In honour and celebration of the February 19th birthday of the iconic Smokey Robinson, justifiably considered one of the greatest musical poets of our time, we revisit John Abbey’s 1975 interview with the man responsible for working with Berry Gordy, Jr. in helping build the Motown empire and, along the way, creating a legacy of classic recordings and songs that continue to be part of the fabric of contemporary music…

Smokey Robinson: Building A Quiet Storm

by John Abbey

September 1975

WILLIAM ‘Smokey’ Robinson has been referred to as the “greatest poet of our decade” and when one listens to the unique lyric style that the former Miracle has cultivated, it’s something you certainly wouldn’t argue with. I guess that is why I was taken aback when the amiable and easy going superstar admitted, “I don’t have any set pattern for writing songs. Some times the melody comes first and then it might be the title. There have been times when I’ve written a song around a phrase that has stuck in my mind. And I don’t have to be in a special place either — you remember the song “I’ll Try Something New”? Well, that was written on the back of a popcorn box at a baseball game. And I don’t even have to be in a special mood to write — some of my saddest songs have been written at a time when I was perfectly happy. I guess I become detached from my own being when I’m writing because I don’t have to be sad to write a sad song.”

For well over a decade, Smokey’s main job in life was fronting the group he formed when still a teenager, The Miracles. He was in at the very beginning of Motown and was appointed a Vice-President many moons back. As a songwriter, Smokey was responsible for most of The Miracles hits although he rarely wrote for other artists during recent years. Three years ago, he decided to leave the group and go into a kind of semi-retirement. “To put it bluntly, I was sick and tired of travelling, of airplanes, of hotel rooms and hotel food,” he will tell you when you put the obvious question to him. “I’m satisfied with my solo career. You know, in a way it’s like starting out all over again. It’s a rebirth but I have the advantage this time of knowing the pitfalls. And with not having the group around me, I can feel free and do exactly what I want to do. Now I’m not complaining about being with the group because they were wonderful years and I enjoyed most of it and the guys and I were and still are very close.”

He continues, “This way, if I make mistakes, I’m the only one to suffer and I don’t have to worry whether I’ve hurt anyone else by doing something different. Or by making a mistake because I’m the kind of guy who is not too big to admit making a mistake or two — and we made a few in our time! But the knocks help you to appreciate the good times. Sure, we had our scuffles, our share of playing gigs and not getting our money. But that’s all a part of being in show business. And we always stuck together through it all. But I wanted to settle down and spend time with my family and that’s something I couldn’t do if I was continually travelling with the group. And I wanted to branch out into other things, too. I always had a desire to act and that couldn’t be done while the other guys needed me for a show, right? And so I stayed away from branching out because I realised I had to think of the other guys. Like I say, now if something does go wrong, I’m the only one to suffer.”

When Smokey left the group, they searched for a new identity and it is really only now that The Miracles are re-emerging as a major recording force again. “They are progressing in the right direction now,” Smokey suggests. “When I left, they needed a complete musical divorce from my style. Sure, the temptation to record them or write material for them was great. But they had to change direction completely and come out with something completely new. And that takes time — but they’re on the right track now. They have a new album ready and I think it’s easily the best they’ve done since we parted. I think the only other thing they should do now is to move to Los Angeles from Detroit so that they can be in the mainstream of the business. But the important thing is that they have proved that they can survive quite easily without me and it took a radical change to underline that fact.”

Whereas Smokey spent years of doing a different concert in a different town virtually every night as a Miracle, he is now extremely selective about ‘live’ shows. “In fact, I’ve really only just begun to do concerts again,” he is quick to point out. “The main reason is that I wanted to get it all together so that I knew where I was coming from. I had to find a new direction, too, and I didn’t want to showcase myself any other way but right. But though I’ll be doing more concerts over the next year or so, I’ll never go back to that grinding pace again. I’m especially looking forward to coming to England again — you know, I’ve not been there since 1966 and England has always been so good to me. In fact, the very biggest record that The Miracles ever had was started off in England. The song was on an album that we released in the States back in 1967 and yet in 1970 they released it as a single in England and it went on to be a hit all over the world and became our biggest hit in the States, too. That was “Tears Of A Clown”, of course. In fact, in many other ways, we had a lot to attribute to England and I for one always felt at home there.”

Since turning musically introverted, Smokey has had little time to get involved in outside production but one job that he has taken on is to produce an album on his wife, Claudette, who began her career years back as the original lead voice with the Miracles. “Actually, we have had to postpone completing the album,” Smokey almost apologises. “That’s because the “Quiet Storm” album became so big that I simply had to do some concerts and concentrate on getting a road show ready. And right now I’m working on my next album — but we’ll finish Claudette’s album before too long. Actually, I’m not too time conscious on it because there is no rush and it’s too important to not do right. “Quiet Storm” has been so big for us, though. After “Pure Smokey” — which started out life as “The Many Faces Of Smokey Robinson” until Berry Gordy changed it to “Pure Smokey” — we wanted to soften the image down a little and we really didn’t know how the public would respond. But they responded so positively that “Quiet Storm” is easily the most successful solo album I’ve had.”

(c) 1975, 2022, John Abbey

Reprinted by kind permission