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Robinson Looks Back on Years of Renown

August 12, 1988|RICHARD HARRINGTON | Washington Post

The one truly great moment at last year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner came when Smokey Robinson came out for his induction. The Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom in New York City was packed with record industry veterans--label heads, artists, deejays and movers and shakers of many stripes--and for much of the evening they'd been curiously sedate. But when Robinson walked onstage, they rose, en masse, clapping madly. Then, quite spontaneously, they started singing, sweetly, softly:

"Ooo Oooo Ooooooo . . . baby, baby. . . .

"Oooo Ooooo Oooooooo . . . baby, baby. . . ."

"That was an awesome moment in my life," Robinson recalled before a performance at Wolf Trap Farm Park outside Washington. "I hate to admit this, but I didn't even realize there was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until I'd been inducted. The first one totally went by me --I don't know what I was doing to not realize they were creating it.

"I found out when Cecil Franklin --Aretha's brother and a lifelong friend, we grew up in the same (Detroit) neighborhood--calls up and says, 'You think you're great, you think you're smart, don't you? You and Aretha both, you really think you're something.'

"I said, 'What are you talking about?'

"He said, 'You've both been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.'

"I said, 'What's that?' "

Robinson didn't take it all in, he says, until that January night, when he realized "how all these people I was going to be in the Hall of Fame with were my idols-- Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke. It was incredible."

Introducing him, Brian Wilson recited Smokey Robinson's achievements--as the lead singer with the Miracles and the first real hit maker for Motown; as songwriter and producer extraordinaire not only for the Miracles, but for the Temptations, Marvelettes, Mary Wells and others (which led to Bob Dylan's famous remark that Smokey was "America's greatest living poet"); as a longtime Motown executive, and on and on.

As Robinson was listening to all this, he says, he was thinking "how blessed, how fortunate I am, because here it's only the second annual dinner and I'm being inducted and all these other people who are there from this moment on have to wonder if in fact they're ever going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I don't have to think about that!"

Smokey Robinson probably wouldn't have had to worry about such things anyway. Not with classics like "Shop Around," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Going to a Go-Go," "Ooo Baby Baby," "The Tracks of My Tears," "I Second That Emotion," "The Tears of a Clown" and "More Love," all recorded with the Miracles. For the Temptations, he came up with "My Girl" (actually written for his young daughter), "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "Get Ready." For Mary Wells, there was "My Guy," and for Marvin Gaye, "Ain't That Peculiar."

Smokey Robinson has a timelessness about him. He's 48 now, but he looks younger than he did in 1972 when he retired from the Miracles and went through a three-year performing hiatus before returning as a solo artist. Unlike some singers, Robinson has never abandoned his past, and his concerts are chock full of hits past and present. Ever the diplomat, he refuses now, as always, to pick favorites.

"If I ever really sat down and thought about it. . . ." he teases. "But I never do. . . . Some of those songs I sang thousands of times with the Miracles and since I've been a solo artist, and every time is like a new time for me. They all have a special place in my heart. I refer to them as my kids.

"But I love song, you see. Even the songs that I sing that I didn't write, I love singing those songs. I've loved songs since I was a little boy."

Robinson's first song emerged when he was at Detroit's Dwyer Elementary School and contributed lyrics to a class musical. He was also a member of the Young Writers Club, his work proudly displayed on the school's bulletin board. And when he listened to the radio, he didn't just hear the music, he paid particular attention to the words, followed the songwriters and producers, "not even realizing that it was going to be my life."

"I had written a few songs," he explains, "but I didn't think it would be anything serious in my life because at that time I wanted to be a baseball player. I was very serious about it up until my late teens--played summer league baseball, and in high school I played football and basketball."

One of the few regrets he expresses is that none of those early songs has survived.

"When I met Berry," he says, referring to Berry Gordy Jr., founder of the Motown empire but then still employed on the Ford assembly line, "I had a 'Big Ten' notebook with about 100 songs I'd written, and I wish I had that. But as you're living your life, you never think of things becoming historically significant. I don't even have a copy of all the records I've made, and I wish I had those."

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