Frances and Smokey Robinson at the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony, December 2006

Frances and Smokey Robinson at the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony, December 2006

Smokey Robinson has been called “America’s poet laureate of love.” The Motown legend on his fifty years in the music industry, the addiction that nearly ended his career and co-writing thousands of songs.

Guests

  • Smokey Robinson singer, song-writer, record producer, founder of the Miracles and former Vice-President of Motown Records. His latest cd is "Time Flies When Your Having Fun."

Video

“The Tracks of My Tears” (With The Miracles, 1965)

“Ooo Baby Baby” (On “Ready Steady Go,” 1965)

Transcript

  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Smokey Robinson has been called "America's poet laureate of love." The Motown legend has spent 50 years in the music industry during which time he's written or co-written thousands of songs. Smokey Robinson is appearing tonight at the Kennedy Center on the final day of "An American Playlist: An evening of classical works and popular song." And before we chat with him let's listen to one of his famous ones.

  • 11:08:39

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd you can actually see videos of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles singing "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Ooo Baby Baby" in 1965 on our website drshow.org. But right now I want to welcome you Smokey Robinson to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:09:09

    MR. SMOKEY ROBINSONThank you, Diane, it's good to be here.

  • 11:09:10

    REHMSo pleased to have you, I understand and I want to check this out with you that you were six years old when you wrote your first song?

  • 11:09:22

    ROBINSONI sure was. It was the first one that anybody other than my mom and me heard, but I was in a school play in elementary school and we had a class called Auditorium in which we did musical things. And I was in the junior glee club at the time that I was in this play and my Auditorium teacher had written some, a little music for the beginning of the play and the end of the play, a little melody.

  • 11:09:53

    ROBINSONAnd I asked her if I could write some words for it and she said yes, and I did and I sang it in the play...

  • 11:09:56

    REHMDo you remember it?

  • 11:09:59

    ROBINSONNot all of it but, but I was playing the part of Uncle Remus. Do you know Uncle Remus?

  • 11:10:07

    REHMI do indeed.

  • 11:10:08

    ROBINSONOkay I was playing the part of Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus is the old black folklore guy who told all the kids how the animals got to be like they are.

  • 11:10:15

    REHMRight...

  • 11:10:15

    ROBINSONWhy the pig has a curly tail. Why the monkey climbs the trees and I was playing Uncle Remus and so the, at the end of the play I had to put all the kids to bed and it said, (singing) goodnight little children, goodnight little children, goodnight little children, it's time to go to bed. (laugh)

  • 11:10:38

    REHMOh, I love that!

  • 11:10:42

    ROBINSONSo that's the part I remember.

  • 11:10:42

    REHMSo that's the part you remember and that's the part you did. You must have had lots of encouragement not only from your mother but your teachers.

  • 11:10:53

    ROBINSONOh yeah, and my mom was in the audience that night, of course, and you would have thought I was Cole Porter or somebody like that...

  • 11:11:00

    ROBINSON...because she called everybody. My mom called...

  • 11:11:02

    REHMIn the making...

  • 11:11:02

    ROBINSON...people she didn't even know.

  • 11:11:05

    REHM...to say...

  • 11:11:06

    ROBINSON...and told them.

  • 11:11:07

    REHMTalk about growing up in Detroit, where did you live? What kind of life did you have?

  • 11:11:15

    ROBINSONWell I grew up on the north end of Detroit which was considered the 'hood'. (laugh) So I grew up in you know I was poor but I didn't know it because everybody was under the same living conditions and the same circumstances and so you know I had a very normal growing up I guess for a kid who was poor.

  • 11:11:40

    REHMLooking back how poor would you say you were?

  • 11:11:46

    ROBINSONYou know monetarily probably really poor but in the other aspects of life, love and things like that I was rich because under the circumstances that we lived we didn't know we were poor because we had all those other things. We had all the love and the caring and the tutoring and the things that a child needs growing up. We had all those.

  • 11:12:12

    REHMWho else lived with you?

  • 11:12:15

    ROBINSONWell my mom passed when I was ten. I had two older sisters, my oldest sister ended up raising me. She came back to live in the house and at the time she came back she already had six kids...

  • 11:12:28

    REHMWow...

