Singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson

Originally aired on March 1, 2011

Motown legend discusses his recovery from drug addiction and offers advice to his ‘little brother’ El DeBarge, who recently returned to rehab for his own addiction.

Known for his falsetto voice, William "Smokey" Robinson has recorded more than 35 Top-40 hits. But, with more than 4,000 songs to his credit, he's also one of pop's most influential songwriters. His writing and producing talent was critical to Motown's early success and, more than 50 years after his first release, his songs are heard on film and TV soundtracks. A 2006 Kennedy Center honoree, Robinson is still making music. With his latest project, "Now and Then," he's the first R&B artist to release a CD with the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain.


Tavis: Always pleased to have William “Smokey” Robinson on this program. The iconic singer-songwriter is out with a new CD exclusively through Cracker Barrel called “Now and Then.” The disc is a terrific collection of classic songs and more recent material. Smokey, as always, an honor to have you on this program.
Smokey Robinson: Well, Tavis, it’s my pleasure, man. I come down here whenever you call me, here I am. You are my brother, and I enjoy it so much.
Tavis: Whenever you got time, I’m always happy to have you. I just want some of that genius to rub off on me, man. That genius.
Robinson: Oh, please. Please. (Laughter)
Tavis: Speaking of genius, so a lot of folk in the country earlier tonight here on PBS got a chance to see this Motown celebration inside the White House, and every time I see stuff like this I just get reminded of how brilliant you and Mr. Gordy and all the folks – Stevie and others – were at Motown, that you guys did music that was so all that that people are still celebrating it, still rocking to it all these years later – indeed, inside the White House.
Robinson: Well, it is wonderful, man. It’s really a thrill, because I’ve told you this before – on the very first day of Motown there were five people there, and Berry sat us down. He said, “I’m going to start this record company,” and he said, “We are not going to just make Black music, we’re going to make music for everybody, for the world. We’re going to make music with some great beats and some great stories, and we’re always going to try to have quality music.”
That was his plan, and to see what has happened with it down throughout the years – he and I talk all the time. He’s my best friend. We were talking about how it has grown beyond any of our wildest dreams on that first day. Nobody, nobody in that room could ever imagine that Motown was going to become what it has become, and it’s really amazing, man.
I sat there and even at the rehearsal for the show there tonight, I was at the rehearsal and I was listening to all these young people, and some veteran people were there also, singing the Motown music. I kind of teared up because I thought about the fact that we only did – for the show, we only did maybe 1/100th –
Tavis: (Laughs) Of the catalogue.
Robinson: – of the catalogue, really. (Laughter) And it’s amazing, man, it’s really amazing.
Tavis: But in your case, you weren’t just in the room that day, but what you are regarded for – I can’t tell you the number of audiences I’ve talked to on this show over the eight years I’ve been doing it here on PBS, musical artists that I talk to, and you ask them to name five of the greatest songwriters in the history of the world.
You are always on everybody’s list as one of the great songwriters of all time. I’m not saying that to butter you up, I’m just saying you weren’t just in the room that day, but you wrote so much of that catalogue.
Robinson: Yeah, well, I’m blessed, Tavis, because I enjoy every part of my life. I enjoy writing songs. I’ve been trying to write songs since I was five years old, man, and the first song that I ever wrote that anybody other than my mom and me heard, I was six years old, I was in the school play, and my teacher allowed me to write a song for that play.
I’ve always tried to write songs. I think that when I met Berry Gordy, he was the one who taught me how to write songs professionally. So it’s just – I’m blessed, like I said. It’s what I do.
Tavis: Does the process of songwriting change over time? I ask that because on the one hand, if you know how to write a song, you know how to write a song. On the other hand, there are so many songwriters who are hits in a particular era but not necessarily a hit as a songwriter in another era, and it’s not like you lost your skill to write a good song.
So what happens in those intervening years, if it’s not the fact that you all of a sudden just got stuck on stupid and forgot how to write a good song? What happens with the gift, with the times, with the people that allows a songwriter to write 50 hits in one era and then you don’t hear from them forever?
Robinson: Well, you know what, I can’t speak for any other songwriters, but my philosophy on writing a song for myself is that I always, always, always want to write a song. I always want to write a song. I realize that as a record producer or a singer or whatever I might not, if I recorded on myself or someone else, the first time out I might not give it the right treatment, so that the world or many people will accept it and it’ll be a public hit, or anything like that.
But if it’s a song, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now somebody could pick it up and say, “I like this song,” and record it, and it would be a hit. So I always want to start with a song.
I approach every one with that thought in mind. If I had written it 50 years before now, would it have meant something to people? Is it going to mean something today when they hear it? Is it going to mean something 50 years from now? I always approach it like that because I love music and I’ve loved music all my life, and I listen to music all the time.
If you could see my iPod or even in my car, man, I have everybody from Bach to Nelly, you know what I mean? (Laughter) I mean that. I do. I really do, man. I think about guys like Bach and Beethoven and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Nat King Cole and people like that, who wrote songs that have lasted and stood the test of time. People still play Bach and Beethoven. That music is 400, 500 years old.
Tavis: It’s hard to ask this question of Smokey Robinson, but is Beethoven the greatest composer of all time?
Robinson: I don’t know. He’s one of my favorites, I can tell you that. And you know a funny thing about Beethoven, you listen to Beethoven’s music now and it’s so, like, soothing, and it’s so – you have to listen to – they wrote in movements in those days. The first movement was this, the second movement was that, and blah, blah, blah.
But I listen to it and I read this thing one time, reading up on Beethoven, and there was a point in his life when they were trying to ban his music. You know why? Take a guess why they wanted to ban Beethoven’s music while he was living.
Tavis: You got me on this. I know the story of him losing his hearing. I don’t know about the banning of his music, though.
Robinson: They wanted to ban his music because they said it was too sexy. (Laughter) They said it would arouse.
Tavis: So Beethoven was being a sexy man. (Laughter)
Robinson: It aroused the young ladies when they listened to it and made them flustered, so they wanted to ban Beethoven.
Tavis: See, I thought that was Justin Timberlake. Come to find out Beethoven bringing sexy back.
Robinson: If some of those people who wanted to ban Beethoven’s music could hear the music that’s being played today, wow, what would they do, man? (Laughter)
Tavis: I did not know that story.
Robinson: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: But to the other part of that story, though, you know you’re a bad boy when you lose your hearing and you’re still writing music.
Robinson: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s incredible.
Tavis: That’s unbelievable to me.
Robinson: He was music. Beethoven was just music, and it didn’t matter if he could hear it or not – he could feel it. He could hear it in his mind. He could write it down hearing it in his mind. He was just music. Yeah, he’s one of my favorite writers of all times.
Tavis: Wow, wow. Tell me about this new project. First of all, let me start by asking what is Smokey Robinson doing hanging out at Cracker Barrel? (Laughter)
Robinson: Oh, okay.
Tavis: I’m thinking maybe (unintelligible) or something, yeah, but you (unintelligible) Cracker Barrel.
Robinson: Eating. I’m eating when I’m at Cracker Barrel. (Laughter) I’m associated with Time-Life. This CD is made up of two different eras of music.
Tavis: Now and then.
Robinson: Yeah, now and then. The now music is from my latest CD, which is called “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.” So there’s six songs on there from that CD. The then music is I recorded about five or six of my concerts live last year and picked some of the songs from those concerts to go into this CD, because Cracker Barrel – through Time-Life I was hooked up with Cracker Barrel, and Cracker Barrel is a chain of restaurant stores basically in the South.
They wanted an exclusive CD for them, and so I recorded some of my vintage music and mixed it in with that music, and it’s exclusively at Cracker Barrel and on their website, and that’s the only place that this “Now and Then” CD can be found. But Cracker Barrel, man, is – if you want some good old hometown cooking, some good old hometown food –
Tavis: So you can’t beat that –
Robinson: – go there and get you some grits and biscuits and all the stuff like that (laughter) like I do every time I go.
Tavis: And some Smokey. (Laughter) You can’t beat that, good food and Smokey together.
Robinson: I’m telling you.
Tavis: When you’re riding around town, or you’re in some city and the driver is taking you from the hotel to the airport or whatever and the radio’s on and a Smokey Robinson tune comes through, do you ever get over the feeling of just, like, this joyful feeling? Does the smile still come across your face? What happens when you hear Smokey on the radio, is what I’m trying to ask?
Robinson: First of all, I turn it up. (Laughter)
Tavis: I like that. I like that.
Robinson: It’s a joy, man.
