The singer talks about his 43-year career, which produced hits like ''I Second That Emotion,'' ''My Girl,'' and ''The Tears of a Clown''

By Tom Sinclair
Updated May 26, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Not long ago, Smokey Robinson was sitting in a movie theater watching Oliver Stone’s football drama Any Given Sunday. One of the songs in the music-filled film caught his ear — a gentle, seductive melody that sounded oddly familiar. After a few moments, it hit him: He was listening to his 1979 hit ”Cruisin’.” He chuckles remembering the experience: ”They played almost the entire recording. I didn’t even know it was in there, but it was a good surprise to be sitting in the movies and to hear that come on.”

Don’t worry — it’s not early Alzheimer’s that caused Robinson, who turned 60 this past February, to be temporarily stumped by his own composition. It’s the sheer size of his oeuvre. Over the course of a career that’s spanned 43 years, the guy’s written or co-written more than 4,000 songs. Not all of them were hits, of course — but certainly enough of them were. You don’t have to be a baby boomer to get a big chill just thinking about the number of bona fide classics he turned out in his glory years as a songwriter, artist, producer, and executive at Motown in the 1960s.

There was the long string of terrific singles with his former group the Miracles, among them ”You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” ”The Tracks of My Tears,” ”Ooo Baby Baby,” ”I Second That Emotion,” and ”The Tears of a Clown,” all sung in his piercingly sweet high tenor, a voice both angelic and ethereal. There were the numerous smashes he wrote and produced for other Motown artists: ”My Girl,” ”The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and ”Get Ready” for the Temptations; ”I’ll Be Doggone” and ”Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye; ”The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and ”Don’t Mess With Bill” for the Marvelettes; ”Two Lovers” and ”My Guy” for Mary Wells. Even after Motown’s golden era faded, the man’s solo efforts — ”A Quiet Storm,” ”Cruisin’,” ”Being With You,” ”One Heartbeat,” and ”Just to See Her” (which netted Smokey his first Grammy in 1988) — continued to chart throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Looking at his body of work, it seems incredible that his name is so seldom invoked in discussions of the front-line titans of soul music. Sure, his talent is routinely acknowledged — but usually only after Aretha, Stevie, Otis, Marvin, James, et al. have been name-checked and genuflected to. Casual fans — the sort who might own a Motown compilation or two but never look at songwriting or production credits — might not realize the extent of his contributions. It’s partly his own fault — he’s not inclined to flaunt his accomplishments or play the superstar. As critic Robert Christgau has pointed out, Smokey’s ”impact [has] never quite equaled his achievement[s],” largely because of his fundamental modesty. Which is both a paradox and a shame, because those achievements are manifold and magnificent.

Spending time with Smokey, one gets the feeling that he’s far too at peace with himself to worry about such piddling concerns as the inequities of fame, or his rank on someone else’s list of greats. The picture of unflappability in loose-fitting white clothes, seated on a couch in a hotel suite hours before an April 7 show at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre, he radiates the unmistakable glow of a man who has managed to grab a healthy portion of grace.