A couple of weeks ago I was in Los Angeles for the Wall Street Journal to interview (go here) Smokey Robinson at his home north of the city. At age 73, Smokey is a charming, gregarious guy who generates enormous electricity when he enters a room—even when only one person is there waiting for him.
What you notice first about Smokey is how tall and fit he is. He stands nearly 6 feet tall and there's solid body definition that comes from weight-lifting. Then you notice his eyes, which are a sparkly green. Smokey is a lifelong showman, but he's also remarkably down-to-earth and unpretentious—comfortable talking about his success and open about what he can and can't do.
As you'd expect, Smokey is highly passionate about all forms of music, Motown and songwriting. But he also knows his jazz and R&B history. We sat for an hour in his library—a comfortable room with a large sectional leather sofa and wood and glass cases housing awards and photos—and the subjects were wide-ranging.
Smokey, of course, wrote and recorded Shop Around—Motown's first No. 1 hit (on Billboard's R&B chart) and first million-seller in 1961. He also wrote many of the label's classics including My Guy, My Girl, You've Really Got a Hold on Me, Mickey's Monkey, Going to a Go-Go, Ooo Baby Baby, Tracks of My Tears, I Second That Emotion, Baby Baby Don't Cry, The Tears of a Clown, Love Machine and many others.
Motown remains one of post-war America's most remarkable success stories. A black-owned record company in 1960 manages to overcome a range of racial and business obstacles to create a highly identifiable, seductive sound thanks to the vision of songwriter Berry Gordy.
As Smokey said during our time together, the label's rise was possible only because the company was run in a highly organized, supportive manner. Its goal was to create music for black and white teens and was managed by black and white executives who knew their slice of the business—from sales and accounting to distribution and artist development.
JazzWax track: Here's Smokey Robinson with the Miracles (minus Claudette Rogers) performing Shop Around...