An Audience with America’s Greatest Living Poet
Born William Robinson Junior and nicknamed “Smokey Joe” by an uncle for his love of Westerns, the satin-voiced producer, songwriter, talent scout and former vice president of Tamla Motown, Smokey Robinson, was Berry Gordy’s best friend and closest ally from the day they opened the factory. ‘He sat us down on the very first day of Motown’ recalls the esteemed and affable Mr Robinson ‘and he said, “We’re not going to make black music, we’re going to make people music. We’re going to make music for everyone. We’re going to make music with some great beats and some great stories, and we’re going to make quality music.” That’s what we set out to do and thank God that’s what we accomplished.’
Smokey Robinson has gone on to pen some 4000 songs in a 50 year career, be they for Mary Wells, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, his own doo wop/soul straddling, US chart-hogging outfit The Miracles or his subsequent solo career. Arguably, as America’s Greatest Living Poet (a title bestowed by none other than Bob Dylan) Robinson’s magnum opus is the heart-stopping ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, a track for which he wastes no time in accrediting guitarist and life-long collaborator Merv Tarplin, the man behind the riff. The Miracle’s first number one however was an oddly upbeat tragedy, the product of a happy accident that would lead the front-man to reconsider his recently announced retirement from the road.
‘Stevie Wonder came to me many years ago and he had that exact track that you hear on that record’ so begins the myth at the Motown Christmas party, 1966. ‘So we were at a Christmas party and he gave me this track and he said, “Man, I’ve got a great track here but I can’t think of a song. So see what you can come up with on this.” And so I took it and I listened to it. And you know the little thing that says…’ Smokey sings the steam-driven Calliope introduction to ‘Tears Of A Clown’. ‘That’s a circus melody okay. That’s what it reminded me of, the circus. So I wanted to write a song about something about the circus that would touch people’s hearts. Now there’s an old tale about a clown named Pagliacci, and Pagliacci made everybody happy. The people came to the circus, they didn’t go to see the lions or the elephants, they basically came to see Pagliacci because he was a great clown, he entertained the kids and the grown-ups, and everybody loved Pagliacci. But when he went back to his dressing room he was sad because he did not have a woman who loved him. So the theme of ‘Tears Of A Clown’ is about Pagliacci, but I personalised it so anyone can feel that; “I’m crying the tears of a clown because you’re not here.”
‘I actually recorded it on The Miracles & Me in 1967’ he continues. ‘It was on an album that we had at that time. In 1970 a young lady who worked for Tamla Motown in England was listening to that album, she convinced the powers that be in England to release ‘Tears Of A Clown’ over there. It came out; it was number one in the UK. So in turn it became number one in the world, and in turn we released it over here in the United States and it became number one over here. I don’t even know what her name was, but you know I love her.’
The interview with Smokey Robinson was such a joy and being an affable veteran of the promotion circus the great man handed me easily enough material to write my remit five times over. Indeed, while the article above went to print as a window on a peculiar turning point in Smokey’s career, I felt that the ‘Tracks of My Tears’ story might be too well-known and wanting to better promote his upcoming performance I submitted a second, alternative article. To save repetition I’ve edited out the introduction:
Having been awarded practically every accolade going and now in the golden years of sponsored soul food companies and American Idol, the affable Mr Robinson is still happy to be doing what he loves most – namely making music. ‘My most exciting time is right now, this exact moment, as we speak’ says Smokey when asked how this all compares with life at the top in the 60s. ‘Let me tell you why. I’ve been doing this since before you were born, next year I will have been doing this for 50 years man. You are interviewing me today, and you are interested in what I’m doing; me coming to Scotland, me still performing, me still recording, me still being on TV. You’re interested in those things and I’ve been doing it for that long. So this is now very wonderful to me, this exact moment, because I’m still somebody that you would be interested in talking to.’
The Poet Laureate of Love’s current lust for life extends to a similar enthusiasm for his live appearances, warranting this upcoming show at Glasgow’s SECC (the last date of the tour) be no lacklustre retrospective of what are unquestionable masterpieces. ‘A Smokey Robinson show entails everything’ enthuses Robinson, a bold statement conveyed with not so much as an ounce of bravado. ‘I sing all the old stuff, all the new stuff, all the in between stuff. It’s a party, and that’s what it entails; “You come on down and let’s have this party. No you’re not going to a concert tonight, you’re going to a party and that’s what we’re going to have.” And I’m not one of those artists who does not sing my old hits and stuff like that because I recognise the fact that people love those songs and if I wasn’t going to sing them they were going to throw stuff. And I don’t try and separate myself from that because I realise and I recognise the fact that if it weren’t for those old songs there might not be any new songs. So you can expect everything, man.’ So expect great beats, great stories and great music – for everyone.
One final note; I took my girlfriend to the concert and Smokey was a joy, even outshining his sequined trousers. He beamed throughout, as did his predominantly middle-aged audience.