Speaking only for myself, I first became aware of Smokey Robinson as the guest star in a memorable Sesame Street skit. It wasn’t long before I learned that the guy dancing with the letter-U puppet was one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time — a talent whose influence on contemporary pop and soul music would be difficult to overestimate.
Today, 50 years after scoring his first national hit as leader of the Miracles, Robinson is still going strong. With his latest solo album, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, due to arrive on Aug. 25, he called the Music Mix to chat last week. Read on after the jump for Robinson’s thoughts on his new music, the Motown legacy, his five decades of industry experience, and the loss of his dear friend Michael Jackson.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Smokey, you sound great on the new record. How do you keep your voice in such good shape?
SMOKEY ROBINSON: Oh, well thank you. You know, many young kids ask me that. They want to know if there’s a remedy — the hot tea, and the lemon, and this and that. The secret to it is you have to take care of yourself and try to do the right thing by your own body on a daily basis. I don’t drink or smoke — not to say that I condemn people who do.
What were your goals when you set out to write and record this album?
I actually had a ball making this album, man. Because I recorded it live in the studio. I got a bunch of great musicians and singers, and I had them in the studio playing and singing while I was singing. Recording has become so sophisticated, man — people who play and sing on the same records don’t even see each other nowadays, basically. I wanted to go back to the old-fashioned way of recording. You still get the same leeway, because you’re recording on a computer with ProTools, so you’re gonna have the leeway of everybody having their own track, but everybody’s there feeding off of each other and grooving off of each other.
You wrote all the songs on the album except for “Don’t Know Why,” a Norah Jones cover. Why did you choose that song?
I’m a song lover and a songwriter fan. And I loved that song from the very first time I heard Norah sing it when it came on the radio. I love the content, and it has one of the greatest melodies around. I was always humming it to myself. So I just wanted to do my own rendition.
You collaborated with a couple of younger artists, India.Arie and Joss Stone, on this album. What was it like working with them?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, man! First of all, Joss and India and Carlos Santana, who is on there also, are really good friends of mine. I actually wrote those songs with them in mind. I met Joss in New York — I had already put my own voice on the track, and I went to New York and overdubbed her. And while she was singing, I got inspired, so I did my vocal again. Then India, I sent the stuff to her in Atlanta after I’d recorded it and she put her own voice on there. And Carlos has a studio in San Francisco, so I went to San Francisco to put him on the track. We had a ball.
The name of the record is Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. When you look back over your career in music, does it feel like it’s been 50 years?
No, man, that’s why I called it that. “Time Flies,” the [title] song, is actually about being in love with somebody, and you’re having fun with that person. ‘Cause I didn’t just want to just write it about my career. I wanted it to have a universal meaning. But it is about my life. I can’t believe that last year we started to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Motown. In a way, it just seems like all that stuff just blurred by. It’s gone by overnight, man.
The first five albums you recorded with the Miracles were just reissued as a box set. How do you feel when you look back on those records? Do you ever listen to them?
When they do the box sets, they remix them and try to update the sound, so I take a listen to them just to see what they’ve done to them. Those songs are near and dear to my heart. Most of them I wrote. It brings back memories of my days with the Miracles, and how it was. I think they did what they could to update them…And now I’ve got to buy a record player, because Time Flies When You’re Having Fun is going to be also on vinyl. I think it’s a cool thing that vinyl’s coming back. We’ll be able to have album covers again.
How has the way you approach the songwriting process changed over the years since then?
The way I approach writing a song? Absolutely nothing. Nothing’s different. Every time I sit down to write a song, I’m really trying to write a song. I want to write something that if I had written it 50 years before then, it would mean something — like some of those songs on those Miracles albums. And today it’s going to mean something, 50 years from today it’s going to mean something. I’ve always approached it that way, since Berry Gordy mentored me in how to write songs professionally. When I met him, I was a young teenager, and he was a songwriter himself. And I still do it the same way.
One of the striking things about those early Motown recordings is how relevant they still feel. Why do you think that is?
Thank you. I appreciate that…On the very first day when Berry Gordy started Motown Records, there were five people there: Him and four others of us. And he sat us down and said, “We are not going to make only black music. We’re going to make music for the world. We’re going to make quality music that has some great beats and some great stories. And our standard is always going to be high.” That’s what we set out to do, and thank God, we accomplished it beyond any of our wildest dreams on that day. We thought we’d be successful, we wanted to be successful. But, see, we didn’t realize we were going to make history. Motown is a once-in-a-lifetime musical event. Nothing like that had happened before then, nor do I believe anything will happen like that ever again.
You spoke eloquently at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. Now it’s been a little over a month since we lost him. Has it gotten any easier to process that loss?
Well, first of all, like I said at the service, Michael was my little brother. There is and there has always been a Motown family. All of us were involved in it — all the artists, all the musicians, all the people who were behind the scenes. We all functioned together. We had family picnics and did outings and stuff like that together. So Michael was my little brother. I knew Farrah [Fawcett] too, but it had been touch-and-go for a long time for her, so all of us who loved her and knew her knew it could be any time now. But Michael, that was just like sudden impact, man. For me to hear Michael Jackson died of a heart attack, man, that’s just unfathomable to me. Michael, seemingly to me, he was in good shape, he was so energetic, he danced. He was a young man. So it was a hard pill to swallow, man. I’m getting better, and I’m sure that we’re all getting better. But it’s hard to let it rest, because the news media’s not letting it rest. Every day you turn on the TV and you hear something about it: “Now they’re thinking about arresting the doctor.” And I think it’s a shame what they’ve done about [Jackson’s] kids, talking about the DNA, who’s the real sperm donor, and blah, blah, blah. Those are kids, man. And Michael was their dad. No matter what comes up about the DNA, Michael was their father. So for them to do that, to run those kids through the mill like that, is atrocious as far as I’m concerned. It’s a ridiculous thing. They’re not thinking about [the fact] that these are kids that they’re doing this to, and what impact it’s going to have on their lives. They just want people to listen to whatever thing they’re doing. It’s a shame. So I haven’t had a chance to totally recover, because all this stuff is still going on.
Moving to another subject, are there any other young artists, songwriters specifically, who you like now?
There are a bunch of them. ‘Cause I listen to everybody, man. I have everybody from Nelly to Muddy Waters in my CD player at one time. I love music. You have people like Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake and Usher and Maxwell and John Legend and Beyonce and Carrie Underwood out there, who are making some great music. Yeah, I listen to everybody.
More from EW’s Music Mix:
Photo credit: Nick Spanos