We might guess that Smokey Robinson is undaunted by life.
He’s been a singer, songwriter, producer and company vice-president. He helped build Motown Records, in the recording studio and beyond. He even made the drive (with Berry Gordy) between Detroit and Owosso, to get the label’s first records – getting stuck in the snow twice.
So is there anything that overwhelms him? “I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar about three or four times,” said Robinson (shown here), 81. “I cannot do it.”
This confession came in a video press conference about a TV movie. “Miracle in Motor City” – 8 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 28), Lifetime – has a mom (Tia Mowry) trying to land Robinson for a Christmas church concert in Detroit — leading to another confession: “Church used to terrify me,” Robinson said.
Motown stars and others often describe the molding power of churches, with their potent preachers and choirs. Aretha Franklin, Robinson’s friend and sometimes-neighbor, grew up in her father’s 2,500-seat New Bethel Baptist Church.
But for Robinson? His mother, he said, “was a real lady. She would cuss you out in a minute, but she would go to church three, four times a week.”
And she made sure he went. “She would send me to Sunday school in the morning and then I’d have to go back to church with her in the afternoon. That was really a grind for me, man.”
Especially when the preacher got rolling. “He was preaching and hollering and whooping. And the women are … passing out. I was afraid of church, man, until I was grown.”
He emerged as an upbeat kid. “He reminded me of me – so excited and passionate about his music,” Gordy wrote in “To Be Loved” (Warner Books, 1994).
Robinson was 17 when he was at a failed audition with a group called the Matadors. That’s where he met Gordy, a songwriter, who rejected each of the 100 songs in a school notebook.
“Instead of being upset,” Gordy wrote, “he got more excited with each criticism …. I assured him that he had a wonderful talent for expressing his feelings with poetic, catchy lyrics.”
The Matadors (previously the Five Chimes) became the Miracles and released their first single on Robinson’s 18th birthday. Two years later, Gordy woke him up at 3 a.m. to tell him the latest single had to be re-cut with a faster tempo. An hour later, the musicians were in the studio; “Shop Around” would reach No. 2 on the pop charts.
Many others followed. The Miracles had 26 singles in Billboard’s top-40, with several in the top-10 and “Tears of a Clown” at No. 1. After going solo, Robinson reached No. 4 with “Cruisin’” and No. 2 with “Being With You.” For others, he wrote many more, including “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Don’t Mess With Bill” and “Ain’t That Peculiar?”
After surviving cocaine addiction, he continued as a Motown vice-president. The Kennedy Center made him the eighth winner of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music, putting him alongside Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and others, including fellow Motowner Stevie Wonder. The Grammys gave him Lifetime Achievement and Living Legend awards.
That’s how “Miracle in Motor City” treats him, as a living legend. “I’ve been a huge fan,” Mowry said. “Motown has been very influential, especially within the African-American culture.”
The label moved to Los Angeles in 1972, was sold in 1988 and shuffled between LA and New York.
“We left and the auto industry left, so Detroit suffered for a long time,” Robinson said. “And I’m very, very happy to see that it is kind of on the rebound.”