Tavis: After all these years?
Robinson: Yes. It’s my dream come true as a songwriter. If I hear one of my songs by anybody, it’s a dream come true every time for me as a songwriter, because like I explained to you, I want to write a song, I want to write a song that the world can sing and will always sing.
Tavis: And cover and cover and cover, yeah.
Robinson: Absolutely, man. So I know many times, especially when it first started to happen, when the first guys who came out who were doing the rap and then they would, what do you call, sample of your songs, there were people who I know who were writers who said, “Why are you sampling my music?”
Sample all of mine. (Laughter) Please. I beg of you, sample all of mine, man, because – really, because first of all, what better form of flattery is that, for a young artist who wasn’t even born when that song was written to hear that song and say, “Hey, man, I love this song so much I’m going to include it in one of my songs,” you know what I mean?
So as a songwriter, man, that’s a dream come true for me. So I love hearing my music, I love hearing it by other people. I hope it will always be played.
Tavis: As many songs as you’ve written, though, for yourself and for others, just between the two of us, does it ever, though, get –
Robinson: Okay.
Tavis: Yeah, just between the two of us. (Laughter) Does it ever get old, though, when people want to hear “Tears of a Clown” again and again and again? They’re all hits. You’ve got to get tired of singing that stuff sometimes, right?
Robinson: I say this to you from the bottom of my heart, as God as my witness – every night, man, every single, solitary night – I have sung some of those songs thousands of times.
Tavis: Yeah.
Robinson: Every night they are new to me.
Tavis: How is that possible?
Robinson: I don’t know. I don’t know, but it is a blessing. Every night, when I sing “Ooh, Baby, Baby” every night, it’s like I never sang it before. If I sing “Tracks of My Tears,” “Tears of a Clown,” it’s like I never sang them before, because I’m having a good time and I’m enjoying myself, and I’m enjoying the people. I never want to go and slough off. I don’t ever want somebody to go out of a concert of mine and say, “Oh, man, he just sloughed off. I could have stayed at home.”
Tavis: He mailed that in, yeah.
Robinson: Yeah, you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah.
Robinson: I don’t ever want to do that to people. It would be very difficult if you – you’re my brother, and you and I are sitting here right now and you say, “Hey, Smoke, sing a song for me,” that’s going to be kind of difficult for me, okay? But five people – I don’t care if it’s five people or 5,000 or 10,000. Hey, man, there’s a spark there. I’m having a good time with those people.
So I don’t ever, like, there have been times in my life when I go to a concert, it’s not full, but so what? There are people out there, and they came to see us. I don’t want to make it that you go out there and say, “Well, there’s only a few people here so we’ll just run through this right quick.” No, I don’t feel like that. I feel like they came, let’s have a good time and let’s enjoy ourselves. So every night, those songs are new, man.
Tavis: Since you mentioned it, how have you – what I love about you is that you, and the same is true of Mr. Gordy and Stevie, so many people at Motown – y’all are long-distance runners. I mean long-distance. This is not no sprint, long – back to your point about Beethoven, long distance. I see where you’re going with this.
But how do you navigate, to your own point now, during the lean years, when you were walking in and the places weren’t packed, they weren’t sold out. How do you navigate through that part of your life?
Robinson: Because I recognize show business and I always have. See, first of all, I recognize the fact that okay, I’m Smokey Robinson. Who is Smokey Robinson? Smokey Robinson is actually William Robinson Jr., who grew up in the ‘hood in Detroit, who had this wild, wild, wild dream that perhaps one day I could be in show business, okay?
So I have a great, great, great, great, great relationship with God, Tavis, and I’ve always known God all my life, okay? So now I’m blessed because he heard my prayer. He heard my need to do this. So I’m not going to put myself in a position whereas I think, okay, man, now I’m no longer William Robinson Jr., I am Smokey Robinson, man, so hey, you know what I mean?
Because that don’t fly, you know what I mean? Everybody is equal when it comes down to really the essence of life. We are all equal. I don’t care what a dude is doing, what he does for life. If he’s doing nothing, if he’s a derelict out on Hollywood Boulevard, okay, he’s equal. His life may not be happening equally, but in the eyes of God and in reality, he’s equal, you know what I mean?