  • 11:12:28

    ROBINSON...and before it was over she had ten so there were 11 of us. And my oldest sister became my mom really. And my brother-in-law, well you know he was there and he was. My dad was still alive though but my oldest sister became my mom and she, like I said there were 11 of us. And we had a very loving household and we still have that.

  • 11:12:54

    REHMI would think you were probably in crowded quarters?

  • 11:12:57

    ROBINSONOh absolutely, absolutely crowded quarters, I mean I slept with two of my nephews and you know we had like a bed about the size of a twin bed now. And you know the kids we were all jammed up in beds together and it was just, that's just the way it was and it was normal for us. We didn't trip on it or anything.

  • 11:13:19

    REHMTell me, when your mother died, what impact that had?

  • 11:13:26

    ROBINSONOh the world stopped, I mean, it just, everything just stopped. I mean, I was frightened to death. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I mean, my mom was my connection to life itself. You know, I spent most of my time as a baby and as a child with my mom. You know, my mom raised me and she was there and when she died of course my world just stopped.

  • 11:13:53

    REHMHad she been sick for a long…?

  • 11:13:55

    ROBINSONYes, she had been sick, she had been sick all my life really. My mom suffered with high blood pressure and she was, you know, she was overweight and you know, back in those days everybody smoked and the food that black people ate you know the pork and the this and the that didn't help and so she had an aneurysm and that was it.

  • 11:14:19

    REHMDid you see her before she died?

  • 11:14:22

    ROBINSONI saw her on the day she died, yeah. She sent me off to school in fact and she was in bed sick, but she told me she said, you know always, just be a good boy and go to school and do what you have to do. And that day I wasn't expecting her to die while I was in school, but she did.

  • 11:14:39

    REHMDid she always say that to you as you were going off to school?

  • 11:14:45

    ROBINSONUm, not that way, see I...

  • 11:14:47

    REHM...something different...?

  • 11:14:48

    ROBINSONYeah there was something different about it and retrospectively I look back on it and I know that there was something different about that, you know, but that day, you know, like I was ten. I wasn't conscious of that.

  • 11:15:00

    REHMSo here you are in the hood, what about the other influences on your life besides your own family?

  • 11:15:11

    ROBINSONWell I just, I saw everything because everything was going on...

  • 11:15:22

    REHMYeah...

  • 11:15:22

    ROBINSON...and I believe that people are who they are in the womb. I believe that when you, when you're in the womb you're who you are you know.

  • 11:15:31

    REHMYou're already there.

  • 11:15:32

    ROBINSONYeah, you're already there and the same thing has different influences on different people, the same circumstances, and the same exact environment. All the, one guy's a doctor, the other guy's a bum, you know what I mean, from the same place. So I just think people are who they are and we develop into who we are just getting older and so I always had a connection to God even when I was a little boy. And I grew up in a neighborhood where everything was going on.

  • 11:16:16

    ROBINSONAnd I used to feel like God was watching me to see what I was going to do just, you know, let me see what you're going to do today. Let me see if you're going to go and especially after I got to be a teenager, some of my friends they were doing everything. They were robbing people, robbing banks, probably not banks, stores and gas stations and all that you know and they would come and they -- I loved them and they loved me and I tell kids this all the time, I speak to kids all the time. Do not bring peer pressure to me, don't tell me about peer pressure because peer pressure is voluntary, you know. You can do what your friends do. If your friends are not going to love you unless you do negative with them, they don't love you anyway.

  • 11:17:03

    ROBINSONIf they love you whether you do negative with them or not, they're going to love you. My friends loved me, I loved them. They would come and say, hey man, we're going to rob the gas station. Like, I'm not going with you to rob the gas station, man. I don't want to rob the gas station. Aw man, come on, no, no, no and especially if you're going to rob the gas station on the corner, because that's Nate's gas station. We know Nate, so I'm not going with you. And that's what I would tell them, I'm not going with you to do anything.

  • 11:17:25

    ROBINSONWe're going to go and mug some people. No I'm not going with you to do that. And these were guys, not all my friends, but some of them, you know, and sometimes, you know, they'd say, okay man, see you tomorrow. And sometimes I'd see them and they would have $12 or $15 apiece or something like that. Sometimes I wouldn't see them because they'd be in juvenile. When we got old enough, some of them would be in jail. Sometimes they were dead because they had been killed by the police, you know. So that's what it was but you don't have to do that. If your friends are your friends they're your friends no matter what.

