Smokey Robinson is ‘Cruisin’’ in style at Opening Nights

Smokey Robinson is ‘Cruisin’’ in style at Opening Nights

In 1982, the rowdy rock band Van Halen infamously banned brown M&M’s — not red or green ones, just the brown ones — in its dressing room before concerts. The stipulation was included in Van Halen’s typed, 53-page document known as a concert rider.

Performing artists often like to slip in a wild or ludicrous request just to make sure the promoters and presenters at the venue are paying attention.

Motown maestro and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Smokey Robinson tucked one into his concert rider for his two-night stand this weekend in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall as part of the Opening Night Performing Arts festival.

“When we were working on Smokey Robinson, there was one of those ‘hidden items,’ placed there to make sure you are actually reading the rider, like the M&M story that everyone knows,” Opening Nights director Christopher Heacox said. “The hidden item was to provide a black Tesla Model S. So we do what we always do when a request comes through, you cross it out and buy the Matchbox car to put in the production office.”

Then Heacox reconsidered.

“A few months went by, and I was casually discussing this with our Development Council chair-elect, Gus Corbella, and he told me that he might be able to get me the Tesla,” Heacox said. “The lobbying firm for Tesla is here in Tallahassee.”

Corbella reached out to lobbyist Jeffrey Sharkey, who landed the singer of the smash hit “Cruisin’ ” a sleek, electric Tesla loaner and a driver during his four-day stay in Tallahassee.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Sharkey said. “He’s a legend, and this is his car of preference. I think it’s great.”

And in a world where the word “legend” is often overused, the 76-year-old Robinson is, indeed, a living legend.

In 1960, Robinson co-wrote the song “Shop Around” with producer Berry Gordy, who was working overtime to put a little label called Motown Records in Detroit on the national map. “Shop Around” by Robinson and The Miracles became Motown’s first million-selling single. It returned to the top of the charts in the ’70s with a cover version by Captain & Tennille.

It didn’t take long before Robinson became an integral part of the engine that drove Motown, aka Hitsville USA, during its glory days. His 1960 ballad “Who’s Lovin’ You,” the B-side for “Shop Around,” would eventually be recorded by every group from The Supremes to The Jackson 5. It was performed live at Michael Jackson’s public memorial in 2009.

Inspired by Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” Robinson sat down in a motel room in 1962 and wrote the classic “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” In ‘63, The Miracles scored another million-seller with “Mickey’s Monkey,” written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.

In 1965, the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles hit the sweet spot with their album “Going to a Go-Go.” It produced the singles “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and the title track, all co-written by Robinson.

At the same time, Robinson was writing hits for other Motown acts such as The Temptations. He wrote and produced the immortal “My Girl” for the Temptations and it shot to the top of the charts. Robinson’s other song-writing credits include “My Guy” for Mary Wells, “Get Ready” for the Tempts, “Don’t Mess With Bill” for the Marvelettes, “Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder) for the Miracles and many more.

“Until I met Berry Gordy, I didn’t know how to write a song professionally,” Robinson told National Public Radio in an interview in 2000. “I didn’t know how to make my songs have continuity. Because when I met him, I had about a hundred songs in a book, and I sang probably about 20 of them to him, and he was very patient with me and he critiqued all of them because I could rhyme real good but my songs — the first verse would have nothing to do with the second verse. And the second verse would have nothing to do with the bridge. But I considered it a song because there was some verses all rhymed up there. But in writing a song, I know that there are no new words. I know that there are no new thoughts probably, that there are no new notes or any of that. So I have to try to say what’s already been said a thousand times in a way that it will be memorable or in a way that it will be different.”

After going solo in 1972, Robinson found moderate success with songs such as “Baby Come Close” and “Baby That’s Backatcha.” His album titled “A Quiet Storm” in 1975 coined an expression for a type of pop-R&B music that was the perfect soundtrack for intimacy. Robinson’s career got a resurgence at the end of the ’70s when “Cruisin’ ” drove up to the top of the charts in 1979 and “Being with You” brought him a new generation of fans in 1980.

In 1987, the English pop-dance band ABC released a club hit called “When Smokey Sings,” at the same time Robinson was on the charts with his song “One Heartbeat.”

The lyrics to “When Smokey Sings” pretty much summed up the man known as The King of Motown: “Debonair lullabies in melodies revealed/ In deep despair on lonely nights / He knows just how you feel / The slyest rhymes, the sharpest suits / In miracles made real / Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night / You know you’re right just to hold her tight / He soothes it right, makes it out of sight / And every thing’s good in the world tonight / When Smokey sings, I hear violins / When Smokey sings, I forget everything, yeah.”