So no, I’m blessed. I get a chance to live my dream. I’m not going to take that credit from God. I’m not going to trip on Smokey Robinson, because if I was Smokey Robinson the grocer, you know what I mean, people would come to the store and they might buy what they want to buy, and stuff like that. But girls wouldn’t be screaming, “Oh, man, he’s got a grocery store,” like they do in show business. (Laughter)
So I recognize that that’s just a part of my job. That comes along with it. If I think I’m bad, let me wait until the next week where I play this place this week and next week, Usher’s going to be there, you know what I mean? (Laughter) So if I think I’m bad, you know what I mean, let me just wait around till Usher’s concert comes.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Robinson: Some of those same chicks, and a lot more, are going to be there doing that same thing, because it goes with the territory. It’s a part of this life. So I’m not going to trip on that. I’m going to know that way deep down inside I’m William Robinson Jr., who’s getting a chance to live Smokey Robinson’s life because it’s my dream and it’s the business that I’m in, and there’s a whole lot of pedestals and accolades and all that stuff like that that comes with show business.
When you start to believe that that’s who you are, then you’d better check yourself. I have seen thousands, and I mean there’s thousands and thousands of people – I’ve been doing this for 51 years – I’ve seen thousands and thousands of people come through show business, Tavis, because they get one little hit or two little hits and they get a little notoriety and stuff like that, and they start walking around like, oh, man, how could the world possibly do without me now, because they’re aware of me, so I could do whatever I want to, say whatever I want to the people, be however I want to.
I tell people all the time, they say, “Show business is changing.” No, it didn’t. That’s who they were in the beginning. That little notoriety gave the real person a chance to stand up, gave the real person a chance to reveal themselves, and that’s who they were all along.
But I recognize the fact I’m blessed, I get a chance to live my dream and I’m not going to take people or my life or any of this for granted. I’m going to be thankful.
Tavis: I was laughing on the inside because I hear your point – you’re here tonight and Usher’s here next week, but Usher feels the same way about Bieber time.
Robinson: Yeah, you know what I mean? Exactly.
Tavis: When Bieber shows up the next week, Usher’s feeling the same way.
Robinson: Absolutely, absolutely, and there’s always a Justin Bieber, man. Always, really.
Tavis: Yeah, always a Justin Bieber somewhere, yeah.
Robinson: Absolutely, you know what I mean?
Tavis: I hear your point, I hear your point. In this very chair – and it broke my heart, and I’m only raising this with you because I know there’s a relationship, there’s a Motown relationship, and you’ve had this experience yourself – in this very chair weeks ago sat El DeBarge.
Robinson: Okay.
Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.
Robinson: Yeah.
Tavis: I celebrated, we all did – we were so happy for El.
Robinson: Me, too.
Tavis: And so excited to see – first of all, the record is cold.
Robinson: Yeah.
Tavis: It’s a beautiful record, he’s still got his voice – talk about being blessed. Twenty years of damaging your body with drugs, and God allows you to survive and live and have a second chance, and then your voice still holds up after all the damage you did to it. Of course, we all saw days ago he made a statement that he was checking himself back into rehab because he got weak again with regard to that temptation.
What do you say to an artist like El DeBarge tonight, who has the gift and is just struggling, trying to get through?
Robinson: Of course, no, I love El. El is one of my little brothers, man, and El and his whole family were at Motown for a long time, and he’s one of my little brothers.
I had this conversation with El 10 years ago, okay, because I myself went through that trip – you know about it.
Tavis: Mm-hmm.
Robinson: I did it for two and a half years, and I started doing it when I was a full-fledged adult, career going. I couldn’t have written my life any better than it was going at the time, but what I didn’t realize was, see, I thought this can’t happen to me. I’m too strong for this; this is not going to happen to me. As I was going down, down, down, I kept on saying, no, this can’t happen to me. (Laughter)
Because drugs don’t discriminate, my brother. They don’t care who you are or what you’re doing or where you’re going or any of that. When you open the door, they’re going to come in. I had this conversation with El.
Now for me – I’m one of the national drug spokespersons for the United States. I go all over the country and speak at rehab graduations, at rehabs, at hospitals, at churches. I speak all over the country, man. When I am speaking on the drug subject I tell everybody, now, I don’t know what your method for getting yourself off of drugs is. I don’t know what rehab you’re at.
