Smokey Still Has Soul

by Jason MacNeil

There are few artists in music that could be put on the same level as Smokey Robinson. Whether you look at his work in getting Motown off the ground with Berry Gordy, the dozens of staples he’s written (“Tears Of A Clown,” “The Tracks Of My Tears,” “My Girl,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do”) or the mere 27 Top 40 Singles he managed to churn out with The Miracles, it is hard to measure just how influential Robinson has been to American music. And at 66, and with approximately 4,000 songwriting credits to his name, the musician continues to keep busy, always seemingly having one or two albums either in the works or on the horizon.
Robinson’s latest album, Timeless Love, is filled with standards. And it’s one Robinson says has special meaning to him.

“This is the first music I ever remember hearing in my life, man,” Robinson says prior to a concert north of Toronto in April. “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. It’s great music and it is timeless. And I’m very happy that our young people are getting exposed to it.”

Robinson says he’s had the idea for Timeless Love for a while now, but only recently thought of putting these songs he’s been singing for roughly 15 years on disc.

“I 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.”

“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.”

The studio sessions left Robinson with 20 tracks, with 13 making the final cut and the other seven in the can for a possible future release. And each number, whether it’s ‘You Go To My Head,’ ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ or ‘In The Mood For Love,’ comes with the musician’s own arrangements.

Over the course of his career, the music industry has gone through several changes, but Robinson says the differences between when he started his career and today isn’t that wide.

“I don’t think basically it’s 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. I think that if anything that’s changed it’s radio because radio is a little more permissive about what can be said and aired.”

Aside from the new album, Robinson is also working on a few other musical projects. One of these includes a number of songs he recorded prior to his 2004 gospel album, Food For The Spirit, with Michael Stokes. And then there is also the ongoing reissuing of his recordings with The Miracles that Motown continues to release.
“I still have a lot of stuff left in the can,” he says with a laugh.

And he hopes a lot of stuff in the freezer as well. Robinson created his own frozen food line currently featuring four Southern style dishes. Smokey Robinson Foods is the fastest growing minority food company in the last 60 years. Products include Red Beans And Rice as well as Seafood Gumbo as part of its ‘The Soul Is In The Bowl’ series.

“The food company has taken off really, really wonderful,” Robinson says. “We’re with all the major distributors and we’re being distributed now by the armed forces to the troops. 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.”
The business is also giving back to the minority and inner-city communities by donating a portion of its profits to establishing seminars, forums and classes for minority and inner-city kids. The idea is to show children that they can be an entrepreneur.

“You see, they see the sports figures and they see the entertainers and these are all 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 every sports figure that 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. We want them to know that they can be whoever they really want to be.”

Robinson also had an idea of taking to the theatrical stage earlier this year, considering playing the role of Billy Flynn in the New York production of Chicago. However, negotiations between both sides fell through and the idea was nixed.

One thing Robinson is confirmed for is the upcoming R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards set for late June. Robinson will be co-hosting with Patti LaBelle as Berry Gordy, Chubby Checker, Otis Redding and Bettye LaVette will be honored among others. Robinson, who has received his share of awards and accolades, doesn’t measure his happiness in gold or platinum records.

“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 had planned to take his wife of four years to Europe for their honeymoon in May. He also has concerts scheduled throughout the year and hopes to complete the other musical projects he has going on.

“I love music man, I love recording,” Robinson says with a laugh. “I’m so blessed because I’m living a life that I absolutely love. I love every aspect of my life.”

So, after all the songs he’s written, is there one that perhaps stands out above the others for him?

“C’mon Jason, no man, not one out of all the songs,” he says. “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.” •

from the July-August 2006 issue

“As a child growing up this is the music that my sisters and my mom played in our house!"