  • 11:17:56

    ROBINSONSo my friends were my friends and I loved them and they loved me so I didn't have to do wrong with them in order for them to accept me as their friend. And so you know I got a lot of friends who felt like me. They didn't want to do wrong so they didn't and we just, we were all there together.

  • 11:18:16

    REHMSmokey Robinson, singer, songwriter, record producer, founder of the Miracles, former vice-president of Motown Records, his latest CD "Time Flies When You're Having Fun." He's appearing tonight at the Kennedy Center on the final day of "An American Playlist: An evening of classical works and popular song".

  • 11:20:03

    REHMSmokey Robinson has so much going on in his life. He is, of course, as you know, the founder of the Miracles, former Vice-President of the Motown Records, he's got a brand new CD. He's appearing tonight at the Kennedy Center and he is producing a musical group in Las Vegas, Human Nature. Tell me about Human Nature, Smokey.

  • 11:20:35

    ROBINSONHuman Nature is an awesome group and they are from Australia. And in Australia and New Zealand and Fiji and all over in that part of the world they are the Beatles. They are just that popular. They're incredible. And how I met them was for the last four CDs that they've recorded they have been recording Motown music. They've recorded several of my songs. And so on the last one that they did, they not only recorded the Motown music, but they came to America to invite some of the Motown artists to be guest artists on their CD, I being one of them.

  • 11:21:16

    ROBINSONAnd I was working on my "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" CD in the studio at the time. And they came to the studio one night and they sang for me a cappella with no music, and they sang two of my songs. And they have a version of "Ooo Baby Baby." Now, I have "Ooo Baby Baby" in different languages. There are groups who don't even speak English who have recorded "Ooo Baby Baby." Their version of "Ooo Baby Baby" is one of the best versions I've ever heard.

  • 11:21:46

    REHMReally.

  • 11:21:47

    ROBINSONThey just absolutely blew me away with it, okay. And so I was taken by them vocally. They are just outstanding, okay. And in turn they invited me to come to Australia to promote the CD with them. So I did and I got a chance to see them visually. And they are just as awesome visually as they are vocally. And they are very, very, very unique. And so they wanted to be exposed to the United States. All I had to do was present them because they're already ready. I didn't have to groom them, I didn't have to do anything but present them. So I tried to figure out where would be the best place to present them to the United States. Las Vegas.

  • 11:22:40

    REHMWhat an incredible opportunity for them.

  • 11:22:44

    ROBINSONYeah, because everybody from all over the world, and especially from all over the United States, goes to Las Vegas.

  • 11:22:50

    REHMSure.

  • 11:22:51

    ROBINSONAnd so it's a transit town and it's almost like the capital of show business. So I presented them at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas and we did it for a year, first of all. And then they were so great until they got a two-year extension, and they're there now. And not only did they get a two-year extension in the Imperial Palace, but the owner named the club that they're appearing in after them. So it's called the Human Nature Club now.

  • 11:23:18

    REHMWell, and what I want to hear is your version of "Ooo Baby Baby."

  • 11:24:51

    REHMSmokey Robinson, your voice is so high. (laugh) Has it always been that way?

  • 11:25:01

    ROBINSONAlways. When I was in high school in the choir I sang second soprano in the choir in high school.

  • 11:25:07

    REHMSecond soprano.

  • 11:25:08

    ROBINSONSo, yeah, it's always been high like that.

  • 11:25:12

    REHMAnd did anyone ever mistake your voice for being that of a woman?

  • 11:25:20

    ROBINSONOh, yeah. When we first started as the Miracles there was a girl in our group. In fact, my first wife was the girl that was in the group with us in the Miracles. And we would go places to appear and they would think that she was the lead singer before they saw us sing. And (laugh) so they would expect her to be the lead singer when we first came on. But, yeah, so they have. (laugh)

  • 11:25:45

    REHMAnd what did you -- how did you react to that?

  • 11:25:50

    ROBINSONOh, I didn't have any reaction to it because my voice has always been high like that. And all the guys who I grew up as a kid idolizing as singers had high voices. You know, Jackie Wilson was my number one singing idol, and then there was Clyde McPhatter and then there was Frankie Lymon and then there was Sam Cooke, and all these guys like that, and they all had high voices. So I wasn't...