I speak at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, too, and I never drank but I still speak there because the judges who call me have me speaking for people who are afflicted and addicted. So I tell them all, see, Alcoholic Anonymous is one of those things where you go to the meetings and the people get up and they say, “I’m John Brown, and I’m an alcoholic,” and they’re recovering, they’re not drunk or anything.
“I’m John Brown, and I’m an alcoholic,” and they go on and tell their story. I’m “Mary Simpson, and I’m an alcoholic,” and they tell their stories and stuff like that. I get up and I’m at the thing, and I say, “Okay, I’m Smokey Robinson, and I’m healed. I’m free.” Because I’m not going to claim that for the rest of my life. It was a two a half year period of my life; I haven’t had any drug since May of 1986.
So now what I told El and I will tell him again, and I hope he’s listening – unless you get your spiritual self together, you ain’t going to beat it. You’re not going to beat it. I know people – I have people in my family, man, who have been to rehab 15 times, you know what I mean?
Unless you get your spiritual self together – because we’re not just flesh and blood, we are spiritual beings. Unless you get that part of yourself together you’re not going to beat this. Unless you recognize the fact that you’re a spiritual being, unless you recognize the fact that before you even heard of drugs, especially before you started doing them, you were living, you had a life, and you were going along with your program and you were doing what you do and all that.
So what makes you think, now that you have been introduced to this negativity of drugs, that you can’t possibly live without them? You can’t, “Well, if I don’t have this, no, I can’t go on.” Oh yes, you can, because you were going on before you knew about that.
So now what I did with mine, I have never been to rehab in my life. I don’t knock rehab, because I think it’s a great place. I’m very – I’m so sorry that there weren’t places like that when guys who were my brother brothers – Paul Williams and David Ruffin, those guys like that – were –
Tavis: Back in the day, yeah.
Robinson: – yeah, were alive. I’m so sorry they didn’t have a place like that to go to. But I tell them all the time, what I did with mine, I’ve never been to rehab, I’ve never been to psychotherapy or the doctor or anything like that. I went to a church and I was prayed for, and I’ve always had a great relationship with God.
So what I did with mine was I turned it over. I gave it up. I gave it to God, Tavis, and when you do that, I don’t care what your affliction is – food, sex, drugs, whatever it is – if you really want to get rid of it – see, you can’t go to God and give God something – if I could have gone to my sisters or my brothers or my mama or my daddy, anybody, there are people who love you enough, your friends who love you enough to say, “Okay, man, give it to me for a couple weeks, man, because it’s killing you. I’ll take it off you for a couple of weeks,” but there’s nobody like that, because they can’t do that.
You can’t go to God with nothing that he can’t take, that he will not accept, and he’s not going to say, “Oh, man, if you had just come last Thursday, I had an opening.” (Laughter) You know what I mean?
Tavis: You preaching, Smokey, you preaching, man, you’re preaching.
Robinson: Yeah. So that’s what I did with mine. So now if you’re willing to do that – because God’s not a dictator. If you’re willing to do that and give it up, he ain’t going to give it back unless you go back to get it. If you go back to get it, there it is, because he’s not a dictator. He gave everybody free will, free thought, free conscience, free everything. We are all free. We don’t have to accept nothing that we don’t want to.
Tavis: See, you get all this, a “Now and Then” CD, and some Cracker Barrel food hanging out with Smokey Robinson. (Laughter) That’s why I love Smokey Robinson. The new project from Smokey is called, once again, “Now and Then,” available exclusively at Cracker Barrel. Get some good food and some good music. Smokey Robinson, I love you, and I’m always –
Robinson: I love you too, my brother.
Tavis: You see why I love having you on this program? I never know where these conversations are going to go, but I’m always going to be blessed as a result of your presence.
Robinson: Well, that’s one thing I love about being here, because I don’t ever know where it’s going to go, either. All I know is you’re my brother, you called me, I’m going to be here whenever I can, man. I love you, and I want to say to you, you’ve been doing this for 20 years, I’m so proud of you, man. I am so proud of you, because you have kept the integrity of what this is and what you do.
There are many people who have the microphone, who have your position in life, who I just wish I could just banish them from the air, you know what I mean? (Laughter) You’re upstanding. You keep it going and you’re a beautiful brother, man, and 50 more years to you.
Tavis: Smokey Robinson is my friend, and I love him. For more of my conversation with Smokey Robinson, hit our website at
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Last modified: August 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm