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A BRIEF CHAT WITH SMOKEY

Even a brief conversation with an icon can be a giddy experience. It just so happens that Smokey Robinson is an exceedingly menschy, down-to-earth dude, but that can only go so far in allaying the awe one feels chatting with the guy who created several of the greatest records of all time.

And has anyone been this good for this long? The man and his Miracles were Berry Gordy’s first signing at Motown, and he went platinum not long thereafter. This year, he collaborated with 12Tone/Aftermath’s Anderson .Paak on “Make It Better,” once again wrapping the warm magic of his voice and songwriting chops around a project and—well, making it better.

“I got a call from Dr. Dre,” Robinson recalls of the collab’s origins. “He invited me to come in and meet Anderson, who played me the track; I went home and wrote the rest of the song.” The result is by all accounts much more romantic than Anderson’s original concept, and a song that plugs effortlessly into the classic soul tradition.

Then again, Smokey Robinson, now an exceedingly youthful 79, is one of a handful of creators who established that tradition. He doesn’t require much prompting to extol the vibe at Hitsville, USA. “Motown was a family, man,” he says. “When you walked in, you knew everybody was going to be there. We did everything together—parties, picnics, you name it.”

After a decade-and-a-half of writing and recording extraordinary hits (“Tears of a Clown,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “The Way You Do (The Things You Do),” “Get Ready,” “Shop Around,” “My Girl,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Going to a Go-Go,” you name it), he retired from The Miracles—just as Motown relocated to L.A. and he took a position as a VP at the label.

While he enjoyed the opportunity to sign and develop talent—and, unsurprisingly, had a strong rapport with the acts on Motown’s roster—the more mundane aspects of his job became burdensome. “I was in the office doing payroll, which wasn’t very fulfilling for me,” he avers. “After a couple of years, Berry Gordy walked into my office and told me to get the fuck out and go back to making music.”

It was sage advice. In addition to hits like the indelible “Cruisin’,” Robinson flourished with collaborations like “Ebony Eyes” his 1983 duet with Rick James (“It was a wild ride with Rick, but he was one of the most talented dudes I’ve ever met”) and his work with Teena Marie (“she was like my little sister”). Of course, he had the entire music biz clamoring to appear on his 2014 duets set, Smokey & Friends, on which he was joined for new renditions of his classics by the likes of Elton John, Steven Tyler, Mary J. Blige, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and other stars. (He's now published by Primary Wave.)

He is a Rock and Roll, Rhythm & Blues and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, a Grammy winner, a National Medal of the Arts recipient, winner of the Library of CongressGershwin Prize for Popular Song and holds honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and Howard University. Space limitations forbid us from a comprehensive listing of his laurels.

With hip-hop now ruling the biz, Robinson offers some helpful context. “Everyone said hip-hop was a phase,” he notes. “But it was what young people wanted—it was their music. Just like when we were young and everyone who was listening to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole said what we were doing was a phase.”

It’s humbling to realize that we are a couple of generations on from that initial “phase,” and that one of its key progenitors is still making music filled with love and light.

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