  • 11:26:15

    REHMNo problem.

  • 11:26:17

    ROBINSONNo.

  • 11:26:18

    REHMNo problem. Here's an e-mail from Brandy who says, "Is it true that you were born, though not raised, in a small town in North Carolina? I always heard this growing up and I'm curious as to whether it's true."

  • 11:26:40

    ROBINSONNo. I was born in Detroit, Michigan and I was born and raised in Detroit.

  • 11:26:46

    REHMAnd here's a message on Facebook from Pat, "How did you come up with the name the Miracles?"

  • 11:26:57

    ROBINSONYou know, Diane, I really don't know the answer to why I came up with that name. When the Miracles and I first recorded our first record, this is prior to -- Berry Gordy was our manager and Berry Gordy eventually started Motown Records. And so we were going to be on a label called End Label out of New York. And when we went to the audition where we met Berry -- we actually met him at an audition that we went for Jackie Wilson's managers, and they rejected us, but Berry happened to be there that day and he liked a couple of songs that we sang. 'Cause we sang some songs that I'd written rather than something that was currently popular by other artists. And he was a song writer himself at the time, so he liked a couple of my songs.

  • 11:27:40

    ROBINSONBut to make a long story short, when he decided he was going to record us -- when we went to the audition we were called the Matadors. And...

  • 11:27:47

    REHMThe Matadors.

  • 11:27:48

    ROBINSON...yes, and the girl that was in our group she had gone just for that audition for us because in Detroit there were a lot of groups and groupettes. And she was in a group called the Matador Reds. For instance, the Supremes at the time, 'cause I grew up with Diana Ross also -- the Temptations were called the Primes and the Supremes were called the Primettes, okay. So there were a lot of group and groupettes in Detroit.

  • 11:28:11

    ROBINSONAnd so anyway, when we finally recorded our first record we had to pick a name 'cause the Matadors was like a guy thing, you know, bull fighter, that thing. You know, we thought that was exotic so that's why we called ourselves that. But (laugh) anyway, when we finally did record we needed a name that would suit some guys who had a girl in the group. So we put a bunch of names into a hat and I just happened to put the Miracles in the hat.

  • 11:28:35

    REHMYou're kidding.

  • 11:28:36

    ROBINSONAnd we shook the hat up and we pulled out the Miracles (laugh) and that's how we became the Miracles.

  • 11:28:40

    REHMI loved how you became the Miracles.

  • 11:28:42

    ROBINSONAbsolutely.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMAnd one of the first songs you did at the age of 20 was "Shop Around."

  • 11:28:54

    ROBINSONYeah.

  • 11:28:56

    REHMHow did you come up with that one?

  • 11:29:00

    ROBINSONThere was a guy at Motown named Barrett Strong and we had a huge hit record on Barrett Strong, "Money (That's What I Want)." The best things in life are free, you can give it to the birds and bees, I want money. So his record was really huge. And so Berry came to me -- Berry Gordy's my best friend -- he came to me and he said, hey, Smoke, he said, I want you to do an album on Barrett, because we got this big hit record on him. So I said, okay, fine. So "Shop Around" was the first song that I wrote for Barrett for that album, and I was very excited about it, 'cause songs take different times to write. "Shop Around" took me about 30 minutes at the most (laugh) to write.

  • 11:29:39

    REHMDifferent times, right.

  • 11:29:41

    ROBINSONYeah, they do because...

  • 11:29:42

    REHMGosh.

  • 11:29:42

    ROBINSON..."Shop Around" took 30 minutes. I have a song called "Cruisin'" took five years. So anyway, I wrote the song "Shop Around" for Barrett and I was very excited about it so I went up to Berry's office and say, hey man, I got a great song for Barrett, and I started to play it on piano. And Berry got excited about it and everything. And so after we worked on it for a while he said, I want you to sing this song. So I said, no, man, I wrote this for Barrett. So we went through 20 minutes of, no, you did the (laugh) and then so he finally said, hey man, just go in the studio and record this song on you and the Miracles. And so I did and I recorded it 'cause Barrett Strong was a blues singer, so I recorded it kind of bluesy. And the record had been out for about two weeks and it was doing really good -- well, fairly good.

