The World According to Smokey Robinson
We chatted with the Motown legend about golf, yoga and why he feels better than ever at 80
Welcome back to “The World According To,” series in which InsideHook solicits advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our latest subject is Smokey Robinson, founding member of the legendary Motown group The Miracles and one of the most successful songwriters of the last 60 years. Among the hits that he wrote or co-wrote: “I Second That Emotion,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “The Tears of a Clown” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” At 80, Robinson has branched into timepieces, recently releasing a line of watches with Detroit brand Shinola. The musician and songwriter talked to InsideHook about life during a pandemic, singing in the shower and physical decay.
InsideHook: Are you under self-quarantine?
Smokey Robinson: Absolutely. I’ve been under self-quarantine for nine days now.
Is Transcendental Meditation getting you through this?
I don’t do Transcendental Meditation anymore. I haven’t done that in years, you know? I found that by doing stretching and yoga and the breathing and all that, it gave me the same results, but without trying to do the mantra and so on and so forth. I’ve been doing yoga now for 35 years, and I do it almost every day of my life.
How are you coping?
I’m just coping like everybody else, babe. I’m listening to the news, waiting for the all clear.
Your songs are not suited for the era of social distancing. Everything is about touching.
[Laughter] I love touching.
I understand you recently turned 80. What did you do for your birthday?
I did nothing. My wife and I have the exact same birthday. I’m 12 years older than her, but we were both born on February 19. She and I went out to dinner. I went to sleep one night, I was 79. I woke up that morning, I was 80. I feel great. I feel like I’m 40.
What do you fear most about the future?
Gosh, I don’t know — that we might have a nuclear war. At the rate things are going around the world, with all the countries being war-like … Now we’re dealing with this virus. I hope that all the guys on top around the country, who have the nuclear weapons, are wiser than that, but you never can tell in today’s world.
Do you sing in the shower?
I sing all day long, every day of my life. That just comes out. I love singing and it’s just an absolute habit with me. I sing in the shower. I sing on the toilet. I sing in the car. I sing on the bus. I sing on the plane. I sing all the time.
Is there a song by someone else that you resent you didn’t get to write?
There’s a bunch of those, man. I mean, are you kidding me? I don’t know if it’s the number one, but on top of that list would be “Just My Imagination,” which was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for The Temptations. Great record, great song. It’s one of my favorite records of all time.
What’s one piece of art — whether it’s a song, painting, photograph or a book — that changed the way you viewed the world?
I don’t know if there’s a piece of art for me like that, man. I’m an observer, and I look at life. I can’t answer that question.
Do you have a favorite curse word?
I don’t think so. You know, my favorite curse word is golf. It’s my favorite four-letter word.
Is that what you miss most about being cooped up?
Well, I’m an outdoor person. Up until just about four years ago, I was running marathons. I get up early and I run, or I walk my dog. It’s ironic, to me, that I’m in show business, because come 11 o’clock at night, I am really sleepy. I’ve been that way since I was a teenager.
You must have been an outlier in the music business, in that regard, caring so much about your body. Being on the road is not conducive to that.
Well, it is, man, because it’s not a location thing. I work out almost every morning of my life. I don’t care where I am. You just do it. It becomes a part of your life. I think that up until you’re 30, 35, things happen pretty naturally for the body. After that, your next job is to take care of your body. It’s not like when you’re 20. You hurt your arm when you’re 20 and you wake up the next morning and your arm is cool. Forty, you go to bed, your arm is fine. But you wake up and you’re hurting. It’s a whole other ballgame.
How did you get into physical conditioning?
Ever since I was a little boy, I loved sports. When you get to the 11th grade in high school in Detroit, if you’re planning on going to college, you have to pick a college curriculum. I picked dentistry. And we learned all the anatomy and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Twelfth grade, we started to dissect things, so I got out. I hated dissecting things. I changed my curriculum to electrical engineering. But the whole time, I was playing summer league baseball. I thought, perhaps, I could be a baseball player. I was playing summer league baseball, and I’m not bragging, but I was pretty good. I thought that I was going to try to pursue that, because music was just my impossible dream. Where I grew up, for me to make it in music and be able to be a songwriter and a professional singer, that was my impossible dream. Thank God, He put Berry Gordy in my life and it happened for me.
How do you make love stick around?
I guess it’s just my demeanor, man. Love rules me. I’m very happy, especially in the times that we live in now, that there are still more people who love rather than hate. We live in a time where it is so chaotic and people are hating on each other. Love is the most powerful emotion that we have, thank God. Even those who hate, they’re thinking that they’re hating for the love of something. Like, you see somebody who is a racially prejudiced person — I’m not talking about just White there. We have racially prejudiced people in every race on earth. You take one of those people and they think they’re hating all the other races, because they love their race so much. They’re trying to preserve their race so much. That’s the love of their race. It’s a crazy thing, but it’s still love, to a certain degree. Love is the most powerful emotion that we have. It feeds me.
What are you working on these days?
I’m actually working on two different CDs at the same time. I’m doing one in Spanish and one in English. I’m pretty studio-busy right now. Now, I’m confined and I can’t go to the studio, because they’re all closed.
You don’t have a studio at home? Really?
No, no, no, no, no, no. When I was married to my first wife, Claudette, who was the girl in the Miracles with me, I built a studio in the back of the guest house. I absolutely lived in it. Sometimes I’d go in and I’d be there with her bringing me food in and out, because she knew I hadn’t eaten. I’d be in there for two days and two nights and not even realize it. It was just a work factory, and I don’t want to do that to myself anymore. I don’t want to have that close by me.
Let’s talk about the watches. They’re very nice.
I don’t know right now how they’re doing, consumer-wise, but I’m very excited about having a watch in my honor.
Are you a punctual person?
Normally, almost. But I am black, you know?
What words would you want to have on your tombstone?
“He was a good dude.”
What is the first thing you’re going to do once you’re out of self-quarantine?
Probably go hit some balls.