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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Motown legend Smokey Robinson

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today we have more of our favorite music interviews from the FRESH AIR archive. We begin with Smokey Robinson, one of the greatest soul singers ever and one of the most important figures in the development of Motown Records. He performed with The Miracles, and they had the label's first big hit, "Shop Around," which was followed by many more, including "You've Really Got A Hold On Me," "Ooo Baby Baby," "The Tracks Of My Tears," "I Second That Emotion" and "Tears Of A Clown." In addition to writing and producing most of his own records, he also wrote for other Motown acts, including The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. From 1961 until 1988, Robinson was a vice president of Motown. Here he is on one of his hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOO BABY BABY")

SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) I did you wrong. My heart went out to play. But in the game, I lost you. What a price to pay. Hey; I'm crying. Ooh, baby, baby, ooh, baby, baby. Mistakes...

DAVIES: When Terry spoke with Smokey Robinson in 2006, he told her how he first met Berry Gordy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBINSON: My No. 1 singing idol was Jackie Wilson, which was how I actually met Berry Gordy because the group that turned out to be The Miracles - and I went for an audition for Jackie Wilson's managers in Detroit. And at that time, Berry Gordy had written all of the hit songs that Jackie Wilson had out. And Berry happened to be at that audition. And rather than us singing songs that were currently popular by other people, we sang about five songs that I had written.

And so Jackie Wilson's managers rejected us. They told us we would never make it because we had a guy singing lead high. And there was a girl in our group. And there was already The Platters who were very, very, very popular at that time. And so they had a guy singing high and a girl in group. And so we would never make it because of The Platters. And Berry Gordy happened to be at that audition, and he was impressed because he had never heard any of the songs that we sang.

So he came outside afterwards. He was there to turn in some new songs to Jackie Wilson. And he asked where we got the songs, and I told him I'd written them and so and so forth. And he asked me if I had some more songs, which was a mistake on his part, because I had a hundred songs in a notebook that I had with me. And I sang about 20 of them for Berry that day, and he just critiqued them for me. And I told him that I had all of his music because I had all of Jackie Wilson's music and some of the other songs he had written for Etta James and a couple of groups and stuff like that. And we struck up a relationship. And about a year or so after that, man, we started Motown. And so that was a fabulous time of my life.

TERRY GROSS: So when he critiqued your songs after you sang a bunch for him, what did he say?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, Terry, I could always rhyme. From the time I was a little kid, I could always rhyme stuff. But my songs at that time didn't complete an idea. I would have a great rhymed up first verse, but it had nothing to do with the second verse, which was rhymed up really good. You know, he made me know that I would have three or four songs in one song. And he just taught me basically how to construct a song and how to make a song one idea that carries from the beginning to the end, and the beginning and the middle and the ending all tie in together to give a person one complete idea, and how to construct my songs.

GROSS: You and Berry Gordy co-wrote "Got A Job," and then he wrote your first big hit - right? - which was "Shop Around."

ROBINSON: No, he did not. I wrote it.

GROSS: No, he did not write that. You wrote it. Why did I think he wrote it? Did he take credit for that? Did I just read that wrong?

ROBINSON: I don't know why you thought that. No.

GROSS: I'm taking credit away from you (laughter).

ROBINSON: No, no, no. What happened with "Shop Around" was the fact that we had a big hit on a guy named Barrett Strong, "Money (That's What I Want)." And Berry had - we had just started Motown, basically. You know, we had a few hits. But Berry wanted me to write an album for Barrett. So "Shop Around" was one of the songs that I wrote for that particular album. I was going to record it on Barrett Strong. And I was very excited because a lot of time, songs just flow out. "Shop Around," took me about 20 minutes at the most to write. Some songs take longer to write, but "Shop Around" had flowed out. In about 20 minutes, I had it.

