Smokey Robinson: “America’s greatest living poet”

Absolute radio DJ Pete Mitchell speaks to the Detroit-born Motown icon

When an artist of the stature of Bob Dylan describes a fellow artist as ‘Americas greatest living poet’ then you sit up and take notice. He was describing William ‘Smokey’ Robinson, the kid from Detroit who changed music forever and helped turn Motown Records into a global phenomenon. He is as important as Dylan, Lennon and McCartney.

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At 74 years of age has just released one of his biggest-selling albums, which is no mean feat. The album comprises of some of Smokey’s most enduring songs accompanied by a number of A-list duet partners, which has been put together by producer, bass player and the former judge of American idol Randy Jackson, who himself has worked with Aretha, Keith Richards and Maze. 

The album features the likes of John Legend, Cee Lo Green, Mary J. Blige and James Taylor with the Roots as the backing band. The guest vocalists recorded their vocals at various studios around the world, and Smokey’s dulcet tones were recorded at home in Los Angeles. He was the main architect of the Motown sound, made the vice chairman of the company in his early twenties and this record is a testament to his incredible songwriting. ‘Smokey & Friends’ highlights some of his greatest material ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’, ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do’, ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ and of course his international anthem ‘My Girl’.

The whole project was headed up by Randy Jackson.  He contacted people and asked them what their favourite Smokey song was and if they’d like to sing on his new album. Smokey tells me rather enthusiastically when we meet one sunny afternoon in Soho “it’s an album of other artists singing my songs basically. Normally I’m in the studio writing, recording and producing, worrying about the arrangements and doing a bunch of other stuff. On this album all I had to do was turn up and sing. I’m a music fan, I’m not just someone who works in the music industry. I have everything from Bach to Nelly on my ipad, so it was an absolute pleasure to work with many of these great artists”. 

Smokey was born and raised in Detroit Michigan; he began his career in the fifties and sixties, when the Motorcity was at its economic height. This one time vibrant jewel in the Michigan crowd is broke. The city filed for bankruptcy on July of last year. It is the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in US history by debt. Detroit is also the largest city by population in the US history to file for bankruptcy

“It’s not the same place and it’s never going to be that place again unless some manufacturers go back there and create some jobs” Robinson sadly explains “the economy is struggling there. If it doesn’t improve then it will probably never recover because it’s too far gone. It’s depressing because I love the place, it’s where I was born and raised and when I go back now and see the condition it’s in, it troubles me. It’s heart-breaking.”

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You can hear Pete Mitchell talking to Smokey Robinson tonight at 6pm on Absolute Radio 60s. Listen here