m going to write some songs for them. David Ruffin had this bari-tenor voice that was…I always told him that he was demanding, he demanded it. “Come here girl, let me love you!” Girls loved him [laughs]. I figured let me write a sweet message for David’s voice. So I wrote “My Girl” with David Ruffin singing it in my ear to me. I could hear his voice singing that song and The Temptations singing that song, so were it not for them I probably never would have even written “My Girl.” So how can I turn around and say “Oh man, I wish I had kept that for myself”? No. I don’t wish that and I’ve never wished that—about any song that I’ve had a hit on—on some of my brothers and sisters, because they are and they were my brothers and sisters.
Stay tuned to In the Muse for another excerpt from Smokey Robinson’s interview!
Smokey Robinson in the Library’s Collections
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Off the record interview with Smokey Robinson and Joe Smith (February 5, 1988)
NLS Music Notes Blog: “Congratulations Smokey Robinson,” by Katie Rodda (July 14, 2016)