So I went to Berry's office, and I told him. I said, hey, man. I have got a great song for Barrett for his next record. And he said, you have? He said, let me hear it. So we go down into studio at the piano. And I play "Shop Around" and I sing it for him. And he got very excited about it. So he said, move over, man, because I want to change these chords right here. And it's - which is why his name would be on the particular song on "Shop Around." And he didn't want to put his name on it, but I insisted that he did because we worked on it for an hour or two there.

And after we got through working on it, he said, I want you to sing this song. So I said, no, man, I wrote this song for Barrett. So we went through that for five minutes. No, you sing. No, I wrote for Barrett. No, you sing it. So finally, he said, well, you just go into the studio and record this song - on you and The Miracles and we'll see what happens. So I did. And when I sang it, when I had written it, it was like a little slower and bluesy. And so I recorded it on The Miracles and me. And it came out. And it had been out for about two weeks, and it was doing fair.

And Berry called me at 1 in morning - at about 3 o'clock in the morning and said, hey, man. I want you to get the group and come to the studio because I've already called all the musicians. And I want you to come to the studio. I'm going to rerecord "Shop Around." I'm going to change the beat. And it's going to No. 1. So to make a long story short, I did - I called the group, and we went to the studio. And everybody showed up with the exception of the piano player. So Berry is playing the piano on "Shop Around." And we rerecorded it - his version of it, which was the one that went to No. 1.

GROSS: So when Berry Gordy called you in the middle of the night and said, oh, we're going to do it over, it's too slow, did - were you insulted?

ROBINSON: No, I was not insulted. I just said, man, are you crazy? He said, no, I might be, but this is what we're going to do. The first thing he said to me was, hey, Smoke. I said, yeah, man. He said, this is Berry. I said, I know, man, I recognize your voice. He said, what are you doing? I said, what am I doing? I said, I'm sleep. He said, well, I can't sleep. I said, I can see that. He said, "Shop Around" is driving me crazy, man. He said, I can't get it out of my mind. And I want to change the beat. So you get the group and come to the studio. And I've called the musicians, and we're going to rerecord it. So that's what we did.

GROSS: Well, I guess we'd better hear it. This is "Shop Around," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, recorded in 1960.

ROBINSON: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOP AROUND")

THE MIRACLES: (Singing) When I became of age, my mother called me to the side. She said, son, you're growing up now? Pretty soon you'll take a ride. And then she said, just because you've become a young man now, there's still some things that you don't understand now. Before you ask some girl for her hand now, keep your freedom as long as you can now. My mama told me, you better shop around. Oh, yeah, you better shop aroubd, Oh, there's some things that I want you to know now. Just as sure as the wind's gonna blow now. The women come and the women gonna go now. Before you tell 'em that you love 'em so now. My mama told me, you better shop around. Oh, yeah, you better shop around. Try to get yourself a bargain, son. Don't be sold on the very first one. Now, pretty girls come a dime a dozen. Try to find you one who's gonna give you true loving. Before you take a girl and say, I do, now. Make sure she's in love with you now. My mama told me, you better shop around.

GROSS: Now, the story goes that you suggested to Berry Gordy that he start his own record company, and that's how he started at Tamla, which eventually transformed into Motown. Did you suggest that? And if so, why?

ROBINSON: Yeah, I did, because in the beginning when we first got with Berry, he was - like I said, he was a songwriter and a producer, and he would produce records on the Miracles and me and his other artists and put them with other record companies. And nobody was paying us. I mean, it was - back in those days, you know, if you didn't have five - four or five hits in a row, nobody paid you. They didn't think about paying you. They just didn't pay you. So people were not paying us. So I just told him, we might as well take a chance ourselves because, you know, we might as well - if we're going to not make any money, we might as well not make any money with our own stuff. And so that's why we started Motown, so people could get paid.

GROSS: And did you start doing anything different in the studio when it was really your own operation?

