Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peak at the upcoming episode. This week, our program is about Detroit- the Motor City, Motown. Here’s where the rubber meets the road from recording studio to assembly line, for Smokey Robinson. Born William Robinson in 1940, he came out singing from a tough Detroit neighborhood and went on to become a songwriter and producer for Motown Records. Let’s hear from Smokey about where it started.
SR: I mean, I grew up in a neighborhood where Diana Ross lived right down the street from me and Aretha Franklin lived around the corner and the Four Tops lived two blocks over and the Temptations lived about four blocks away. You know, this is where I grew up. It was the era of the doo-wop groups. And in Detroit at the time, you were either in a gang or a group.
NS: There is a long history, say in the Quartets say, of people who do sing the high tenors and the falsetto. Did you have a sense that you had a voice that could go where you go?
SR: Well, I’ve always had a high voice. See, I guess that’s why I picked my singing idols to be guys with high voices. I had all of Jackie Wilson’s records and I had all of Sam Cook’s records and all of Clyde McPhatter’s records and Frankie Lymon, and even when I was in high school, I was in the alto section. That’s just how I sound, and who I am.
The Miracles and I, we were not called the Miracles at that time, but the Matadors. We all had the high water pants and the short waistcoat jackets and we went for an audition for Jackie Wilson’s managers and Berry happened to be there that day, cause he was gonna turn in some new songs for Jackie Wilson. So he comes outside after we finished, after we’d been rejected, and he questioned us as to where we got the songs from and I told him that I wrote them, and he said, well there were a couple of them that he liked. He said, “Yeah I’m Berry Gordy.” I said, “You mean Berry Gordy who writes for Jackie Wilson?” He said, “Yeah, that’s me.” So then my lip dropped down to the ground. I had a loose-leaf notebook of about 100 songs. And I must’ve sang 30 of them for Barrie. And he never, ever said, “Ok man, that’s enough, or I’m tired,” or any of that. He just critiqued every one. And about a year or so after I met Berry, we started Motown, so you know, the rest is history.
NS: We think of this gleaming, grand Oz of Motown, but you know, it really was people, voices, songs, getting together. Could you say a little bit about the process of creating songs for yourself in that studio setting?
SR: We had a great family atmosphere. Lot of young people making music. Even though we were highly, highly competitive with each other. See, Hitsville was also a unique place because all the guys in all the groups, we really hung out there. We’d be playing cards, we’d be playing chess, we’d be playing ping pong, so it would be nothing for me to be in a room doing something and Noam Woodfield be recording something by Marvin Gaye and run in and say, “Hey man, Smoke, come in here and put some handclaps on this record,” and I’d go in there and do it.
NS: Now, you’ve been somebody who has taken the blues, or gospel or the doo-wop and you carried it off to a much wider, broad mainstream audience: black and white.
SR: Absolutely, I agree with you. I think that Motown accomplished something that they were trying to legislate-- they had everybody trying to get people together, and we did it with music. When I go and perform, I’m so proud and I’m so happy that there are people there from every race you can think of, and I love that. Performing is my favorite part of my work; it’s my time when I get to one-on-one with the fans. They think they’re coming to see me, but I’m going to see them.