By Carl Kozlowski
Few artists have had a greater impact on modern music than Smokey Robinson. As the writer of more than 4,000 songs including dozens of pop standards, among them “Tears of a Clown,” “I Second That Emotion” and “Cruisin,’” as well as an ace producer and record executive during the heyday of Motown Records, Robinson has contributed greatly to the soundtrack of our lives.
Robinson also remains a popular live performer, having sold out three nights at the Hollywood Bowl during the 2015 Fourth of July weekend. This weekend, he’s bringing his musical magic to Pasadena on a much more intimate level when he performs for up to 1,300 people Friday night at the Rose nightclub as part of his “Up Close and Personal” tour.
“The intimate shows are totally informal, because I don’t even know what I’m going to play,” says Robinson, 76. “There are two baskets at the entrance of these shows. One is for guys to put their name in there, the other for a woman to put in her name. I reach in and call out a name and people can ask a question, make a request or both. What happens is whatever people dictate to happen, so that’s why it’s intimate like that. You can’t do it in a large venue like the Hollywood Bowl because at the Bowl people are microscopic.”
Born and raised in Detroit, Robinson founded his former group the Miracles while still in high school. The group was Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy’s first vocal group, and it was at Robinson’s suggestion that Gordy started the Motown Record dynasty, relying heavy on his own golden touch and prolific songwriting output. The Miracles’ single of Robinson’s “Shop Around” became Motown’s first No. 1 hit on the R&B singles chart, as well as the label’s first million-selling record.
Over the next decade, Robinson continued to pen hits for the group, including “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” and “Going to a Go-Go.” He was also pronounced “America’s greatest living poet” by Bob Dylan, and has received numerous awards, among them the Grammy’s Living Legend Award, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Lifetime Achievement Award, an honorary doctorate from Howard University and the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1993.
He has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, and next month he will receive the prestigious Gershwin Prize for his overall contribution to great American songwriting.
“I’m extremely flattered by that. Gershwin is some of the first music I ever heard in my life in Detroit as a baby,” recalls Robinson, whose real name is William but was nicknamed “Smokey Joe” as a kid because of his love of Western-movie singing cowboys who had similar nicknames. “I had two older sisters and my mom and they played records all the time of Gershwin music, Cole Porter is the first music I ever heard. I listened to it until I started listening to my own kind of music. The Gershwin Award is unbelievable.”
Robinson notes that some of his greatest hits came to him faster than others, as he wrote “Shop Around” in just 25 minutes, but “Cruisin’” took him five years to complete. Similarly, he says that the inspiration for his songs comes from all over the spectrum of life.
In addition to writing hits for the Miracles, Robinson penned and produced hits for other Motown greats, including the Temptations, Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway, Marvin Gaye and others. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “My Guy” are just a few of his classics for others.
“I think when you’re a songwriter, songs are airborne, ideas are airborne and I feel like it’s a blessing,” says Robinson. “I think God gives everybody gifts and everybody gets a gift. Some people never discover their gifts, some people never use their gifts, some people shove it aside and do something else, but everybody gets a gift. I feel that songwriting is a gift that comes to me from God, and it comes to me that way.
“I’m not a songwriter who needs a pattern, like I don’t have to go away to the mountains for two weeks to get inspired,” he continues. “You can say something in this interview that triggers something, and I’ll think that’s a good title, and I might give you credit for it. It happens to me like that: I could be on a plane or the toilet and an idea comes to me. Melody or words, and I write all the time.”
Surprisingly, Robinson has some positive things to say about today’s pop songs, refusing to despair over the prevalence of graphic sexual imagery and the frequent lack of romance in current radio hits.
“I think the censors have relaxed a little bit from when I was starting out, of what could be said and played on the radio,” says Robinson. “The censors are more lax than it was then. There are some great young songwriters out there: Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, John Legend or Bruno Mars. Those kids are writing some really good songs.
“We live in a world where the negative gets attention,” he continues. “We’re bombarded by negativity. You look at the news and there’s no good news, it’s all about how many people got killed, what this storm did, what’s going on with a war. It’s the same with the music world, because some kids are making negative music, but there’s also positive. There’s always been negative music, hardcore music, but nowadays the negative gets the attention.”
Despite regarding the current presidential election campaign as “the biggest fiasco we’ve ever had” and “a real sideshow,” Robinson remains optimistic about the state of the world around him. A large part of that optimism stems from his own personal health, which he feels is better than it’s been in decades.
“I feel better now than I did when I was 35, and I’m not exaggerating,” says Robinson. “I feel really good. I try to take good care of myself. I still tour because I don’t get that anywhere else in my life. We’re having this party for two and a half hours and singing and having a good time. I don’t get that anywhere else, I tried retirement and it wasn’t for me.”
Smokey Robinson performs at 9 p.m. Friday at the Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $88 to $168. Call (888) 645-5006 or visit roseconcerts.com.