Motown Miracle

If you were asked to name one song that captures that Motown sound and slice of American musical history you will more than likely say, “My Girl” by the Temptations. That song had it all. A catchy melody that made the ever higher key changes; the soulful guitar strain; the upbeat lyrics that were so much a part of Motown; the tight harmonies and the leading vocals of David Ruffin.
Well, “My Girl” came from the creative genius of one of Motown’s biggest figures — William “Smokey” Robinson.
While Berry Gordy correctly gets credit as the main man of Motown, Smokey Robinson was Gordy’s biggest asset. Not only was Robinson creating songs for other artists at the label as a songwriter, producer and record executive, he wore whatever hat was necessary to mold Motown’s stable of fresh, young, black talent into poised, stylish and polished entertainers. For the first time, black singers were holding their own collectively against mainstream white artists (Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others had fame but they weren’t part of an overall team).
In the process, Motown became more than a successful record label. Motown changed not only the course of American music history, it changed history period. It changed how the world viewed music. By ushering R&B into mainstream, Motown opened doors for artists who never could have dreamed about the success waiting for them on the other side.
In addition to all the behind-the-scenes success of Motown, Robinson carved out his own success with his group, The Miracles. With Gordy in his corner, Robinson was given free reign to create — like a kid in a candy store, trying different flavors to make different sounds.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles scored their first big hit in 1960 with “Shop Around.” Other hits soon followed, “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “Tears of a Clown.”
Robinson has logged 37 top-40 hits in his career (including those as a solo artist) and has received numerous awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; a Grammy for “Best R&B Performance, Male,” and induction into the Songwriter Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
During a conversation with Robinson for one of his appearances in Laughlin, we discovered that here was a big star with a healthy touch of humility. Robinson has earned the right to be narcissistic and a cut above the crowd but chooses instead to treat people with respect and dignity. He sees his talent as a blessing, a gift from above, that so easily could be taken away.
With his warm, friendly easy-going manner it’s easy to see how he not only gets to the point quickly in a song, but how he can bring out the best in any performer, including himself.
So how does Smokey Robinson make magic when it comes to crafting songs?
“I’m not a mood songwriter,” he told the Laughlin entertainer. “Whatever the song is turning out to be is what it is. I don’t have to isolate myself in the mountains for two months to write songs. I’m blessed to
be able to write whenever I want. It’s like automatic for me. Whatever inspires me at the moment, that’s what it is. And I’ve never regretted not recording any of my own songs.”
And the story behind “My Girl?”
“‘My Girl’ was written for the Temptations and for David Ruffin’s’ voice,” Robinson said. “I’ve known Temps’ members Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin since high school, and I’d known Richard Street when he was with whatever that group was he was first with. I knew them from my teenage years so when they came to Motown, they became my project.
“I’d written songs for them that were not hits and Berry wrote songs for them that were not hits. I wrote ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do,’ and they got their first hit. We used Eddie Kendricks to sing the lead.
“The policy was that all of the singers in the groups were always available to the team of writers and producers at Motown, so it became a competition to see who could write their next hit. The other writers wanted to continue to use Eddie or Paul Williams as the lead singer on their songs so they focused their efforts on them. They didn’t look to anyone else but those two.
“I knew there was someone else in the group with a great voice for singing lead and I wanted to write something for him. David Ruffin had this, what I call a ‘gruff, demanding voice’, and I wanted him to sing something sweet and wonderful, and that’s what he did.
“‘My Girl’ became my international anthem as a songwriter. I’ve gone to places where they don’t even speak English, but they are mouthing the words to that song.
“I do a section in my show that’s a tribute to The Temptations’ songs that were hits. Before I sing, at the moment the audience hears that, “bommmm, bom, bom, bom, bom bom bommmm,” they know what’s getting ready to happen. The appeal of that song has gone way beyond my wildest dreams. It’s my anthem.”
Having free rein to create also served Smokey Robinson & The Miracles quite well.
“The Miracles were the first group to be signed before we started Motown,” he said. “We set the bar, no question. To have that kind of creative freedom from someone like Berry, who believed in me was great—and I’m proud of that. He’s my best friend and we’ve had a lot of great years together. I was blessed to have the freedom to do that when none of the other artists had that in the beginning. It was an amazing event as far as I’m concerned.
“Motown was a once in a lifetime musical event that never happened before and hasn’t happened since. It was an amazing time. I was overwhelmed at the time and I’m still overwhelmed to have been a part of it. It’s never stopped because that’s how I still feel.
“Of all the things I’ve accomplished, I’m most proud of my longevity, and being able to still do what I love to do. I have been truly blessed.”
And by being so blessed, he blessed the rest of us with some great music that will forever be timeless.


SMOKEY ROBINSON

The E Center

Saturday, Nov. 18 (8 p.m., doors open 6:30 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets