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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Forty-five years after Smokey Robinson found himself "Going to a Go-Go," he is now headed into Cracker Barrel restaurants -- a sign of change not just in music but for the roadside diners, too.
The former lead singer of Motown sensations The Miracles released on Monday his latest album not through record outlets, but via a program offered by the chain of nearly 600 diners known for home-style cooking and selling folksy merchandise.
The album, called "Smokey Robinson Now & Then," mixes live performances of six classic Miracles' hits such as "Going to a Go-Go," "The Tears of a Clown" and "The Tracks of My Tears," with six studio-recorded tunes from Robinson's recent CD, "Time Flies When You Are Having Fun."
Robinson, 70, told Reuters the new songs, including "Time Flies" and "No Place Like That Place," were recorded about two years ago when, for fun, he rented a studio for himself, brought in some old friends and recorded the music that he had been writing for years but never formally put down on music tracks.
"I write all the time, and those are songs that I thought fit me," Robinson said. "We just had a ball (in the studio) and most all the material is original," except a version of Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why."
The old Motown tunes, of course, are standards that are well-loved and songs Cracker Barrel Olde Country Stores wanted for what is their first music release outside the country and bluegrass genres.
"With their patrons, they said the vintage songs would be great on the CD, and those are the songs I picked," Robinson said.
The distribution deal points to a shift at the stores and in the music industry where piracy and digital downloads of singles on PCs and iPods has sharply reduced CD sales. Singers and musicians now see much of their revenue via live performances and specialty programs like Cracker Barrel's.
Concerning Cracker Barrel, which was founded in Tennessee and prides itself in its country brand and image, it has been forced in recent years to defend itself against racial discrimination lawsuits and claims by former employees.
As part of his agreement, Robinson recently toured the company's headquarters and several of its restaurants, talking not only to management but to staff, as well.
"I am the first black guy they have done a deal with," Robinson said. "They've been known as discriminatory, but they are doing their best to change their image."
For its part, Cracker Barrel noted that while country and bluegrass music will remain a key part of their sales, the chain wanted to expand the program and Robinson's music appeals "across generations of music lovers."
In fact, Robinson said that at his live shows, it's not just parents and their kids who turn up. It is grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren. "My audiences are multi-racial and multi-age," Robinson said.
Editing by Christine Kearney