Motown Spotlight, February 2020

Smokey Robinson

Happy birthday Smokey!   We may be a little late but the sentiment remains the same but even more so.

Smokey Robinson is a remarkable man.  Not only has he been top of his game in the industry for probably more decades than he cares to remember, he is an engaging figure behind the spotlight.  Like so many, I've spent a lot of time in his company where there was no inclining of star and fan – more a comfortable and easy exchange of conversation. Quietly spoken, often animated, he was easily approachable.  He always cuts a defining figure in his tailored suits and overall presence, yet as intimidating as that could be, he's always quick to brush aside any anxiety a fan may feel. Anyway, I don't intend to regale you with personal experiences here but merely to mention a couple of instances where he became an everyday guy.   

Sharon & Smokey

 One time during a trip to London and when visiting the Motown office, Smokey discovered it was someone's birthday the next day.  In he walked with the biggest bouquet of flowers for the birthday girl and spent time joining in the fun like one of the gang.  Another time, he was in the office with his back to me when I walked in.  Without thinking twice, I tapped him on the bum – this wasn't considered sexual harassment in those days – and he turned round, laughing, "Only you could get away with that!"  I had flashbacks for days- whatever came over me I'll never know.   Finally, the story of "The Tears Of A Clown" is well known but suffice to say, am extremely proud the single hit the top of the UK charts.

So, with pencil in hand, let's draw a sketch of Smokey's career from a different angle, starting with Berry Gordy recalling their first meeting in Jackie Wilson's manager's office when they were sorting through Smokey's notebook of song lyrics.   "He reminded me of me – so excited and passionate about his music….His enthusiasm after each rejection really impressed me," Berry wrote in his autobiography To Be Loved.  "Anybody who could take that much criticism and keep coming back for more had to be either crazy or one of the most special people I'd ever meet."  After rejecting every single song, Berry assured him he had a wonderful talent for expressing his feelings with poetic phrases.  "I told him that some had clever concepts but missed the point; others had good hooks but no real story. And when there were good stories, they weren't unique enough….Other than that, I liked 'em."

"Bad Girl" was the first song they collaborated on, released in August 1959 on Chess Records.  "I Need A Change" followed in 1960.  From Chess, The Miracles switched to Berry's then-newly-opened Tamla label where, following a handful of singles, "Shop Around" released in October 1960 was his first million-selling single. And the rest is history……

You might be interested to read a couple of paragraphs from Motown's public relations manager, Al Abrams' first biography of The Miracles, starting with the opener: "The Miracles, the group who stirred up national attention with 'Bad Girl' can give the credit for their success to a man who has helped many other singers on their road to fame, Berry Gordy Jr. …. The individual members of the group are: BILL 'Smokey' ROBINSON, CLAUDETTE ROGERS (who in real life is Mrs. Bill Robinson), RONALD WHITE, ROBERT ROGERS and WARREN MOORE.  Their average age is only 19, but they are widely known to audiences everywhere.  Bill, the lead, and Ron, the baritone, also comprise the well-known Ron and Bill recording duo." Al then progressed to their touring schedules, including a recent, well publicised incident in St Louis, Missouri.  "…Their appearance caused a near riot when fans learned that all seats had already been sold out.  The crowd was of such proportion that the police had to summon police dogs to quiet them."  Mr Abrams certainly had the knack of catching the press's attention..

Remember the quote from Bob Dylan that Smokey Robinson was America's greatest living poet?  Well, this was, um, not true. It was a story concocted by said Mr Abrams, who as it happened shared Smokey's birthdate, and Bob Dylan's biographer Al Aronowitz. In his book Hype&Soul!   Abrams noted he had received a memo from Berry Gordy – do something urgently to remind the media that Smokey is one of the nation's greatest songwriters.  Al approached Al Aronowitz, who said he had heard Dylan praising Smokey's lyrics one time as being poetical.  Abrams asked Aronowitz to get a quote to this effect from Dylan. "Al thought about it for a minute and said 'Why bother even telling Bob?  That sounds like something he'd say anyway.  Go ahead and do it.  If  Bob sees it in print, he'll think he said it.  He's certainly not going to deny it."   So, under the heading "Bob Dylan Says Smokey Robinson Is America's Greatest Living Poet", Abrams circulated his press release, and said at the time,  "I will admit that I lived in fear every time I heard Dylan was doing a major interview and might say 'what the f**k? I never said that'." 

