Do you ever get tired of singing or writing love songs?
No, because love is such an important aspect of life. Love can be happy, sad, mad, cruel, hateful, everlasting. Love is the most powerful emotion that we as human beings have.
What was it like working at Motown with its formidable stable of writing talent like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford & Simpson and Norman Whitfield?
Motown was a very democratic place. It wasn't like Berry ran it like a dictator with an iron hand. He was a songwriter and producer himself and still did a lot of that in the early days. And some of his songs got shot down like everyone else's during our Monday morning meetings when we picked songs and records. All the artists were open to all the writers and producers. If you went to an artist with a song and he or she wanted to record it, no one said, "No, you can't record that song."
But Motown was a fantastic place to grow up in. When you hear people talk about the Motown family, it's not a myth. It's true. That's how it is today for those of us who are still here. Everybody was a part of the family: the artists, writers, producers, musicians, the sales staff. It wasn't like we had this artist clique where we didn't hang out with anyone else.
Besides Berry, you also wrote songs with your longtime guitarist, Marv Tarplin. Who else were important collaborators?
[Marv's] been the source of many, many songs for me. Marv, who retired last December, is one of the most prolific music people I've ever known. Some things just click and we did.
A lot of the guys like Al Cleveland and Frank Wilson used to give me tracks and I'd write songs to those. One of the biggest records I've ever been associated with was "Tears of a Clown." Stevie Wonder brought me the complete track just like it is on the record. He said, "Hey, man. I can't think of a song to go with this. See what you can come up with."
The biggest competition I ever had was with Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield writing for the Temptations. Norman and I would compete to try and get the next Temptations record. But we would still help each other. He could be recording something with the Temptations and say, "Hey, Smoke. I want you to sing a part on this record or clap your hands and stomp your feet." And in turn, he would do it for me. Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Eddie Kendrick and Melvin Franklin are on "Mickey's Monkey," along with Martha Reeves and the other Vandellas. That's how we did stuff then.
Did you realize at the time what a major role Motown was playing in breaking down racial barriers?
We knew we wanted to make great music. Not only black music but quality music for everyone. I only wish that we'd have known we were making history while we were making history. If we'd have known, I would have saved everything. Back then, there were certain areas in Detroit where, if you were black, you better be working for somebody and you better be able to prove it. When we started to have hit records, we used to get letters from the white kids in those areas saying, "We love your music. But our parents don't know we have it. If they did, they'd make us throw it away." Then about a year or so later, we began getting letters from the parents saying, "We found out our kids listen to your music and they turned us onto it. We love it and we're so glad you're making this music."
We broke down a lot of walls. In the South, we'd find segregated audiences; whites on one side and blacks on the other. We'd go back a year or so after, and the kids would be dancing together, hanging out and talking. Even overseas . . . the Cold War was going on in Russia but the Russians loved our music. We'd go there and get a warm welcome.
Why did you decide to go solo?
I had no intention of going solo. Ever. When I retired from the Miracles, I was already a VP at Motown. I figured that would be the rest of my life, going to the office every day and making official decisions. At that point, my kids were born after my ex-wife Claudette had suffered several miscarriages, and I just wanted to spend more time with my family. The Miracles had done everything a group could do three or four times over by then and I wasn't contributing as much anymore. My plan was to retire from the group and probably write and produce records for other artists. But I would never again be onstage as a singer. I did that for three years and went stir crazy until Berry came by my office and said, "You know what I want you to do? Get a band together and get out of here, because you are miserable."
You later overcame a personal battle with drugs.
I speak at schools, churches, gang meetings, rehab facilities, telling people that drugs don't discriminate. I was 39 years old and my life was going exactly as I would have it go. I couldn't have written it any better. But drugs don't care who you are, what you're doing, where you are or where you're going. When you open yourself up to them, you are vulnerable. And I was. You think drugs won't get the best of you, that you will never become an addict. Ninety-nine percent of the people who start doing drugs do so with their friends. It's a social thing and you call yourself having fun. Then you look up and fun has wiped you out like it did me. I did it for two years. I was a walking corpse, totally out of it.
Drugs are also a spiritual condition. If you don't get your spiritual self together, you'll never conquer them. I went to church and was prayed for; I gave it to God. I went to church one night a drug addict and when I came out of that church, I was free. That was May 1986. I haven't even thought about drugs since then other than that I'm at war with them.