  • 11:30:20

    ROBINSONAnd Berry called me at 3:00 in the morning one morning and he said, hey Smoke, he said, what's going on? I said, what's going on? I said, I'm asleep, man. He said, this is Berry. (laugh) I said, I recognized your voice, you know. So he said, I can't sleep. I said, I can see that. So he said, I'm going to re-record "Shop Around" and I'm going to change the beat and I'm going to change the sound of it. And he said, it's going to number one. So I said, okay, man, that's fine. I said, I'll see you tomorrow. He said, no, no, no, I mean right now. (laugh) So I said, right now, man? I said, it's 3:00 in the morning. He said, I don't care what time it is. (laugh) He said, I've already called the musicians. You call the group, you guys come to the studio, we're going to record it right now.

  • 11:30:54

    REHMNow.

  • 11:30:55

    ROBINSONSo we did. We got up at 3:00 in the morning, went over and recorded, he changed the beat and the sound, went to number one.

  • 11:31:59

    REHMHere's what I want to know. How different was your beat from his beat?

  • 11:32:06

    ROBINSONOh, this beat was the beat that he came up with and...

  • 11:32:08

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:32:09

    ROBINSON...the sound and everything. My beat was slower, it was slower...

  • 11:32:11

    REHMSlow.

  • 11:32:12

    ROBINSON...it was slower and bluesy...

  • 11:32:13

    REHMOh.

  • 11:32:14

    ROBINSON...like the blues, you know. And...

  • 11:32:15

    REHMAnd once you recorded this with his ideas, did you agree with it?

  • 11:32:22

    ROBINSONAbsolutely.

  • 11:32:24

    REHMYou did.

  • 11:32:24

    ROBINSONAbsolutely.

  • 11:32:25

    REHMAnd went right to number one.

  • 11:32:27

    ROBINSONAbsolutely. First million seller we had in Motown.

  • 11:32:29

    REHMWow.

  • 11:32:30

    ROBINSONYeah.

  • 11:32:31

    REHMQuite an experience.

  • 11:32:32

    ROBINSONAbsolutely was. (laugh)

  • 11:32:34

    REHMDid you make a lot of money (laugh) off that first record, that million dollar record?

  • 11:32:41

    REHMIt kind of did good for me. Yeah, yeah.

  • 11:33:02

    REHMAnd Smokey Robinson is here with me. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers. I'm going to open the phones, 800-433-8850, to Troy, Ill. Good morning, Jay. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:25

    JAYGood morning, Diane. And I want to thank you for, not only this show, but all the shows you do. You are quite remarkable...

  • 11:33:32

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:33:32

    JAY...at bringing the best to the radio.

  • 11:33:35

    REHMMy pleasure.

  • 11:33:37

    JAYAnd I also want to thank you, Smokey, for your contributions. And I'll have to say probably the -- your never enduring contribution to the music industry. I'm originally from California, grew up in the North Bay, same town that Sly and the Family Stone came from. And, you know, although I'm a Caucasian I grew up with R&B and Soul, you know, my whole life. My mother was a big fan of Sam Cooke, as well as Sammy Davis, Junior, you know, and all them guys, probably because of their age. But nevertheless, I just, you know, once again, just thank you, adore you, you know, for I guess your life's work, since it has been, (laugh) you know, basically your whole life. And also I wanted to ask you what you thought about the future of R&B now that, you know, you got guys like Kanye West and that all, you know, voice overing their voices, you know, with electronics. And, you know, because of hip hop and the way, you know, Soul has sort of transcended, you know, I wanted to get your opinion on where...

  • 11:34:41

    REHMSure.

  • 11:34:42

    JAY...you think R&B is going to maybe hopefully stay. I mean, I love (unintelligible) .

  • 11:34:46

    REHMGood, good. Go ahead, Smokey.

