Still Got a Hold on Us

An Interview with Smokey Robinson

by Jason MacNeil

After a lifetime of remarkable success, Robinson explains why you might be better off with a gumbo shop than with a microphone.

You could start by talking about the songs—“The Tracks of My Tears”, “Tears of a Clown”, “My Girl”, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”—but that wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface with over 4,000 songs to his credit. You could begin maybe by talking about his work with one of the most influential American labels in Motown, but it wouldn’t do justice to his recent output. Smokey Robinson is one of the finer American musical institutions, and as he did more than 40 years ago, he’s still churning out material.

“I love music, man. I love recording,” Robinson says prior to an April concert at Rama, Ontario, just north of Toronto. “I’m so blessed because I’m living a life that I absolutely love. I love every aspect of my life. When I’m recording anything I’m into it, you know.”

Robinson’s latest recording is Timeless Love, a series of standards that include “In the Mood For Love”, “Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, and “Our Love Is Here to Stay” among others. The artist says he had been singing these songs in his set for roughly 14 or 15 years.

“I’d been thinking about recording them, I just had another idea about recording them,” he says. “I was going to rent out a place that holds maybe 600 or 700 people and just do a special ‘invitation only’ recording thing and record them live. But it just boiled to the fact that I felt an urgency to do it now.

“But what I did was when I did record them, I did them live,” he adds. “Nowadays when people record, man, people who record on the same record very seldom ever even see each other. Everybody’s coming in on a different day, doing what they do and then they’re out of there. I had everybody in the studio at the same time, they recorded the CD while I was singing.”

Robinson says he recorded 20 songs for the project, each with his own personal touch or interpretation, with 13 making the final cut. The other seven are in the can for a possible future release. All of the songs, howeve,r struck a significant chord with the performer.

“It’s great music and it’s timeless,” he says. “This is the first music I remember hearing in my life. As a child growing up, this is the music that my sisters and my mom played in our house. This is the music that indoctrinated me to music. And I’m very happy that our young people are getting exposed to it.”

Since Robinson started his career, many things have changed, some for the better and some for the worse. With regards to the entire music industry, though, Robinson says he hasn’t seen any major changes.

“I don’t think it’s basically changed that much at all,” he says. “Music has always been a vast interpretation of itself. There have always been different kinds of music, there always will be different kinds of music. It’s just now that I think if anything that’s changed about music, it’s radio, because radio is a little more permissive about what can be said and aired.”

Although Robinson’s discography and songwriting credits would probably be thicker than the New York Yellow Pages, there is still some unreleased material. Robinson says that there were some previously unreleased songs that have been put out from his days with the Miracles on Motown as part of the label’s recent reissuing series. But he also has some newer solo material waiting to get out, stuff recorded prior to his previous released Food for the Spirit.

“My last secular CD was called Intimate,” he says, “and I recorded that with a guy called Michael Stokes. And Michael and I have a bunch of stuff that is secular that is still unreleased. And at the same time I was working on the standard CD Timeless Love, I was recording a CD of original material. So I still have that and I’m still working on that. I still have a lot of stuff left in the can.”

And Robinson is also putting a lot of stuff in the freezer, too. Smokey Robinson Foods is one of the fastest growing minority-owned food companies in the last 60 years. The company, dealing in frozen foods, has products such as Seafood Gumbo and Red Beans And Rice as part of its “The Soul Is in the Bowl” gumbo line.

“We’re with all the major distributors,” Robinson says. “We’re going to come out with a new one every six months or so because we found out that the more items you have the more visible you are. So it’s better for you as far as the consumer goes.”

But the business is more than just about the bottom line. Part of the proceeds from the business goes back to the inner-city and minority youth via seminars, forums, and educational classes. The idea is to expose these kids and teens to the thought of being an entrepreneur.

“You see, they see the sports figures and they see the entertainers and these are the people that they aspire to be like,” Robinson says. “They think this is the road to success. But what they don’t realize is that for every entertainer or sports figure they see who is successful, there are millions, I’m not exaggerating, millions who are not.

“We want them to know they can be entrepreneurs because there are a lot of minority entrepreneurs and we’ve found that out since we’ve been in the business. People who have been in the business forever and you’re buying their stuff everyday and not perhaps realizing that they are in fact minority entrepreneurs.”

Aside from the music and the business sides, Robinson was also planning to flex his muscle on the theatre stage for the musical Chicago, playing the role of Billy Flynn. But an agreement couldn’t be reached so it never came to fruition. However, he is co-hosting the R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards this year with Patti LaBelle, set for June 29 in Philadelphia. Honorees include Otis Redding, Chubby Checker, and Bettye LaVette among others, while Motown founder Berry Gordy receives the life achievement award.

Robinson says that while he is appreciative of the plethora of awards and accolades over his career, he puts it into perspective.

“I do because I think acknowledgement of whatever a person has done in their particular field is a good thing,” he says. “But I don’t think that the person themselves should think that they are their rewards.”

Robinson planned to take his wife of four years to Europe in May for their honeymoon. The rest of the year will be spent between concerts and finishing up the secular CD he had been working on.

So, with all the songs he has, does he have a personal favorite?

“C’mon, Jason, no man, not one out of all the songs,” he says with a laugh. “I have so many songs that have been a songwriter’s dream because when I write a song I hope I’m writing a song that will be re-recorded and sung forever. And I’ve had many songs that have had that particular M.O., so I’m very happy as a songwriter.”

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - The Tracks of My Tears

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