ROBINSON: No. No. We just wanted to make good music. The first day of Motown, there were five of us there. There was Berry Gordy plus four other people. And we were there. And Berry said, we are not going to make Black music. We're going to make music. We're going to make music for everybody. We're going to make music that everybody can enjoy. We're going to make music with some great beats and some great songs. And that's what we set out to do. And thank God that's what we did.

GROSS: And "Shop Around" was, like, the first big hit for Motown, wasn't it?

ROBINSON: Yeah. It was the first million seller.

DAVIES: Smokey Robinson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICKEY'S MONKEY")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Vocalizing).

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're listening to some of our favorite music interviews from the FRESH AIR archive. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Smokey Robinson, recorded in 2006.

GROSS: I want to move on to another big hit for you, which is "You Really Got A Hold On Me" from 1962. And this is something you wrote and produced. Is there a story behind the song?

ROBINSON: Yeah. Sam Cooke, who turned out to be one of my friends, was my No. 2 singing idol. I told you, Jackie Wilson was my No. 1 singing idol as a kid growing up. And Sam Cooke was my No. 2 singing idol. And Sam Cooke had out a record called "Bring It On Home to Me," which was one of those slow, bluesy kind of songs. It was a really big hit. So I wanted to write a song like "Bring It On Home To Me." So I had gone - like I said, I was vice president of Motown at the time, and I had gone to New York to make a deal with a publishing company there. And I was in my hotel room that evening after I'd gone to meet with them. I went back to my hotel room, and I was trying to think of a song like "Bring It On Home To Me." And then it came to me, which was "You Really Got A Hold On Me." And that's how that song came to be.

GROSS: Is your songwriting process like that, that you have an idea, and then the song just comes out, but first you have, like, a hook?

ROBINSON: Well, not necessarily the hook first. You know, there's no pattern. There is no songwriting pattern. You know, sometimes I'll have some chords that I play on the piano that inspire a song. Sometimes I'll see a billboard or something in a newspaper or something on TV or something that inspires me to have an idea for a song. But I'm not one of those songwriters who needs to take two months or three months and go off to the mountains and isolate myself so that I can write, or go down to the beach and rent a little hut so I can write, you know? It just happens to me on a daily basis. Almost every day, something happens that will inspire a melody or a song to me. And that's just how - it's a blessing, I think, that everybody has a gift. I think God gives everybody a gift. And so that's the one he gave me. But it's a joy. I mean, it's what I do. It's my life.

GROSS: Well, this is "You Really Got A Hold On Me" from 1962, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE REALLY GOT A HOLD ON ME")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) I don't like you, but I love you. Seems that I'm always thinking of you. Though you treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me, baby. I don't want you, but I need you. Don't want to kiss you, but I need to. Though you do me wrong now, my love is strong now. You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me, baby. I love you, and all I want you to do is just hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me.

GROSS: You were producing as well as writing and recording at Motown. What did you like about producing other people's records, like The Temptations, for instance?

ROBINSON: Well, Terry, I have always enjoyed working with other people and trying to get hits on them. And if I accomplished that, I felt very, very, very good to have a positive effect on one of my brothers' and sisters' career, because at Motown, we were all brothers and sisters, and we all hung together. We weren't just artists who saw each other fly by night - you know, I see you in passing. We actually hung out together and did social things together. So for me to have a positive effect on one of their careers by writing and producing a hit song on them gave me great joy.

GROSS: You know, I'm going to ask you about "Since I Lost My Baby," which is one of my Temptations favorites. Did you write that for the group?

ROBINSON: Yes, I did. Yes, I did.

GROSS: And what aspect of them were you writing it for?

ROBINSON: "The Way You Do The Things You Do" was the first hit record that I ever wrote for The Temptations. I had been writing a couple other songs for them when they first came to Motown. And so they were like my assignee group. They had been assigned to me. Berry assigned them to me to try to get a hit on them. So finally, I get "The Way You Do The Things You Do," which was a - their first really big hit on them. And I used Eddie Kendricks to sing the lead vocal on that. So all the producers and writers at Motown had access to all of the groups, and we had writing competitions and producing competitions to see who could get the best record on a group.

