How Smokey Robinson knows a good song when he sees one

February 10, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
He’s known as the “King of Motown,” his career a hallmark of romantic soul and rhythm and blues. Jeffrey Brown speaks with music icon Smokey Robinson, recently honored with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, about his Motown legacy, what makes a great song and how the music business has changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Motown legend Smokey Robinson and the music he’s made popular for decades. He is the focus of a special tonight on PBS.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with him on the eve of getting a major honor to see how he continues to make what is old new again.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was a huge hit-maker, 26 top 40 songs in the 1960s, at one of the great hit machines in pop music history, Smokey Robinson, his group, the Miracles, Motown, and a string of classics, like “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Decades later, the 76-year-old Robinson was feted at a concert of his music at Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall, as the winner of the Library of Congress prestigious Gershwin Award for lifetime contributions to popular song.

It’s been, Robinson told me, a long and amazing journey.

SMOKEY ROBINSON, Musician: From the time I was probably 6 or so, I wanted to be a singer.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the age of 6, huh?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Yes, I always imagined myself. I would stand in the mirror, sing with the hairbrush and all, because I always wanted to do that.

And I always watched all the variety shows that had entertainment. So, it was always there for me. I just didn’t think it would be possible. I never dared to — from where I grew up, I just didn’t think that this life, for me, would be possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Library of Congress, he toured an exhibit of Motown memorabilia and the place where he’d come from, Detroit’s North End, where, quite literally, the stars aligned.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Diana Ross grew up four doors down the street from me, Aretha Franklin right around the corner, you know, and the Temptations right across the area, I mean, right across the avenue, and the Four Tops. We had Berry Gordy.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: We had a guy who had the dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gordy, still a friend all these years later, founded Motown, where Robinson served as singer and leader of the Miracles, songwriter and producer for other top acts, including the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, and as a record executive.

I read about how you were a precocious songwriter, and you brought 100 or more songs to Berry Gordy, and he rejected almost all of them, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, that didn’t discourage you.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: No, it didn’t discourage me whatsoever, because Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol as a kid growing up in Detroit. Jackie Wilson was from Detroit.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: And I had all of his records. And all of his songs were written by Berry Gordy. And he listened to my music and critiqued it for me, and started to mentor me on how to write songs and make them songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was that like in those early days of Motown?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It was highly energetic. It was so energetic and competitive and loving and wonderful at the same time. It was all that, because we were not just stablemates. We were not just some artists who recorded for the same label.

We were actually friends. We were like brothers and sisters. We hung out. We have what we call the Motown family, and we have always had that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some songs come quickly, Robinson says, written at the piano in 25 minutes. Others, like the 1979 hit “Cruisin'” have to simmer.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Took five years. I’m not exaggerating that. It took five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, if I say the difference between 25 minutes and five years, I mean, what does a song have to have, what does a Smokey Robinson song have to have for you to feel you have got it?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It has to be a song.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It has to be a song.

I mean, if I just gave you a piece of paper with the lyrics written down on it, it would mean something to you. It would tell you a story.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: Without you hearing a melody or music or anything like that, it would say something to you.

So, that’s what a song is to me. Now, you have a lot of songs that come out, and the beat carries them over there, because of the beat, and because of some other factors and so on and so forth. But I want mine to be a song, if you read it, it’s going to mean something to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: At one point in the late ’70s, Robinson took a break from singing, even thinking he might retire. But it didn’t last.

And through the years, he’s continued to record and collaborate with a variety of artists. But the music business he was such a part of has changed dramatically.

I asked if he looked back with a certain nostalgia.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Yes, I look back on it all the time. I looked back on it a few minutes ago.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: I look back on it because it’s a whole ‘nother game now.

The music business has made a 360. It’s a whole ‘nother game. It’s not nearly what it was. And I fear for it, because, you know, with the advent of the computer and online and downloading and all these things, they have destroyed — that stuff has destroyed the record business, not the music business, but the record business.

The music business is well, and it’s alive and thriving.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the songwriting business, I guess, still…

SMOKEY ROBINSON: The songwriting business is alive and thriving, man. You have got some wonderful young kids out there writing some great songs.

So, it’s alive and thriving. Now, I hope something happens to turn it back around to the point whereas it’s — you’re earning a living from writing your songs, from your work, you know, because it’s not like that anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you just told me that you’re going from here. You’re going back out on the road to perform tomorrow night. You’re still doing this. And people want to hear those classic songs, right? Does it ever get old for you?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: I still perform because it’s a necessity for my innards. You know what I mean?

And those songs, some of those songs, I have sung, I don’t know how many thousands of times. And I promise you, every single solitary night, they’re new to me. They are brand-new to me that night.

And it kills me to see people think that, you know, show business is sex, drugs and rock and roll. And I have what you call a meet and greet. I do it before the show. But when I was doing it after the show especially, there would be people who would come back and said, OK, Smoke, where’s the party?


SMOKEY ROBINSON: I just had the party, man. I just had the party for two-and-a-half-hours or however long. I was partying. I said, now my party is, I’m going back to my hotel room, and watch me some TV until I fall asleep, because I just had the party.

And it is every single solitary night.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for the happy crowd at the Gershwin Award concert, Smokey Robinson performed several of his greatest hits.

From Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great music.

And “Smokey Robinson: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song,” it airs tonight on most PBS stations.