Smokey Robinson celebrates 50 years by "Having Fun"

Fri Aug 21, 2009 7:46pm EDT
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - The songs alone speak volumes. "Shop Around." "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." "Ooo Baby Baby." "The Tracks of My Tears." "I Second That Emotion." "The Tears of a Clown." "My Guy." "My Girl." "Cruisin'." "Being With You." These are just a handful of the classics written and, in many cases, uniquely interpreted by William "Smokey" Robinson.

The singer-songwriter is celebrating his 50th anniversary in music this year, as is the iconic label Motown Records. On the eve of the release Tuesday of Robinson's new studio album, "Time Flies When You're Having Fun," on his own ROBSO Records, Billboard talked to the man behind the beloved tunes.

Billboard: What's the origin of the nickname "Smokey?"

Smokey Robinson: My favorite uncle, who was also my godfather, gave it to me when I was 3 years old. I used to love cowboys; that was my thing -- especially the ones who sang. And he would always take me to see cowboy movies. His cowboy name for me was Smokey Joe. Whenever anybody asked me what my name was, I'd tell them "Smokey Joe." The Joe dropped off when I became 12.

Billboard: When did you first know you wanted to be a singer-songwriter?

Robinson: I have felt like that since I was 4 years old. At times it seemed like it was going to be my absolutely impossible dream given where I grew up in Detroit. But it was always my dream. Nobody in my family was a professional musically. My mother sang in church and played the piano; my dad sang in the shower (laughs). However, I listened to everything that was being played at home, from gospel to gut-bucket blues to jazz and classical. My two older sisters listened to bebop: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. I formed my first group (when I was 14). We went from being the Five Chimes to the Matadors and changed members until we got to be the Miracles.

Billboard: You've said in previous interviews that Motown founder Berry Gordy was your mentor. What did he teach you about music?

Robinson: When I met Berry, I had a loose-leaf notebook of about 100 songs. Back then, I had five songs in one song because the first verse had nothing to do with the second verse, and the second verse had nothing to do with the bridge. It was just a bunch of ideas all rhymed up because I always rhymed things. Berry made me understand a song is like a short story, film or book with a beginning, middle and end that all ties together. And even if you don't give it a definite ending, you have to give people enough material to create their own ending.   Continued...

<p>Singer Smokey Robinson (L) performs at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills, California February 10, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>