William “Smokey” Robinson is an icon of music in need of little introduction. As a songwriter beyond parallel, lead singer of The Miracles, former Vice President of golden era Motown Records and a superstar at 77 that remains a heartthrob worldwide, he is an internationally recognized master of music and entertainment. At a time when he could very well be in the midst of a glorious retirement, Mr. Robinson is as engaged as ever – still performing, about to release his first solo Christmas album via Amazon (following two he recorded in the `60s and `70s with The Miracles), inventive new branding opportunities and fresh approaches to administering his illustrious catalog of Soul-Pop classics via Primary Wave: a full-service entertainment company with expertise in music publishing.
In the interview that follows, Music Journalist A. Scott Galloway catches up with a living legend so ubiquitous that the mere mention of four little words from a long lost late-night TV commercial explains all you really need to know when it comes to why the man is so beloved, respected and exalted: “But, Dad…it’s Smokey!”
MIQ: What did winning the recent Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song mean to one who has been honored as often as you?
Smokey: All of the honors I have received are special…but with that one we’re talking about George & Ira Gershwin, man – two of the greatest songwriters in the history of music. As a writer, I always try to write a good song but I never dared to dream that I would be receiving the Gershwin Award.
MIQ: In September 2016, you entered into a lucrative partnership with Primary Wave which acquired many of your early Motown songs. It’s been a year since that deal was minted. What has this association accomplished for you?
Smokey: I signed with them because they are a great company. They have so many things going to promote me and my brand. I’m very pleased and excited about being with Primary Wave but I can’t speak on what the catalog has done for as long as they’ve had it. I have meetings with them but we don’t discuss things like which songs are bringing in the most money. We discuss the possibilities of things we may be venturing off into and things that they are doing on my behalf.
MIQ: Anything in development you’re at liberty to share?
Smokey: October 8 has been proclaimed as “Father-Daughter Day.” We’ve created a special greeting card. It’s all about fathers and daughters that don’t have day-to-day communication getting better connection with each other. We’re creating a card with American Greetings using two of my songs, “Get Ready” and “My Girl.”
MIQ: Weren’t “Get Ready” and “My Girl” – both made classics in the `60s by the Temptations – also recently used for yours and your wife Frances’ Skinphonic pigmented skin moisturizing line?
Smokey: That’s right! Those songs work with so many things. A guy can always use “My Girl” for his girl or daughter. And “Get Ready” fits any situation where a man is getting ready to “do this!” (laughter)
MIQ: Earlier this year, you donated a million dollars and musical instruments to Pico Pio Middle School in Arlington Heights, Calif. What inspired you to give such a sizable donation on behalf of music education in that school at this time?
Smokey: For the last 10 years, I have been a real advocate for getting arts back in the school… especially inner-city schools. I’ve spoken before congress about this three times now. Back in the day, most schools had arts programs but to participate, you had to be doing pretty well with your academic studies. Music is such a mainstay of our lives. Even when I perform in countries where English isn’t the primary language, everybody sings the songs – verbatim almost! So, for those programs to be taken away from our kids is an atrocity. Music, dance, acting and all that gives us recreational enjoyment and entertainment needs a future. And the United States – of all the countries with any affluence – is the only one where arts programs are being cut out like this! When I go to Japan or Germany and see kids still taking violin, viola and cello lessons, I want our kids to be up to par and able to get some of those jobs in the future, too.
MIQ: Are you still interested in Pop music of today?
Smokey: I listen to it all the time. I’m still in the music business, so I need to know, hear and feel what they are doing. My radio stays on, especially in my car. You might catch me listening to Bach or Bruno Mars, Nelly or some of Dave Brubeck’s old music. It’s a shame when I hear people say that young artists aren’t making any good music. That’s a lie! I just got off the phone with Alicia Keys a half hour ago and she is one of the greatest songwriters ever!
MIQ: Is there a song you’ve heard in the last year that impressed you in its craft?
Smokey: There’s a lot of those. I love Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You.”
MIQ: Regarding the two Christmas albums you recorded with The Miracles, I note that you have re-recorded several of those songs on your new album. “The Christmas Song” (also known as “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire” penned in 1945 by Bob Wells with Jazz singer Mel Torme’ but made famous via three peerless re-recordings by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole) is on all three! What do you hold so special about songs like “Oh Holy Night,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “White Christmas?”
Smokey: They’re simply some of my favorites. What we’ve done this time is treated them differently. You’ll be surprised by some of the arrangements.
MIQ: I hear you took “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to New Orleans with my man Trombone Shorty!
Smokey: We Rag-timed it, baby! When we started recording this project, I was in my car listening to the radio, I got excited when this Ragtime song came on. I love that New Orleans Funk. While the song was on, I started humming “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” along with it. I thought, “Oh, sh*t! That’s what I want to do!!” I called the producer right away and told him look up this guy’s record so we could pick up that rhythmic pattern.
MIQ: Two songs you recorded for the first time are associated with R&B artists. The first is “Please Come Home For Christmas” written (with producer Gene Redd in 1960) and first recorded on King Records by the late, great singer/pianist Charles Brown.
Smokey: My Mama had that record, man…one of the first Christmas songs I really loved. Some people today only know The Eagles’ version. I say, “No-NoNo, Charles Brown – absolutely!” It’s gutbucket Soul and I stuck close to that Blues ballad feel.
MIQ: The second is a more recent R&B Christmas song that has endured for decades to become a classic: singer/songwriter/arranger Donny Hathaway’s Atco Records 45 “This Christmas” (copenned with Nadine McKinnor in 1970).
Smokey: Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers ever. I always loved that song – one of those great Christmas songs that just feels so good. And I knew Donny. Donny and I were cool.
MIQ: You have three original songs beginning with “Christmas Everyday,” possibly the first Motown Christmas song which you recorded on the Christmas with The Miracles LP (Tamla/Motown – 1963). Now you’ve re-recorded it with Folk-Pop’s Us the Duo (husband-and-wife Michael and Carissa Alvarado).
Smokey: That wasn’t even the first Christmas song I ever wrote. I may have written my first one back in high school! Even back then I wrote all the time. But “Christmas Everyday” was the first one I ever recorded. The new version is a little more driving and updated in sound but with the same feeling.
MIQ: “The Night That Baby Was Born” is a true meaning-of-Christmas song that you wrote while “You’re My Present” is more of a romantic, sexy Christmas song for ‘your girl.’
Smokey: The first is a celebration of Christmas Eve. The second is a love song that reminds people that everyone doesn’t always have the funds to buy the biggest gifts but I don’t care about all that because my lady is my present. I’m always writing, man. If I am working on a project for a specific artist, I will write something for them. But I am always writing…a natural occurrence for me.
MIQ: What thoughts float through your mind cruising Pacific Coast Highway, top down, listening to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears?”
Smokey: It’s a 2-word phrase every time: “Thank God.” Were it not for God’s favor blessing me or His presence in my life, none of this would be possible.