SMOKEY ROBINSON: A music legend talks milestones, his songwriting legacy, upcoming tour, and the most essential things in life

If there was a Mount Rushmore for music legends, Smokey Robinson would surely be on it.

Robinson, who with lifelong friend and fellow music trailblazer Berry Gordy, literally changed the musical landscape, modern society, and profoundly and positively affected race relations in the United States and around the world. Robinson and Gordy did it by simply creating a groundbreaking record label called Motown.


Robinson is one of R&B and pop music’s few true Renaissance men: songwriter, singer, producer, group leader, record label executive, and philanthropist.

If he had written merely one-tenth of his incredible output, which includes: “My Girl,”  “Shop Around,”  “The Tracks of My Tears,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “I Second That Emotion,”  and, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” he still would deserve his long list of accolades — Grammy Award winner, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, and Kennedy Center honoree.

Robinson is currently on tour to celebrate six and half decades of one of the most revered musical careers in history.

We sat down with Smokey Robinson to talk about his milestones, new work, his spiritual path, creating genres, and the things that really matter in his life.

Al Gomes (Motif): Smokey, it’s such an honor to talk to you. You and your wife Frances celebrated your birthdays a week ago on the same day, which is amazing. Happy belated birthdays to the both of you. 

Smokey Robinson: Thank you. Yeah, I did well that way. I can never forget it.

AG: And on January 12 of this year, another great milestone for you — Motown Records celebrated its 65th Anniversary. Congratulations.

SR: Thank you very much for that, too.

AG: Did you and Berry Gordy ever think that your vision in 1959 would still be going strong and be embedded in the world’s consciousness 65 years later?

SR: You know, Berry and I talk about that all the time, man. When we first started out, we weren’t thinking about longevity. We were just thinking about we were gonna do this and make some great songs and some great records and stuff like that, and just take the world by storm. We weren’t thinking about how long it was gonna last, or even the perimeters of it, you know? We just were excited to have a new record company that’s starting out. We weren’t thinking about the longevity of it, you know? And it just so turns out that music made it have longevity.

Connie Watrous (Motif): I was wondering, so many of Motown’s initial artists are now true icons of music history. One after another. Are there any artists in the early days of Motown that you wish you had signed?

SR: Well, the only one I can think of who was one of my best friends in the world since I was eight years old was Aretha Franklin. Aretha grew up right around the corner from me. And I used to try to get her to come to Motown, but her dad wasn’t gonna have it. First of all, he didn’t want her to sing R&B or anything like that. He wanted her to sing standards, which is why he signed her with Columbia Records. And Columbia had her singing the Great American Songbook and standards and stuff like that until she went over with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records and started being Aretha. But I wanted Aretha to come to Motown.

AG: How does it feel to have created two genres — The Motown Sound and The Quiet Storm?

SR: Well, you know, The Motown Sound, I attribute that to Berry, man. That was his dream. He wanted to start his own record company. Because back in the day, nobody was paying us. We just wanted to get paid. ‘Cause all the record companies that he was putting us with prior to that, we’d get statements and they were just ridiculous, you know. So he decided to start Motown and that was wonderful that he did that. But The Quiet Storm, that’s on me. Because I had retired, man, in 1972. I retired from the outer edges of show business altogether — like being on stage and performing and all that. After I left The Miracles, I moved out to Los Angeles and just did my job as Vice President of Motown. And I went to the office every day until I became miserable. And Berry put me out. He told me, “Just get a band, make a record, and get outta here, man.”  So I did. And that was where the ‘Quiet Storm’ song came from. Because I consider myself to be a quiet singer, and I’m gonna go back and I’m gonna take show business by storm. And I said, “Wow, that’s a great idea. ‘Quiet Storm.’” 

Yeah. So I started that song and my youngest sister (Rose Ella Jones), who has passed on now, she was a great lyricist also. So after I started it, I was working on the entire A Quiet Storm album. So I took the “Quiet Storm” song to her and I said, “Hey, baby, finish this up.” And she did. And that was where Quiet Storm originated from. I never expected it to become a radio format. But a guy named Melvin Lindsey in Washington, DC, a disc jockey there, started “The Quiet Storm Show” in 1976 for his evening show. And it just snowballed, man. And now there are a lot of Quiet Storm stations and shows all over the country.

CW: Smokey, you being a lifelong Christian, have you ever felt a spiritual force guiding your musical creativity and career path?

SR: Honey, I feel a spiritual force guiding my life. Everything about it. And not just music — my life. I’m not a religious man, you know, but I am spiritual. And I consider myself to have a great relationship with God. And I always have, since I was a child. Since I was a little boy. Since I was five years old, I wouldn’t do stuff, ‘cause I thought God was watching me. So I’ve always had a spiritual relationship with God, but I’m not religious.

CW: No, I totally get it. I get it. I’m also a Christian myself, but I consider myself more spiritual than religious.

SR: Absolutely. Yes. 

CW: Is there anything in your amazing career that you would have done differently?

SR: You know, I think about that a lot of times, Connie, and I can’t think of anything. Because even the experiences were lessons. They were life lessons. I’m glad that I got a chance to experience them and come through them. You know what I mean? I’ve had some real downs. You know, when you’re in show business, people don’t think about your downs. They think everything’s always up. ‘Cause you’re in show business. People know you and you’re making records, and you’re doing shows and all that. And they don’t think you have downs also. So, I consider the peaks and valleys. I’ve had a lot of valleys, man, but the valleys have only made me appreciate the peaks more.

AG: Let’s talk about your musical peers for a second. Do you still get the same thrill when you hear a new recording of one of your classics?

SR: Absolutely, man. You know, I consider myself to be a songwriter. And as a songwriter, I write songs that I hope people will sing forever. I wanna be Beethoven. You know what I’m saying? When I write a song, 50 years from now, is it gonna mean something to people? And that’s how I approach it. Hit records are great and they’re fine and all that. But I think that the main ingredient for me has always been a song. I want it to be about a song. I might not give it the right treatment at first. If somebody comes along 50 years from now, and gives it the right treatment, it could be a hit. So I always want to try to write a song first.  Even when the young kids started sampling everybody’s music, the hip-hop kids, and all that started, people would come to me and say, “Oh man, aren’t you upset? They sampled your music.”  And I’d say, “No, sample all of mine. Please, please.” There are a billion songs on Earth, Al. And if somebody likes one of my songs enough to include it in their song or to re-record it themselves, that says a lot to me. That’s my dream come true as a songwriter. So sample all of mine.

AG: I think you are on a short list of people that your music will be around 100 years from now. 200 years from now. You’re certainly and definitely on that short list. There’s no doubt, for sure. 

SR: Thank you.

CW: Well, speaking of praise from your peers, how did you feel when you heard that Bob Dylan called you “America’s greatest living poet”?

SR: That was great. Because Bob is Bob, you know. And he’s always been Bob. I knew Bob when he said that because Bob used to date this woman named Sara. And when I first moved out to Los Angeles, I decided I was gonna take some acting classes. So I went and Sara was in the class, and Bob used to come and pick her up after class. So that’s how I met him. And I was very flattered by that. By him being Bob Dylan, to say something like that about me, that was very flattering.

AG: I can tell in your voice, you seem to have such a proud feeling about your songwriting more than anything else. Is that correct?

SR: It’s just my craft. It’s what I do. And I wanna be successful at it. But my wife and my kids and my family come first before anything, you know? And then, music is a blessing. I think that God gives everybody gifts. And so one of the gifts that he gave me was music. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my life. But, it doesn’t make that my favorite thing in life. It’s a blessing and I appreciate it so much.

AG: In honor of your songwriting, how do you feel about universities offering courses that study your lyrics?

