With lyrics like, “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup” and “I know flowers grow through rain/But how can love grow from pain?,” it can be argued that William “Smokey” Robinson belongs on the Mount Rushmore of great Black poets along with Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. His phrases, verses and choruses, conceived within the empire of Motown Records, have been mantras to love and live by for millions worldwide for generations.
Among those inspired by said songs are the 13 artists chosen to sing with Robinson on Smokey & Friends—his first album since 2009’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, as well as his Verve Records debut. Under the guidance of producer Randy Jackson of American Idol, Robinson interweaves his ethereal vocals alongside renowned peers like Elton John and James Taylor, as well as 21st century stars like John Legend and Cee Lo Green, giving new life to selections from his lauded songbook, including “My Girl,” “Tracks of My Tears” and “Being With You.”
Smokey Robinson spoke to EBONY.com about his new album, some of his famous past duets and what drives him to perform after five decades of show business.
EBONY: Where did the idea to do a duets album come about?
Smokey Robinson: My production manager and my manager came up with the idea for me to do this. My manager sent it to Verve Records, and they thought it was a good idea and, in turn, hired Randy Jackson—who is my brother brother—to produce it. I was very happy about that, because I never the chance to work with him like this musically. He’s a musical genius and I was very happy to work with him.
EBONY: Each song’s arrangements on this record seem to be tailor-made to the styles of each performer.
SR: That was the concept. Randy contacted several artists and asked what their favorite Smokey Robinson song was; not necessarily a song that I’d recorded, but I had written. The songs you hear these artists on are their favorite song for them, and those are the ones we recorded with them.
EBONY: With that in mind, when you write songs, is your approach when you attend them for yourself the same as for someone else, or different?
SR: There’s one common denominator, that I’m always, always, always going to try to write a song. And by that, I mean I’m going to write something that, if I record it right now, it’ll mean something 50 years from now. If it’s a song, it’s got to have that capability. That’s my first thought. When I’m writing for other artists, I’m writing for that artist. I have that artist in mind and I’m writing it specifically for them. If I’m writing for myself, I’m doing the same thing.
EBONY: You participated in some special duets in your career, like when you sang with Aretha Franklin live on Soul Train in 1979.
SR: I’ve known Aretha since I was 8 years old. Aretha’s my really good friend. In fact, she’s my longest friend who is still alive. To do anything with her is always a joy, so I enjoyed that moment. My moment was impromptu; it wasn’t something that was planned. Aretha was on the show, I was there, and Don [Cornelius] just had us sit at the piano and asked me to do it. It was a great experience.
EBONY: Another great live duet you did “Careless Whisper” with George Michael, on Showtime at the Apollo in 1984.
SR: “Careless Whisper” was a huge record at the time. That was my first time that I’d ever met George. George was a wonderful singer, and George can still sing. I was just in England a couple months ago and George can still really sing. So he was a great singer, and it was a great song and I enjoyed it very much.
EBONY: Of course, there’s you and Rick James on “Ebony Eyes” in 1985.
SR: Rick was my brother, and I miss Rick. We had a lot of good times together. At the time I recorded “Ebony Eyes,” I was actually retired from show business. Rick called me and said, “Smoke, I got this song, man. I want you to sing it with me.” So I went down to the studio and I sang it with him. And it’s such a beautiful song, I was very happy to sing it. After we finished the song, we did a three-day video shoot around Los Angeles. It was actually a mini-movie, I guess. I was a wonderful time. I had a lot of good times with Rick.
EBONY: Are there any artists today that you haven’t gotten to sing with yet that you’d like to?
SR: You don’t want to ask me that, because I’d probably pick almost everybody in show business. I love music, and I love when I see artists who are challenging. So it’d be almost everybody in show business.
EBONY: You’re 74 now and you still sound great on record and on stage. How do you preserve your voice, and what motivates you to continue to record and sing before fans all over the world?
SR: My key to whatever is going on with my voice is to take care of myself. I try to eat right, I exercise, I work out. I do things that are going to keep my body in condition to do my work. I tell young singers all the time who think if you drink tea and lemon… no, no, no. There’s no real formula of taking care of your voice. It’s taking care of yourself, and when you do that, everything else falls in line.
As far as doing concerts, when I do concerts, that is my favorite part of my work. I love my work, I love my job, I love my life. I get a chance to create music. That’s a wonderful gift and I thank God for it every day. Why I still do [concerts] is because I don’t get that charge anywhere that I get from the stage, when I’m one-on-one with the fans and making new fans and they’re singing the songs back to me. There’s a thing that happens there that happens nowhere else. So, that’s why I still do this.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.