If you go
What: Smokey Robinson in concert for two nights at Opening Nights Performing Arts festival

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Ruby Diamond Concert Hall

Cost: $95, $110 and $125

Smokey Robinson, who received the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2016, will thumb through his hits at Opening Nights on Saturday and Sunday. (Photo: Special to the Democrat)

How Smokey Robinson knows a good song when he sees one

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Motown legend Smokey Robinson and the music he’s made popular for decades. He is the focus of a special tonight on PBS.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with him on the eve of getting a major honor to see how he continues to make what is old new again.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was a huge hit-maker, 26 top 40 songs in the 1960s, at one of the great hit machines in pop music history, Smokey Robinson, his group, the Miracles, Motown, and a string of classics, like “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Decades later, the 76-year-old Robinson was feted at a concert of his music at Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall, as the winner of the Library of Congress prestigious Gershwin Award for lifetime contributions to popular song.

It’s been, Robinson told me, a long and amazing journey.

SMOKEY ROBINSON, Musician: From the time I was probably 6 or so, I wanted to be a singer.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the age of 6, huh?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Yes, I always imagined myself. I would stand in the mirror, sing with the hairbrush and all, because I always wanted to do that.

And I always watched all the variety shows that had entertainment. So, it was always there for me. I just didn’t think it would be possible. I never dared to — from where I grew up, I just didn’t think that this life, for me, would be possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Library of Congress, he toured an exhibit of Motown memorabilia and the place where he’d come from, Detroit’s North End, where, quite literally, the stars aligned.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Diana Ross grew up four doors down the street from me, Aretha Franklin right around the corner, you know, and the Temptations right across the area, I mean, right across the avenue, and the Four Tops. We had Berry Gordy.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: We had a guy who had the dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gordy, still a friend all these years later, founded Motown, where Robinson served as singer and leader of the Miracles, songwriter and producer for other top acts, including the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, and as a record executive.

I read about how you were a precocious songwriter, and you brought 100 or more songs to Berry Gordy, and he rejected almost all of them, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, that didn’t discourage you.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: No, it didn’t discourage me whatsoever, because Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol as a kid growing up in Detroit. Jackie Wilson was from Detroit.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: And I had all of his records. And all of his songs were written by Berry Gordy. And he listened to my music and critiqued it for me, and started to mentor me on how to write songs and make them songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was that like in those early days of Motown?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It was highly energetic. It was so energetic and competitive and loving and wonderful at the same time. It was all that, because we were not just stablemates. We were not just some artists who recorded for the same label.

We were actually friends. We were like brothers and sisters. We hung out. We have what we call the Motown family, and we have always had that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some songs come quickly, Robinson says, written at the piano in 25 minutes. Others, like the 1979 hit “Cruisin'” have to simmer.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Took five years. I’m not exaggerating that. It took five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, if I say the difference between 25 minutes and five years, I mean, what does a song have to have, what does a Smokey Robinson song have to have for you to feel you have got it?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It has to be a song.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: It has to be a song.

I mean, if I just gave you a piece of paper with the lyrics written down on it, it would mean something to you. It would tell you a story.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: Without you hearing a melody or music or anything like that, it would say something to you.

So, that’s what a song is to me. Now, you have a lot of songs that come out, and the beat carries them over there, because of the beat, and because of some other factors and so on and so forth. But I want mine to be a song, if you read it, it’s going to mean something to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: At one point in the late ’70s, Robinson took a break from singing, even thinking he might retire. But it didn’t last.

And through the years, he’s continued to record and collaborate with a variety of artists. But the music business he was such a part of has changed dramatically.

I asked if he looked back with a certain nostalgia.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: Yes, I look back on it all the time. I looked back on it a few minutes ago.


SMOKEY ROBINSON: I look back on it because it’s a whole ‘nother game now.

The music business has made a 360. It’s a whole ‘nother game. It’s not nearly what it was. And I fear for it, because, you know, with the advent of the computer and online and downloading and all these things, they have destroyed — that stuff has destroyed the record business, not the music business, but the record business.

The music business is well, and it’s alive and thriving.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the songwriting business, I guess, still…

SMOKEY ROBINSON: The songwriting business is alive and thriving, man. You have got some wonderful young kids out there writing some great songs.

So, it’s alive and thriving. Now, I hope something happens to turn it back around to the point whereas it’s — you’re earning a living from writing your songs, from your work, you know, because it’s not like that anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you just told me that you’re going from here. You’re going back out on the road to perform tomorrow night. You’re still doing this. And people want to hear those classic songs, right? Does it ever get old for you?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: I still perform because it’s a necessity for my innards. You know what I mean?

And those songs, some of those songs, I have sung, I don’t know how many thousands of times. And I promise you, every single solitary night, they’re new to me. They are brand-new to me that night.

And it kills me to see people think that, you know, show business is sex, drugs and rock and roll. And I have what you call a meet and greet. I do it before the show. But when I was doing it after the show especially, there would be people who would come back and said, OK, Smoke, where’s the party?


SMOKEY ROBINSON: I just had the party, man. I just had the party for two-and-a-half-hours or however long. I was partying. I said, now my party is, I’m going back to my hotel room, and watch me some TV until I fall asleep, because I just had the party.

And it is every single solitary night.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for the happy crowd at the Gershwin Award concert, Smokey Robinson performed several of his greatest hits.

From Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great music.

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