The songs alone speak volumes. "Shop Around." "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." "Ooo Baby Baby." "The Tracks of My Tears." "I Second That Emotion." "The Tears of a Clown." "My Guy." "My Girl." "Cruisin'." "Being With You." These songs are just a handful of the classics written and--in many cases--uniquely interpreted by William "Smokey" Robinson. The singer/songwriter is celebrating his 50th anniversary in music this year, as is his iconic twin, Motown Records. On the eve of the release of Robinson's new studio album, "Time Flies When You're Having Fun," Billboard talks to the man behind the beloved tunes and exclusively premieres the video for "Don't Know Why." Out Aug. 25 on Robso/ASA, the album also features a diverse cast of special guests including Carlos Santana, Joss Stone and India.Arie.
Watch Smokey Robinson's "Don't Know Why" video above.
What's the origin of the nickname "Smokey"?
My favorite uncle, who was also my godfather, gave it to me when I was 3 years old. I used to love cowboys; that was my thing--especially the ones who sang. And he would always take me to see cowboy movies. His cowboy name for me was "Smokey Joe." Whenever anybody asked me what my name was, I'd tell them "Smokey Joe." The Joe dropped off when I became 12.
When did you first know you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?
I have felt like that since I was 4 years old. At times it seemed like it was going to be my absolutely impossible dream given where I grew up in Detroit. But it was always my dream. Nobody in my family was a professional musically. My mother sang in church and played the piano; my dad sang in the shower [laughs]. However, I listened to everything that was being played at home: from gospel to gut-bucket blues to jazz and classical. My two older sisters listened to bebop: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. I formed my first group when I was 11. We went from being the Five Chimes to the Matadors and changed members until we got to be the Miracles.
How did the group come up with the Miracles name?
It was after we recorded our first record, before Motown was established. The Matadors was a masculine name; we needed a name that would fit four guys and a girl. So we put a bunch of names in a hat and Miracles-the name I put in there-is the one we drew out.
Why did the Miracles click with fans?
It was the combination of the harmonies and the songs. We had a different sound from the other groups who were out then. We had a girl in the group and the harmonies were voiced high. It was that high-sounding harmonic sound that made us different.
You've said in previous interviews that Motown founder Berry Gordy was your mentor. What did he teach you about music?
When I met Berry, I had a loose-leaf notebook of about 100 songs. Back then, I had five songs in one song because the first verse had nothing to do with the second verse, and the second verse had nothing to do with the bridge. It was just a bunch of ideas all rhymed up because I always rhymed things. Berry made me understand a song is like a short story, film or book with a beginning, middle and end that all ties together. And even if you don't give it a definite ending, you have to give people enough material to create their own ending.
What key elements comprise a timeless song?
First, a strong melody. Then it needs a good hook that's easy to remember. People usually remember the hook first before they know what the rest of the song is about. And third, the writer's lyrical content must have a lasting message, no matter what the song is about.
One striking element of your songwriting is your skillful use of metaphors. Bob Dylan drew attention to that when he called you "America's greatest living poet." Why are these important?
Once I learned how to write songs, I recognized the fact that there are no new words. There are also no new notes on the piano or guitar. And there are really no new ideas. So you have to work within the framework of what's been going on for thousands of years since language began. You have to work within that parameter. So the trick for me was to try and say the same thing differently.