  • 11:34:49

    ROBINSONWell, Jay, first of all, thank you very much for what you've said, man. I appreciate that so much. But I just think that every generation has its era of music. And so music evolves like anything else and I myself think that the songs that are songs are going to be around for a long time. You've got a lot of great young talent out there who are making some great music and they're writing some great songs. And those songs are going to live on and on and on. You have always had some music that is here today and gone tomorrow, and that will always be also. But I'm not one of those people who sits around and says, well, you know, hip hop and rap and all that is just ruining the music, 'cause I don't feel like that. There's some great rappers out there. And rap itself has gotten a bad name because of some negative rap. But there's always been negative music.

  • 11:35:49

    ROBINSONWhen I was a kid growing up, Jay, they used to say, if you play the record backwards you would get satanic messages. I never figured out (laugh) how you could even play a record backwards, but that's what they used to say. And so they've always had music that they considered negative, and there's always been positive music. So it's just whatever generation it is and whoever they're making popular.

  • 11:36:08

    REHMI want to know how you learned to play the piano.

  • 11:36:14

    ROBINSONDiane, we had an old upright piano in my house that my mom played. My mom played and she sang in church and she played the piano. And as a kid when I was three and four years old I used to go bang on it. I still bang on it but (laugh) that's how I started. I've never had formal piano lessons.

  • 11:36:30

    REHMNever.

  • 11:36:31

    ROBINSONNo.

  • 11:36:32

    REHMSo it's all by ear.

  • 11:36:33

    ROBINSONYes.

  • 11:36:34

    REHMAnd you just sat down and ultimately started making sounds that you liked.

  • 11:36:44

    ROBINSONYes, I did. I thought I liked them. Like I say, when I was three and four I was banging on the piano (laugh) I thought I was writing something.

  • 11:36:52

    REHMBut, you know, sometimes it takes a long time for that self-appreciation...

  • 11:36:59

    ROBINSONYeah.

  • 11:37:00

    REHM...to come along.

  • 11:37:01

    ROBINSONYeah.

  • 11:37:03

    REHMBut in your case clearly there were others around you who were appreciating what you were doing.

  • 11:37:11

    ROBINSONWell, just my mom and me. (laugh)

  • 11:37:15

    REHMAnd ultimately your sister, her family (laugh) lots of people around. Smokey Robinson, Motown legend. He'll be at the Kennedy Center tonight on the final day of an American Playlist. That's in the evening of Classical Works and Popular Song. And we'll be here until the top of the hour with Smokey Robinson. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMSmokey Robinson here in the studio, singer, song-writer, record producer, founder of the Miracles, former vice president of Motown Records. His latest CD is "Time Flies When You're Having Fun." I wanna ask you about a time when maybe you weren't having such fun. You've written about your cocaine addiction in the '80s. Tell us about that.

  • 11:40:40

    ROBINSONWell, you know, Diane, I go now -- I'm one of the national spokespersons for drugs in the United States. And I go all over to different places talking about that. In fact, I just did Atlanta, Ga. about a month ago. Judges call me and I go and I speak at rehab graduations and things like that, churches, schools, jail, wherever they call for me to go speak. Drugs are probably one of our greatest perils that we have in the world today. And you mentioned when you were saying this when I wasn't having so much fun, see, normally people who do drugs, I'd say at least 90 percent of them, start off thinking that they're having fun. You know, you think you're having fun. This is it, you know. And this is what you do and everybody's got them.

  • 11:41:44

    ROBINSONAnd, you know, and that's another myth, you know, they think that only the downtrodden areas of the city or whatever, you know, is where the drugs are rampant. Drugs are everywhere. They are everywhere. There's no -- I mean, doctors, attorneys, congressmen, everybody, you know. So until we wake up and find out that they are apparel to everyone and not just to people who are in the downtrodden areas of the cities and we're not gonna be able to really combat them because -- I did it for, like, two and a half years. I haven't had any drugs since of May of 1986. But I did it for two and a half years and I was absolutely dead. When I go and speak to people, I talk to people who've been doing drugs for 20 years and they're 30. You know what I mean? So it's a real nemesis. It's peril and...

  • 11:42:42

    REHMHow did you get started?

