NPR

Smokey Robinson Sings The Hits, With A Few Good Friends

Smokey Robinson's new album of duets, Smokey & Friends, is out Aug. 19. (Courtesy of the artist)

Smokey Robinson may know the formula to scripting the perfect love song. Over his 40-year career, he's has written thousands of songs — both for his own group The Miracles and for other legends of Motown, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Supremes.

For the new album Smokey and Friends, Robinson recruited a select group of musicians to help him sing some of his classic hits: Elton John, Sheryl Crow and Mary J. Blige, and many more. He spoke about it with NPR's Linda Wertheimer; hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Smokey Robinson may know the secret formula to scripting the perfect love song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOH BABY BABY")

SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) I did you wrong. My heart went out to play.

WERTHEIMER: Over his 40-year career, Smokey has written thousands of songs for his own group, The Miracles, but also for other legends of Motown, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes. For his latest album, Smokey Robinson recruited a select group of musicians to help him sing some of his classic hits. The album is called "Smokey And Friends" and includes collaborations with Elton John, Sheryl Crow and Mary J. Blige.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING WITH YOU")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND MARY J. BLIGE: (Singing) I don't care about anything else but being with you, being with you.

WERTHEIMER: Smokey Robinson joins me from our LA bureau. Welcome to the program.

ROBINSON: Thank you. How are you doing, Linda?

WERTHEIMER: Pretty well, I think.

ROBINSON: Good.

WERTHEIMER: Let's just dive right into the new album. You sing "Tracks Of My Tears" with Elton John.

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

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND ELTON JOHN: (Singing) People say I'm the life of the party, 'cause I tell a joke or two. Oh, I might be laughing loud and hardy. Oh, deep inside, I'm blue.

WERTHEIMER: So tell me about your friendship with Elton John. How long have you known him?

ROBINSON: Oh, I've known Elton probably for 30 years.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think the two of you have changed?

ROBINSON: (Laughing) We both changed. We talk about it all the time. All we have to do is look at each other. We've changed, absolutely. (Laughing) But as far as loving our craft, we haven't changed at all. In fact, it's enhanced. The longer you do it and the more you appreciate it.

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

ROBINSON AND JOHN: (Singing) Since you put me down - a smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you.

WERTHEIMER: "Tracks Of My Tears" was written with fellow members of The Miracles. Do you think about them? Do you think about your time with The Miracles when a song like this comes back into everybody's playlist?

ROBINSON: Well, yeah, I do. But I mainly think about Marv Tarplin because Marv Tarplin is the source. Marv Tarplin was the greatest songwriting partner I've ever had in my life. He would put guitar riffs on a tape and give them to me until I could come up with a song for his music - the "Tracks Of My Tears" being one of those.

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

ROBINSON: The first three lines that I came up with were the first three lines of the chorus - take a good look at my face. See if my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace. Easy to trace - to track what? That I miss you. No, that's not it. That I want you back. No, that's not it. That I've been really crying. No, that's not it. You know, and one day I was shaving, and I looked in the mirror. And I said what if a person had cried so much until, if you look closely at their face, you could see tracks that their tears had made. And I knew that that was it.

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

ROBINSON: (Singing) Baby, take a good, good look at my face. You'll see my smile. Look a little bit closer - yeah, the tracks of my tears.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen to "Ain't That Peculiar." James Taylor is the person you're singing with.

ROBINSON: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT PECULIAR")

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) Oh, honey, you do me wrong, and still I'm crazy about you. Stay away too long, and I can't live without you. Every chance you get, you seem to hurt me more and more.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let me ask you how does it work out when this partner that you have never recorded with before does something that you've never done before? How do you get into that? How do you make that work?

ROBINSON: Oh, gosh, honey, you know, because that's the way he heard the song. That's the way he feels it. Now James's version is a very folk-rock sound. It's not the up-tempo bluesy rock 'n roll sound that we had on the Marvin Gaye record. But James did his own take on it. We let the artist put their take on the song that they picked, and then we worked around that. So whatever he would've done - he could've whistled it, and I would've tried to whistle it with him because we wanted him to feel comfortable doing it the way he does it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT PECULIAR")

ROBINSON AND TAYLOR: (Singing) Oh, a child can cry just to try to get you to do everything they say. But unlike a child, these tears ain't never going to help me get my way.