So after I got "The Way You Do The Things You Do" on The Temptations, all the producers and writers started to write songs that used Eddie Kendricks' voice to sing the lead. But I knew that Paul Williams and David Ruffin were in that group, and they had awesome voices. Everybody in that group could sing individually. But Paul Williams and David Ruffin had voices that I knew once I get a hit on them, it's all over. And so I wrote that song "My Girl" for David Ruffin's voice.

And so I continued to write a few songs using David Ruffin's voice. And "Since I Lost My Baby" was one of those songs. And "Since I Lost My Baby" was a sort of, like, a sad song. And I wanted to make this person - like "My Girl." "My Girl" was just the opposite of just - of "Since I Lost My Baby" because "My Girl" was saying even when things are wrong and going very, very bad, you know, there's, you know, sunshine.

GROSS: Yeah, there's sunshine on a cloudy day, yeah.

ROBINSON: I got sunshine because...

GROSS: Yeah.

ROBINSON: ...I got my girl, you know what I mean? So that was just the opposite of "Since I Lost My Baby." Because since I lost my baby, everything is going right. But it's not right because I have lost my woman. So that was the opposite of "My Girl."

GROSS: And did you work out the harmonies on this as the producer?

ROBINSON: No, because The Temptations were very, very, very, very creative in doing their own background vocals. I would be sitting at the piano showing the lead vocal how the song went - with the exception of "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and another song that I did on The Temptations called "I'll Be In Trouble," which I wanted all of them to sing it together to have a harmony sound on it - with the exception of those two songs, I always let The Temptations make up their own background vocals because they were great at it.

GROSS: OK, well, this is The Temptations. This song is written and the record is produced by my guest, Smokey Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT SUNSHINE")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Sun a-shining. There's plenty of light. A new day is dawning, sunny and bright. But after I've been crying all night, the sun is cold, and the new day seems old. Since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby. The birds are singing, and the children are playing. There's plenty of work, and the bosses are paying. Not a sad word should my young heart be saying. But fun is a bore, and with money I'm poor. Since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby, since I lost my baby. Next time I'll be kinder, next time I'll be kinder. Won't you please let me find her? Won't you please let me find her? Someone just remind her, someone just remind her about this love she left behind her, about this love she left behind her. Till I find her I'll be trying now. Till I find her I'll be trying now. Every day I'm more inclined to find her, inclined to find her, inclined to find my baby.

GROSS: Let me get back to your music. There's one more song of yours I really want to ask you about, and that's "Tracks Of My Tears," which is one of your very greatest. What's the story behind this song and how you wrote it?

ROBINSON: "Tracks Of My Tears," like many of the songs that I've written, was introduced to the world by my guitar player, Marv Tarplin. Marv Tarplin does music. And he's not a lyricist, but he does music. He does this wonderful, wonderful music. So "Tracks Of My Tears" - he had given me the music for "The Tracks Of My Tears" six months before I ever came up with an idea for that song. And I had it on tape, and I would listen to it.

And the first parts of "The Tracks Of My Tears" that ever came to me was the chorus: take a good look at my face, you'll see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer, it's easier to trace. And I thought that was so good and tidy and so good. But I couldn't think of - trace what? Just - (vocalizing) trace (vocalizing). And then, one day I was in my car, and I thought about what if a person had cried so much until if you looked closely at them, you could see tracks in their face that the tears had made. And that's how they came to be.

GROSS: That's really good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TRACKS OF MY TEARS")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Vocalizing). (Singing) People say I'm the life of the party 'cause I tell a joke or two. Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I'm blue. So take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears. I need you, need you, need you, need you. Since you left me, if you see me with another...

DAVIES: Smokey Robinson spoke to Terry Gross in 2006. Robinson is still performing at age 82, and he has an album in the works as well as a biopic of his life. After a break, we'll hear Terry's 1994 interview with Isaac Hayes. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.