  • 11:42:44

    ROBINSONI just thought I was having fun with my friends. And, see, that's another thing about it, you know, the people always say, well, you know, you have to watch 'cause this -- they think that this deep dark figure comes to the playground and offers drugs to our kids. Our kids are not stupid. Some stranger's gonna come and say, hey, kid, try this. And they say, okay, let me have it. You know, no, no, no. You start doing drugs with your friends. Ninety-five percent of people who do drugs start doing drugs with their friends and they're thinking that they're having fun. And then I've heard people say, well, if they were really your friends, they wouldn't have given you drugs. That's not true. You give it back to them when you have it, you know, so it just -- it's just a thing where you think you're having fun and people think that, you know, you're trying to escape from something. Well, sometimes you are trying to escape from something when you do drugs. And sometimes you're trying to escape from something you don't really realize you're trying to escape from something. But normally you think that you're starting out and you're doing this because it's fun. It's the in thing. And so that's what I did.

  • 11:43:44

    ROBINSONAnd I didn't do it when I was a kid, you know. I was a full fledged adult. And my life was going -- I couldn't have written it any better than it was going. You know, I wasn't downtrodden about anything. You know, so that's the way it is. But I thought I was having fun. And I looked up and fun had me wiped out. And so, like I said, for two and a half years I was in peril with it. And not realizing for the first year or so that I was in peril because I thought I was still having fun. And I kept telling myself, well, you can stop this whenever you get ready to. No, you can't. You know, and when you accept that fact and you know that you're afflicted, then you can do something about it. Fortunately for me I -- a really good friend of mine, a guy named Leon Isaac Kennedy, he's in the movie business. And he came and got me and took me to a church where I was prayed for. And when I went in the church that night, I was an addict. When I came out, I was free. And that was in May of 1986. And the only thing that I've even thought about some drugs now is that I'm at war with them. And so I go around and talk against them.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMHow do you think the drugs affected your music?

  • 11:45:07

    ROBINSONI think that they stymied me in every aspect of my life, not just music, because they became my focal point, see, so they were definitely something that stymied me.

  • 11:45:24

    REHMHow do the kids respond when you talk to them?

  • 11:45:29

    ROBINSONWell, mostly positively. You know, there are those who are -- and I can spot them in the crowd. You know, there are those...

  • 11:45:36

    REHMCan you?

  • 11:45:36

    ROBINSON...that say, no, well, you know...

  • 11:45:38

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:45:38

    ROBINSON...okay, he's just saying this 'cause, you know, that's what he's supposed to say here. They had that attitude about it. But they'll find out, the ones who don't really hear what I'm saying. And, you know, I told you I have a -- I'm not a religious man, but I have wonderful, wonderful relationship with God, whereas I, you know, I speak to God all the time, everyday of my life. And I know that I went through that. And I have a second chance on life, a second lease on life so that I can be a deterrent for others. And so I just look at it like that. If I go and I talk to 100 kids or 100 people, and one or two of them are saved, then that's cool. I hope all of them are, but if they're not, then just at least let one or two of them.

  • 11:47:46

    REHMAnd of course clowns smile on the outside...

  • 11:47:51

    ROBINSON(laugh) Exactly.

  • 11:47:52

    REHM...but they're hurting like heck inside. You then went on to -- after your addiction, you managed to revitalize your career, won a Grammy in 1987 for the song "Just to See Her." Tell me what it took to write that song.

  • 11:48:18

    ROBINSONYou know, Diane, I wish I could tell you what it took to write that song 'cause that is one of my favorite songs ever in life, but I didn't write it. It was written by Lou Pardini and Jimmy George. And they are two wonderful writers. And it was brought to me by a guy named Les, I mean, Russ Regan who was our A and R director at -- and promotion -- at the head of our promotion department at Motown at the time. And he told me, he says, Smokey, I got a song for you that I know you're gonna love and I want you to hear it. And he brought it to me and I loved it the first time I heard it. I think it has one of the greatest melodies that I've ever heard. And I wish I had written it, but I didn't.

  • 11:50:37

    REHMAnd, Smokey Robinson, you won a Grammy for that.

  • 11:50:42

    ROBINSONYeah, I did.

  • 11:50:45

    REHMPretty special.

  • 11:50:46

    ROBINSONYeah, it was. And especially due to the fact that I never thought I was gonna win the Grammy for that because I was up against some heavyweight guys for the Grammy that day. And, in fact, I was in Las Vegas. I was appearing in Las Vegas at the time and they stopped the show to tell me that I'd won the Grammy. I didn't go, yeah, because, you know, I was up against Michael Jackson and Wilson Pickett and somebody else, heavyweight guys, you know. And, shoot, you know, I just said, well, you know, I'm very happy that I got nominated, but I'll never win. And they interrupted the show in Las Vegas to tell me...

  • 11:51:24

    REHMTo tell you.

  • 11:51:25

    ROBINSON...to tell me that I'd won the Grammy.

  • 11:51:49

    REHMHere's an e-mail for you, Smokey. It's from Ryan in Gainesville, Fla., who says, "When I think Smokey Robinson, I think of the U skit (laugh) he did on 'Sesame Street'...

  • 11:52:07

    ROBINSONOkay.

  • 11:52:08

    REHM...one of my favorite bits from a great show."

  • 11:52:12

    ROBINSONWell, that has been, you know, that's followed me forever and I'm so happy and so proud of that because "Sesame Street" is a show that still has influence on our kids who are our babies, like, you know. And I have a great memory of that particular show because the premise of the show was they had these two guys in this big U. And I was doing the song "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." So they have these two guys in this big U. Each of them was a side of the U and they were following me around, grabbing me and holding me and chasing me and stuff. And about five years after I had done that show, I'm in the airport one morning and there's a little boy there. And I see him pointing to me. And his Mom is nodding her head yes. And he's nodding his head no. And she's nodding her head yes. And he's nodding his head. So he finally comes over to me and said, are you Smokey Robinson? I said, well, who wants to know? He said, my name is Matt. I said, okay, Matt. I said, yeah, I said, I'm Smokey Robinson. No, you're not. I said, well, Matt, I was Smokey Robinson when I got to the airport, man, so I think I'm Smokey Robinson. No, you're not Smokey Robinson. I said, Matt, why do you say that, man? Well, if you're Smokey Robinson, where's your U?

  • 11:53:31

    REHMOh, I love it.

  • 11:53:32

    ROBINSON(laugh) Is that precious?

  • 11:53:33

    REHMI love it. I love it.

  • 11:53:35

    ROBINSON(laugh) Yeah.

  • 11:53:37

    REHMThere's another song we want to hear. One that you did not write and this one is "I Want You Back."

  • 11:55:04

    REHMAnd of course that was fading right into the Jackson Five, Smokey.

  • 11:55:10

    ROBINSONYeah.

  • 11:55:11

    REHMHow close were you to Michael Jackson toward the end of his life?

  • 11:55:16

    ROBINSONNot as close as I'd liked to have been. Michael had sorta like isolated himself from people, from everybody basically, except for his kids. And it's understandable in a way, because when you reach the magnitude of fame that Michael Jackson reached, it's hard to go anywhere. It's hard to socialize and be out in the public and things like that. You know, your life becomes anything but normal. And -- but you played my version of "I Want You Back." And "I Want You Back" -- my new record "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" is on my own label. And I had a bunch of records pressed up because, like I said, I started recording this about four years ago. And "I Want You Back" was one of the first songs I recorded 'cause I'd always wanted to record that song. And I wanted to do sorta like a jazz version of it because I love that song. And of course it was the first hit we had with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five at Motown. And so my dream was to record it like that -- a version like that and let Michael hear it.

  • 11:56:25

    ROBINSONBut I had had a bunch of records pressed up -- so now it's a hidden track on my record because I didn't even list it on the jacket because I didn't want people to think because -- I recorded it and I had the records pressed up and everything. I didn't have the jackets done. But in the interim of that Michael died. And I never got a chance to let him hear it. And I didn't want -- because Michael was my little brother. Whether I had communication with him like I wanted to or not, at the end there he was my little brother and I loved him. And so he died. And I didn't want people to think that I was taking advantage of the fact that he had died so I recorded that song or anything like that. So it's a hidden track on my "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" CD. And, you know, when I hear it, I think about him of course.

  • 11:57:09

    REHMSmokey Robinson, singer, song-writer, record producer. His latest CD is "Time Flies When You're Having Fun." He's appearing tonight at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, the final day of "An American Playlist." And I thank you for being here.

  • 11:57:36

    ROBINSONDiane, thank you very much. I've enjoyed myself.

  • 11:57:38

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:57:38

    ROBINSONThank you so much.

  • 11:57:39

    REHMI'm so glad. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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