WERTHEIMER: Is it correct that you used to scout talent for the Motown label?

ROBINSON: Yeah, I did.

WERTHEIMER: Who do you think was your best find?

ROBINSON: Diana Ross and The Supremes.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I'd say that would work.

ROBINSON: (Laughing) Yeah. How about that one?

WERTHEIMER: So you heard Diana Ross. And what did you do, call a Berry Gordy and say you're not going to believe this?

ROBINSON: No, no, no, no, no. I grew up with Diana. I've known Diana since she was 8 years old. We grew up four doors down the street from each other. In my neighborhood, there were 50 groups just in our neighborhood. You know? And when I used to rehearse with my group, Diana used to come and sit on the steps and sing-along with us and stuff.

Eventually she moved away from our neighborhood and moved to a place called the Brewster Projects. And Berry started Motown. And so she had heard a couple records by us. And so she called me and said she had a group that she wanted me to hear so I could sign them to Motown. And they came and sang for me. And that was it.

WERTHEIMER: And the rest is history, as we say.

ROBINSON: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen to another song. This is - this one, I just - I couldn't quite believe it. It's you and Steven Tyler singing "You Really Got A Hold On Me."

ROBINSON: Yeah. All right.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen.

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

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND STEVEN TYLER: (Singing) I don't like you, but I love you. Seems that I'm always thinking of you. Oh, you treat me badly. I love you madly. You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me.

WERTHEIMER: Of course, I know perfectly well what you look and what Steven Tyler looks like. And I know that you're not related, but you guys sing like you're related.

ROBINSON: Well, we are related. Steven's my brother. (Laughter) And see, that version of "You Really Got A Hold On Me" is rock. That's how he wanted to do it. He's been singing it for years. So he picked that song, and we sang it. And we had a great time.

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

ROBINSON AND TYLER: (Singing) You really got a hold. You really got a hold on me. Baby, I love you and all I want you to do is hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me.

WERTHEIMER: How many songs do you think you've written over the years?

ROBINSON: Well, I've got a count a few years back, and it's about 4,000.

WERTHEIMER: Wow. Do you have any sense that there are songs that might be monster hits that are just sort of in a file somewhere

ROBINSON: You know what? It's amazing. I was talking to my publicist about that - about all the music that is in the can that Universal has now because they own Motown, and I would love to have access to those.

WERTHEIMER: It must be a little bit peculiar to think that a lot of your work is not accessible to you.

ROBINSON: Ain't that peculiar? Oh, no, no, I'm kidding. (Laughter) But I think about it all the time 'cause I'd just like to hear it, just to refresh my memory as to what they are and all that.

WERTHEIMER: Do you forge ahead? You still write songs?

ROBINSON: All the time. Almost every day of my life. I really mean that too - all the time.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder about your extraordinarily long career. I mean, it's not easy. I say this even though all I do is talk. It's not easy to preserve your voice, to sound like people expect and want you to sound over a long period of time. And you've done it for decades. How do you do that?

ROBINSON: Well, Linda, you know what I do? I tell young singers this all the time, too, 'cause they think the remedy is, like, hot tea and lemon and all this other - I take care of myself because your vocal cords and your vocal ability and all this stuff is a part of you. And if you take care of your entire self, than that's going to fall in line with that. I used to run marathons. I don't run like that anymore. I'll run a couple miles or so now. I've been doing yoga for about the past 35 years, and it's been one of the greatest things that's ever happened for me in my life for my body.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that's what's kept all those songs arriving every day?

ROBINSON: I don't know. I think that creativity is a gift from God. And I'm blessed because I do what I love to earn a living. So it's a blessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

ROBINSON: (Singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day.

WERTHEIMER: Smokey Robinson joined us from our Los Angeles bureau. His latest album "Smokey And Friends" is out now. Smokey Robinson, thank you very, very much.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Linda. I appreciate you doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

ROBINSON: (Singing) I guess you say what can make me feel this way? My girl.

WERTHEIMER: Smokey Robinson visited our friends at All Songs Considered earlier this week as well to play guest DJ. You can hear that conversation at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular