“I’d rather hold back a song,” says Smokey Robinson, “than hear it on the radio and cringe.” Such taste and restraint have always paid off handsomely for Smokey, late of the legendary Miracles. For example, he reworked a song he left unreleased in 1971, re-christened it Cruisin’, and the new version proved that Smokey, at 40, needs no Miracles to sail into the Top 10. Cruisin’ has also won a Grammy nomination for best R&B song of 1979, and helped his current LP, Where There’s Smoke, turn gold.
Robinson, of course, already had enough hits for one lifetime before leaving the Motown quartet in 1972. As one of the smoothest tenors in soul music, Smokey and his Miracles bagged gold records like Shop Around, I Second That Emotion and Tears of a Clown—selling more than 60 million altogether—and helped turn Motown into the largest black-owned corporation in the world. A prolific songsmith, Robinson has created tunes for Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Diana Ross’ Supremes and is revered by no less than Dylan as “America’s greatest living poet.”
But Smokey “took a hiatus” from music after leaving the Miracles to produce a movie comedy, Big Time (“the biggest financial mistake I ever made”), and try acting (NBC’s Police Woman). When he did cut records, they were more personal—like 1975’s jazz-oriented A Quiet Storm—but less successful. “I was disappointed,” he reflects. So, understandably, his current resurgence has left him feeling “vibrant,” though Smokey finds “there are other things in life that make me as happy as a hit record does.”
With a six-figure yearly income from royalties alone, he is free to pursue them. They include re-launching wife Claudette’s career (she was once a Miracle); producing albums for nephew Keith’s soul act and Smokey’s own band, Quiet Storm, and holding down the Motown vice-presidency he assumed 17 years ago (he also owns an undisclosed percentage of the company). Then last month he began a 34-city U.S. tour, his first in the States in four years.
Smokey grew up in Brewster, the Detroit ghetto that also sprouted Ross, two of the Temptations, Aretha Franklin and all Four Tops. “It was paradise but poor,” remembers Robinson, who was raised by Geraldine, the older of his two sisters, along with her 10 children. (Smokey’s mother died when he was 10; his father, Bill Sr., now 82 and a retired truck driver, lives with him in L.A.) Nicknamed Smokey Joe by his uncle, Robinson began his singing career in a first-grade play (Uncle Remus), but made his mark on the football field in high school. “In my neighborhood,” he recalls, “you were either in a group or a gang—or both.” By 13, he had formed the Miracles—then called the Matadors. Claudette, Smokey’s girlfriend from the time he was 14, was in the Matadorettes, their sister doo-wop group.
At an audition in 1957 for Jackie Wilson’s manager, a young songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. came over to Robinson. “By then I was getting ready to go to college to become an electrical engineer and work for the phone company,” Smokey recalls. But Gordy encouraged him to record Got a Job, and Smokey in turn urged Gordy to start an all-black label. By 1960 Robinson’s Shop Around became the label’s first gold hit, opening the way for Motown’s historic “crossover” into white mass markets. But Robinson had one gnawing gripe about his soaring success: “We were always on the road.” In 1968, after six miscarriages, Claudette gave birth to Berry, now 11, and Smokey realized “I wanted my kids to know me.” (Tamla, 9, is named after another Motown-owned label.)
Careful to choose “a house where there were kids playing on the street,” the Robinsons followed Motown’s relocation to L.A. in 1972. “Claudette is just now beginning to make the adjustment,” says Smokey. “It’s been hard for her to make friends because people mistakenly believe we’re beyond approach.”
Smokey jogs (up to eight miles a day), does yoga and golfs (handicap 12) to keep his 6-foot frame down to 148 pounds. He gave up meat eight years ago, preferring oatmeal with vegetable strips and honey-laced Red Zinger tea. “I never eat a meal without thanking the Lord,” he says, though the lapsed Baptist doesn’t go to church (“There’s too much falling down and smelling salts”). He won’t touch liquor or cigarettes, but says he doesn’t care if people know he smokes pot. “I’ve told my kids if they want to try something when they come of age, we’ll do it together.”
They all may do music together too, someday. Berry and Tamla are both studying. “The one drawback is being black,” Smokey points out angrily. “Even coming off a monster hit, I’d better hope and pray the black stations play my next single immediately. If they don’t, the white stations probably won’t. I’ve been in this business years, and it’s horrible and a drag.” Which is not to say Smokey is bitter. “I consider my life beautiful and blessed. I’ve had lots of setbacks, but they don’t mean as much as the good times.”