The Library of Congress Interview with Smokey Robinson
Watch Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden interview Gershwin Prize Smokey Robinson! Smokey Robinson: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize airs on PBS.
- [Narrator] From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
- Mr. Robinson, you are here at Ira and George Gershwin's,.
wonderful team and this was
George Gershwin's favorite piano.
- Well, hang on one second.
In that case, would you rub this all over me? (laughs)
- I think you've got something going.
You've got something going.
But what does it feel like to get
the Gershwin award and you had that
in your life didn't you?
- Well this is unbelievable to me.
It's something that I'd ever dare
to even dream about or ever think about.
For me, to even, be mentioned,
in the same breath with the Gershwins, (laughs)
as a song writer, is just incredible.
I can't believe it because I heard the Gershwins.
Their music was some of the first music I ever heard,
as a baby, growing up in Detroit.
I had two older sisters and my mom.
And between my two sisters and my mom,
they played all kinds of music everyday.
We had everything from gut bucket blues
to gospel to jazz to classical
being played at our house all the time.
And the Gershwin's music was prevalent in that
because, see, the Gershwin's wrote songs
when the song was king.
And I say that because back in those days.
Say the Gershwins, they wrote a hit song,
all the artists of that day
or that time, recorded that song.
It's not like nowadays, an artist
comes out with a song and the artist
is the focal point nowadays.
So and so comes out with a record
and they record it and people love it and so on.
And maybe, sometimes, down the line,
someone else will pick up that song and record it.
But back in the Gershwin days,
when they wrote a hit song,
everybody recorded it immediately.
So that song was out by 10-12 artists
at the same time because it was a song,
the song was king so everybody
wanted to hear that song, so people sang just that song.
And it was a wonderful time and their music
was some of the first music I ever heard, growing up.
The first voice I ever remember hearing,
in my entire life, was Sarah Vaughan.
And she was singing, "Our Love is Here to Stay."
And that's one of my favorite songs ever.
- Our Love is Here to Stay?
- Our Love is Here to Stay is one of
my favorite songs ever.
But yeah, I grew up in a home where
there was always music.
- Always music.
Now, did other people play music?
I mean, in terms of piano or instruments?
- We had an old upright piano in the house
and my mom played the piano and she sang in church.
Nobody ever sang professionally or played professionally
like that, you know?
But we had an old upright piano in the house
where I would go and bang on it and (mumbles).
That was the closest we ever got to that.
- When did you start to realize that hey,
this is something I just have to do,
want to do, music is my life?
- I really don't know when I started
to realize it but I can tell you,
honestly, that from the time I was,
probably, five or six years old,
I always wanted to be a singer.
In fact, up until I was five or six,
it was my second ambitious because
my first one was to be a cowboy.
But I always wanted to be a singer
and I watched all the variety shows,
anything that had to do with music
or what have you and it was always there.
It was just my impossible dream.
It was something that I ever thought could ever happen.
From where I grew up, that's not gonna happen.
I'm growing up in the hood.
I live in Detroit, in the hood,
so that can't happen.
That was my thoughts about it,
but I just love to sing.
I really always wanted this
and it's such an incredible blessing,
as far as I'm concerned, to have it.
To have been given this and to live it
when it was my impossible dream.
- And you had a partner,
a partner in music and crime, Mr. Gordy.
We just looked at one of your first
copyrighted song, "I cry."
And both of you, Ira and George Gershwin.
Now your partnership, now you've been buddies
for quite a while.
- Yeah, we've been buddies since and uh. (laughs)
No, when you were pinning this pin on me,
I said to him, he should be proud of himself
because I'm his pupil.
I'm one of his many pupils.
Were it not for him being who he is,
I, probably, wouldn't be sitting here today,
getting ready to get the Gershwin award and all that.
When I met Berry, I've always tried to write songs.
I've tried to write songs since I was,
probably, six years old.
And I had a loose leaf notebook
full of what I thought were songs,
when I met him.
At least 100 of them in there.
And he was already a professional song writer
because when I buy records, even today.
When I buy music and I always have done this.
I always look to see who wrote this music?
I'm not looking to see who's playing it
or who's singing it on the,
I want to know who wrote this music?
Who created this song that these people are singing
or playing right here, right now?
So, as a kid growing up,
my number one singing idol was Jackie Wilson.
And Jackie Wilson was dynamic.
I would have walked 10 miles to see
Jackie Wilson sing cause Jackie Wilson was dynamic.
I had all his records.
And all his hit songs are written by Berry Gordy.
- [Woman] Really?
- Oh yeah.
- I'm sorry, I remember, "Lonely Teardrops."
- That was Berry Gordy.
So, when my group,
we were called the Matadors
at the time and we had an opportunity
to go audition for Jackie Wilson's managers,
they were in Detroit and they were talent scouting.
And so, we went to the audition
and we had a girl singer with us,
my first wife, Claudette, was singing with us.
We went to audition for them and we sang
five songs that I had written which,
we thought, was gonna be the get over thing.
They got their own material,
we would, definitely, sign them.
No, that did not happen.
Cause we had a girl in the group
and I sang high and all that.
So they told us we were too much like the Platters.
The Platters were number one group
in the world, at that time.
With the girl in the group, Zola was in the group
and Tony sang high notes.
So they said, "You're too much like them,
"so you'll never make it" and so on and so forth.
So they rejected us.
At the same time, there was a young man
sitting over in the corner and he was looking at us.
And I thought he was waiting to audition.
Cause at this time, I was, probably,
about 16, I thought he was about 17 or 18,
cause that's how he looked and he was
sitting over the corner.
I think, well he's gonna audition after us.
After they rejected us and we walked out
and we were very, very dejected and walking
down the hall and sad.
And he came up behind us.
He said, "Hey man, wait a minute."
So I turn around and say, "Yeah, how you doing?"
He said, "Where'd you get those songs from?"
And I'm wondering, in my mind,
what is it to him?
Where I get my songs from.
But I'm gonna be nice cause he's interested.
So I said, "I wrote 'em."
(Cell phone plays ring tone)
- (laughs) Now see, everyone wants to know
what's on your ring tone.
- [Smokey] Sorry you guys.
- Smokey Robinson's ring tone.
What song is on there?
- But anyway, so he said to me, he said,
"I liked a couple of your songs man."
So I said, "Oh great man, than you very much."
He say, "Yeah, I'm Berry Gordy."
And I couldn't speak for two minutes.
This guy right here is Berry Gordy?
The guy, I've listened to his music
all this time and I'm hearing it
and he look like he's about my age.
This is Berry Gordy, who wrote all these songs that I got?
I couldn't believe it.
So he said that he liked a couple of my songs
and he made a mistake of asking me
if I had any more. (laughs)
- [Woman] (laughs) You had that notebook.
- So I had that notebook.
So we go in this little room
and he say, "I like the sound of your voice man."
"Sing some of your songs."
So I was like I must have sung 20 songs
for Berry that day.
He never once said to me, hey man,
I'm tired or I got to go or that's enough
or okay man, I'll see you later.
He never said that.
He just sat there and listened to all of them.
And every time he would listen to one,
he would critique it.
No man, you should have so and so.
You should have done this.
You should have said so and so.
Cause I had, man, I could always rhyme stuff
but I would have four or five songs in one song.
Cause my first verse had, absolutely,
nothing to do with my second verse.
And my second verse didn't have
nothing to do with the bridge and all that.
So he finally said to me, he said,
"Man, you got to look at a song like this,
"it's a short book, it's a short story,
"it's a short movie."
"Where the beginning and the middle
"and the ending tie in together
"and give people something to work with."
"Even if you don't finish it,
"you've given them enough material
"so that they can work with."
And he started to mentor me on my song writing.
If he hadn't been there.
I don't know where I'd be.
This is unbelievable to me.
If he hadn't been that kind of guy,
that would take their time.
But he was, so, here I am.
At the Gershwin piano.
- At his favorite piano.
At his favorite.
- Yeah, at the Gershwin piano.
I'm sitting here.
- [Woman] And he's with you today too.
- Yeah he is.
- [Woman] He's with you today.
- Now, one of my favorite songs
and I'm using this as an opportunity,
is Tracks of My Tears.
And it's in the registry for all time.
- [Smokey] Yeah it is.
- As one of the favorites.
And that one touched so many people.
Is it one of yours?
- The origin for that song was like
the origin for so many songs for me.
My most prolific,
incredible, fantastic writing partner that I ever had
was a guy named Marv Tarplin.
He was my guitarist.
- [Woman] T-U-R-P-I-N.
- Yeah and Marv, he would put his music on tape
and give it to me and say,
"Man, see what you can come up with for this."
So Tracks of my Tears was one of those.
He put that music on tape.
I had that music for three months
before I could come up with any
kind of idea for it but I loved
his guitar playing and his guitar riffs, so he had it.
So I finally came up with the first
three lines of the chorus.
Take a good look at my face,
see my smile looks out of place,
if you look close, it's easy to trace that you're gone.
No, that's not it.
It's easy to trace that I'm lookin' for you.
No, that's not it.
It's easy to trace that I'm really sad cause.
No, I went through a hundred of those.
One morning, I was in the mirror
and I was shaving.
I was just looking in the mirror
and I was looking at my face, I said,
"Wow, what if somebody had cried
"so much until, if you looked closely
"at their face, you could see tracks
"that their tears had made?"
And I said, "Okay, that's it."
That's that song.
But the origin of it was Marv Tarplin.
Cause he gave me the music that inspired that lyric.
So he was awesome.
He's passed on now but he was awesome.
- So I have to ask you this.
We heard the ring tone.
And I didn't recognize what it was
but what kind of music and who
are you listening too?
And you can be honest.
- I'm gonna be honest.
I'm gonna be honest because I'm not ashamed of it.
If you could see my iPod or even my programming
of my stations in my car
or wherever I listen to music.
I might be listening to Bach.
I might be listening to Chopin or Beethoven.
I might be listening to Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald.
I might be listening to Bruno Mars
or Mariah Carey or Beyonce.
I might be listening to Nelly or 50 cent.
It's just according to what I want
to hear that day.
I listen to all musics.
And I'm not one of these people
who says, "Well you know the kids
"nowadays, they're picking all this trouble music and that."
There's some kids making some great
music out there today.
Making some great music.
But they don't get the credit cause
we live in this world where the negative gets the attention.
So all the negative music is
what people are talking about.
Well this is, stuff like that.
No, the kids are making some great music still.
But the negative is getting the attention
so the positive of what they're doing
is falling behind the wayside of the negative
that they're talking about.
But it's the same thing with the whole world.
I mean, we've been bombarded by negativity
all day long on the news.
Let's report this negativity.
I think every town, every city, every state
should have, at least, three or four stations
that it's mandatory that they give
nothing but good news. (laughs)
But that's what's happening with the music.
- Well I think this is good news.
And I can't thank you enough
And I know the Library of Congress thanks you.
And so many people are going to see you
at the Gershwin piano and you deserve to be here.
- Thank you very much.
- [Narrator] This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress.
Visit us at loc.gov.