Decades later, Smokey dropped singing to entertain his American audiences reciting his poetry.  The two events called "Words" saw him reciting his work which had, he said, been inspired by his personal life and, to some extent, shaped by American history.  "I write poetry all the time….A song has to have some uniformity." he told Chelsea Battle for The Sentinel. "Something that familiarizes people with it because you're trying to sell it, but poetry is freedom and you can write however and whatever you want."

Leaving The Miracles

"I felt like a prisoner in a cage of my own making," Smokey wrote in his book Inside My Life.  "My Miracle thing had been dead for years, yet here I was, still performing, still trying to act like my heart was in it….The last gig was a heavy happening….I'd been despondent and guilty, I guess, over leaving the guys."  Leaving The Miracles was a move their fans hadn't considered, but Smokey made the move in June 1972, having satisfied himself that Billy Griffin was a suitable replacement. The plan was that he would retire from public life to concentrate on his family.  His retirement lasted a month.  "Strange, but during the interlude, my heart kept jumping back to The Miracles," he wrote. "Not because I wanted to rejoin, but…the guys meant so much to me. …I wrote a song for them called 'Sweet Harmony'."  However, when Suzanne DePasse heard the song, she urged Smokey to record it but he was unsure.  She continued to push home the fact that he had retired from performing but not recording, yet he still dithered. What changed his mind was a phone call from [guitarist and longtime collaborator] Marv Tarplin. "It's too weird, Smoke.  The group's (The Miracles) all chiefs and no Indians.  Everyone wants to be in charge, and I'm going crazy.  I'd rather be out in California with you."  Armed with a tape of  music, Marv knew Smokey could not resist the pull of the recording studio.  The ploy worked, and with Pam Moffett helping with the lyrics, Smokey recorded "Baby, Come Close", his first solo single.  "I included it on 'Smokey', my debut solo album, co-produced with Willie Hutch and released it in 1973…With this first record, though, my new career was off to a nice start."   The album also featured the divine "Just My Soul Responding", "A Silent Partner In A Three Way Love Affair" and, of course, "Sweet Harmony" which he dedicated to The Miracles.

Smokey's debut performance was, he said, in a little club in Florida.  "It felt a little like starting over, although the club was packed to the rafters with well-wishers and supporters….When I got on stage, I missed looking to my left and seeing Ronnie, Bobby and Pete, smiling and stepping and singing behind me.  It felt strange." 

Solo Smokey

Now on his own, Mr. Robinson's career was a series of ups and downs, highs and disappointments, number one singles and poor selling titles, yet all the while he commanded capacity audiences.  Instead of listing all of his record releases, I'm going in another direction to first briefly chat about his other activities, like his product endorsements, as mentioned last month.  His latest adventure is the wine industry where the opening paragraph of the 2018 promotional blurb included, "Everything that describes Smokey Robinson – legendary, iconic, classy – also describes his new family of vintage wines."  With his second wife, Frances Glandney, they launched their ‘Artist Song Series’ brand with three wines from Santa Barbara, California.  "I never thought I'd be involved with something that dealt with alcohol or anything like that, or that I would find wine that I like. …If I'm going to endorse it and my name's going to be on it, I want to be sure I like it."   It took ten months to perfect the drink and subsequent marketing campaign to launch the "My Girl" Chardonnay; "Cruisin'" Bordeaux, and the Pinor Noir "Being With You".

In hindsight, alcohol seemed to me to be a strange road to take.  Smokey said on numerous occasions that he rarely, if ever, drank.  He told Craig McLean in a 2017 interview for The Telegraph that he occasionally had a glass of Saki with sushi.  "But I never drank…I never liked the taste of it.  And I grew up…in my neighbourhood, seeing everyone, everything – alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes, what have you….The alcoholics were the most pitiful of them all…Then alcohol had an adverse effect on me because of my dad.  He was Clark Kent Sunday to Friday…Friday he'd get paid, him and his friends…they'd be drunk, fighting each other.  It was just an adverse kind of drug for me, alcohol."

With this in mind, imagine our surprise/shock when it came into the public domain. with the publication of his book, that Smokey admitted he fell down the deep black hole of drug addiction, a journey he believed he would never take.  His favoured drug was rock cocaine cigarettes, a habit that spanned almost two years. "…I was trapped in hell and couldn't find a way out," he wrote. "I lacked the strength.  Rock cocaine had destroyed my will and poisoned my mind.  (It) was about to decimate my body and end my life…" He further told Chelsea Battle that when he was younger, he smoked weed.  "But (it) was always manageable for me. I could have some killer weed and put it away for a year and not touch it…..But then I started dibbling and dabbling on the cocaine (and) that was a whole other animal.  And I never thought I could become an addict.  But I did."  When at his very lowest, a friend took him to a church near his Los Angeles home:  "I walked into that church an addict, and I came out free. in May of 1986.  I never looked back." 

Smokey Food

 

Moving on, before the wine range, Smokey launched a range of skin care product with Skinphonic.  For men, there was "Get Ready", for the ladies "My Girl", and he had this to say at the launch of the products – "I have dry skin due to my extensive travel schedules.  I also play a lot of golf.  Frances and I were looking for a solution.  We tried just about everything that was on the market. It took two years to develop the products."  And if you visit his website www.smokeyrobinson.com you'll notice that among the signed photos and so on for sale, he put some of his stage clothes up for sale, with the most expensive at £1,500.  Then there were 'his' and 'her' watches bearing the titles of two of his signature tunes, and Smokey Robinson Foods using the logo "The Soul is in the Bowl".  Inspired by his time on the road, and with food never being far from his mind, Smokey sought out the famous and little-known cooks throughout the country to develop his own brand.  His experiences brought to life  three dishes – ‘Seafood Gumbo’, ‘Chicken and Chicken Sausage Gumbo’, and ‘Smokey's Red Beans and Rice’.  I'm sure there are other products around bearing his name but these are the only ones that jumped out at me.  For a guy reputed to be worth around $100 million net, his merchandising ventures boosted his fortune further.

A handful of notes now about this extraordinary man – iconic singer, composer, producer, record company executive and probably co-founder of Motown

Since 1972 Smokey hasn't eaten red meat. He practices Transcendental Meditation. His eyes are golden green which he attributed to his French great-grandmother. When Smokey was ten years old, his mother died, whereupon his older sister moved into the family home, making eleven children under one roof. When Motown was sold in 1988, he relinquished his position as vice-president, and following the release of his "Love Smokey" album during 1990, he left Motown for SBK Records a year later. He was a 'holiday creator' when he launched 'Father Daughter Day' on 8 October 2017, which continued each year on the second Sunday in that month.  "As an honoured father of six beautiful daughters, the father/daughter relationship is one I have cherished for decades" he said. "(It) shapes a young woman's perspective of men and what to expect from them.  I believe that female empowerment begins in the home and fathers must set a healthy example through their personal actions and interactions." (Source unknown)  Aretha Franklin surprised him with a special award on behalf of Detroit's City Council in 2017. Before his performance at the city's Chene Park Ampitheatre, Aretha read from the autographed certificate, "We honour you as a native Detroiter, Motown legend, and America's greatest living poet.  Your lifetime work has served as a vehicle of musical expression, and stands among the greatest of our time."  On the other hand, Smokey once said about the Queen of Soul – "I've been hearing (her) sing since she was six years old…She could sing the phone book…Everything she sang was her."

Being With You

 

It was so difficult to know what to include here without referring to biographical information. So, perhaps closing on a musical note is most appropriate.  Anyone who has attended a Smokey Robinson concert will remember that he used to ask members of the audience what songs they'd like him to sing.  If the band knew it, and if Smokey could remember the song, the request was granted.  "I never ever do a concert for people, I do a concert with people" he once said.  "They're singing the songs and having a great time too. …It's my favourite part of my work because I get a chance to be with people, to see the fans, to have a good time with them."

Then I pondered - how do you do justice to someone like Smokey Robinson in a few words?  His music, his endless awards, his influences, his iconic status in the industry, or his greatest achievements? Well, it's nigh impossible, which is why I've gone the path here, hoping it makes for interesting reading, showing a different side to the artist we known and love.  So, talking of that emotion, the final words belong to him: "I love love.  I love dreaming about love, thinking about love, writing about love, singing about love.  I love being in love."

Sharon Davis

 

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