SR: I feel wonderful about that, man. Like I said, as a songwriter, I can’t beat that. I can’t beat people loving my music as a songwriter. That’s a dream come true for me. That‘s why I sit down to write a song. I hope that people are gonna love it. So I can’t beat that as far as I’m concerned with music.

AG: You have your latest album that everybody is talking about and is excited about. 

SR: Gasms.

AG: Your first album of new material in 14 years. It charted on the Billboard Top Current Album Sales, and the single “If We Don’t Have Each Other” scored big on the Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart.

SR: I came up with Gasms because a couple of songs that are on that album I had already written, and I had ‘em in the can. I didn’t know when I was going to release them or what I was gonna do, but they fit that format. And I was sitting at the piano and I said, “What can I write about that’s controversial?” Because it’s been a long time since I’ve had an album of original material. So I want to shock ‘em, so that’s why I came up with Gasms, you know? I’ve had so many, many, many comments about it, negative and positive. You know, people have been saying, “Well, what is he doing talking about gasms and all that?” Well, I’ve been talking about gasms my whole life. Because what they don’t realize is before I completed the song, I looked up the word because I didn’t want people to just associate it with orgasm. That’s the gasm that comes to most people’s mind when you hear “gasm.” That’s the top one, I guess, but I wanted to know what that word meant. So I looked it up. And “gasms” is any good feeling you might have.

CW: I love that you didn’t just go and make an album with this title, but you did research on it. So that it has so many different levels and aspects about it.

SR: Thank you. 

CW: I do want to know what your favorite response is that you’ve gotten from this new album?

SR: The positive ones. Because I’ve gotten so many. Online is life now for music and people comment all day, every day. So I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful comments about it. And I can’t pick out one. But I’m very, very proud and very happy, because most of the comments have been positive.

AG: The way you approach the recording process, even going back to when you began in the early days of Motown, when you prepared for this new album, has that changed for you, or do you still have to get in the same place mentally and musically?

SR: I’m not a go-to-a-place writer. Writing just happens for me. I don’t need to go and isolate myself or go to the mountains and take two or three months. It just happens for me almost on a daily basis. Either a melody or some words or some idea or something that comes to me. And that’s just how it happens for me, man.

AG: Rhode Island instantly embraced Motown from the beginning in the 1960s and has continued to love Motown and all of its artists that have made a tour stop here for 65 years. What are your favorite memories of Rhode Island? Its people, a particular performance?

SR: Well, you know what, man, I’m gonna tell you something. My favorite memory of Rhode Island is Jeffrey Osborne. Jeffrey is my main man. He is one of my closest people in life, and he’s from Rhode Island. He’s from Providence. Jeffrey has a charity golf tournament there every year. And I come there and we have a blast. We play golf. We do a mini-concert. So that’s my favorite thing.

CW: So, you’re coming here to do two of your most favorite things — perform a concert and play golf. You’re always going to love Rhode Island because it’s going to offer you both things, right?

SR: Yeah, absolutely. And now I’m looking forward to coming there to do my full concert this year. I’m looking forward to it, man. Because I love Rhode Island. It’s a beautiful state.

CW: Are you planning any surprises for your upcoming concert here?

SR: You know baby, we come and we play for about two hours. We play everything. We play all the old stuff, all the new stuff, all the in-between stuff. We take requests. We just have a great time. I used to have my Meet and Greet after the concerts. I have them before the show now because I found out it’s more convenient. Invariably, somebody would come up to me after the show at the Meet and Greet and say, “Okay Smokey, now where’s the party?” And I would say, “I just had the party. I’ve been partying on-stage for two hours. Now I’m going to my hotel and watch me some TV til I fall asleep.” That show on-stage is the party to me. I have a ball, you know. I have a wonderful time. I’m looking forward to that when I come to Rhode Island. 

Smokey Robinson performs live Saturday, April 13 at 8pm at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset Street, in Providence, RI. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (401) 421-2787. To listen to the entire interview, go to