Smokey Robinson's first hit was called "Got a Job." It was about a beleaguered grocery clerk who knew things might be even worse, but that doesn't mean Smokey was ever a grocery clerk himself. He once told Michael Lydon: "Some people say they write from experience. Not me. I write songs no matter what mood I'm in; it's my work, dig?" Like the early Lennon-McCartney, Smokey has always been a popular songwriter, and just like Smokey's love songs, "Got a Job" was a distillation of popular sentiment, this time about the recession of 1958. He didn't need experience--he just knew.
The son of a Detroit municipal truck driver from what he calls "the suave part of the slums," Smokey formed the Miracles mostly for fun. He wanted to become an engineer or maybe a dentist, but as is so often the case for black men, the ladder that presented itself was the entertainment business. At an audition Smokey met another such black man, Berry Gordy, a sometime auto worker who had written a few hit songs and wanted to start his own record label. Together, Smokey and Berry helped each other's American dream come true. Berry taught Smokey how to hone down his songs, and one of them, "Shop Around," became the national hit that established Motown Records.
Gordy's greatest song line--"Now give me money, that's what I want"--is often quoted as the epitome of his crass selloutism, but not by people who don't have money themselves. Gordy didn't sell out--or rather, what is deprecated as selling out is the embodiment of his upwardly mobile black sensibility. The ambition that inspired him to found a company was an essential part of the content of the art it produced. Sure Gordy catered to the white audience, but that was what rock and roll had always done. He just did it better. Especially in its romantic phases, black fifties rock and roll below genius level--even a record as sacrosanct as the Penguins' "Earth Angel," say--was charming and quite wonderful but somewhat silly. Motown wasn't silly; it was real on its own biracial artistic and economic terms, because Berry and Smokey believed in those terms. It is significant that Gordy named Smokey's label, Tamla, after one of Gordy's favorite songs, Debbie Reynolds's "Tammy."
Smokey's songs were a synthesis, not a compromise. He was a popular songwriter, all right, but that didn't prevent the perhaps apocryphal story in which Bob Dylan, who was some other kind of songwriter, called him "today's greatest American poet." His lyrics, more sophisticated than in most rock and roll, infused the tried-and-true themes of pop romance with a new epigrammatic directness. The simplicity of a line like "I don't like you, but I love you" or the compressed paradox of the Temptations' "It's Growing" would have been beneath most pop songwriters and beyond most rock and rollers. Confronted with the pop romance dichotomy--love is joy, but parting is pain--he chose to do his homage primarily in terms of pain, but his understated wit kept him from wallowing in it.
And so did his voice. Although his singing style derived from fifties groups like the Drifters and the Moonglows, he never aspired to the complete clarity that was the direction of their style of artifice. Even at his most mellow, he always suggested the hint of a burr of pain underneath. Yet at the same time he was always a little breathy, so fresh and boyish that it was impossible to accuse him of self-pity. He rounded out his act with happy dance routines and advice songs, working with energetic good cheer to make other people happy while taking upon himself the twists and turns of heartbreak we had all suffered.
Even in the extremities of his pain he remained modest, so that his impact never quite equaled his achievement or his reputation. He refused to assert his power over the audience; in fact, that was just what was so wonderful about him. Not only did his persona lack any nasty macho flash, but it was obviously only a projection. Maybe Smokey was helpless and unhappy, but William Robinson was a ridiculous success: the vice-president of a major record company and happily married to his high-school sweetheart, Claudette, who used to sing with the Miracles but now stays home with the kids, Berry and Tamla. He is so nice he annoys interviewers; what kind of copy can you get out of an ideal middle-class person? Yet that's what he is--intelligent, good-humored, compassionate, in love with his work and his family.
The past few years have not been the best for Smokey. His songs are not as strong or poignant as they once were, and he knows it. Despite a freak number-one hit, "Tears of a Clown," which first broke off an old album in England, his records haven't sold. His work has kept him away from his family, and Berry Gordy's plan to move Motown to Los Angeles will uproot Smokey from everything he knows best. To ease the pressure, he decided to break an association of more than half a lifetime and stop performing with the Miracles. On June 23, 1972, he said good-bye to New York before a packed biracial house at Madison Square Garden.
It was obviously an historic occasion--Claudette was on stage for what Smokey said was the first time in six years--yet Smokey failed to make history. Especially when they seek the adult audience, Smokey and Motown share one egregious middle-class fault: caution. If he attempted a display of mythic stature, there was a chance he'd flop, so Smokey stuck to the show he'd used throughout his long farewell tour. He relied on recent material he knew to be farewell tour. He relied on recent material he knew to be weak, even pushing his most recent single, and ran through "Got to Be There" and "Abraham, Martin and John" as if this were another nightclub gig. Predictably, the audience didn't seem to care--it was not so much that anything was wrong as that it wasn't as right as it might have been. Smokey could probably transform himself into a myth, but he doesn't really care to. That lack of megalomania is the stuff of his particular myth in the first place. He just wants to do the best he can.
Newsday, June 1972