|Photo by James Hicks|
There’s the voice, a soft, high, fluttery thing, as sweet and warm as a spring afternoon. There are the songs, four decades’ worth of classics like “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “I Second That Emotion,” “The Tears of a Clown” and “Being With You,” not to mention the numerous hits written for Motown icons like Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes and Mary Wells. There’re the honors, including a Grammy Living Legend Award, a Soul Train Heritage Award, and a well-deserved place in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan once called him our “greatest living poet,” while both George Harrison and ’80s popsters ABC have seen fit to pay tribute to him in song.
But to really grasp what Smokey Robinson is about, all you need to do is use his favorite four-letter word. “I love love, and I love the idea of love,” Smokey tells me as I sit with him in the cozy kitchen of his Valley mansion, watching as he gets his hair done. “Cars, dances, political things, all that stuff passes,” he chuckles. “But I hope that, as long as there are two people, there will be love. I only regret that there isn’t more of it among people.”
That message forms the heart of Get Intimate With Smokey, Robinson’s enjoyably addictive weekly radio show on KHHT-FM, a.k.a. Hot 92.3. Every Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to noon, Smokey plays requests (mostly soul oldies) and chats with callers about everything from the glory days of Motown to the glory of love. Each week, in a conspiratorial whisper like that of a little boy who can’t wait to share his (and your) secrets, Smokey lays a new topic of conversation on his listening audience. The resulting discussions can get pretty deep, though occasionally they go more like this one:
Caller: Hi, Smokey, this is Jim.
Smokey: Well, Jim — if you could live in any era in history other than this one, which would you choose?
Caller: Uhhh . . . with my wife?
But where most talk-radio hosts boot their callers the minute they veer off topic or wax imbecilic, Smokey remains remarkably patient with even the most tongue-tied or free-associative caller. “I enjoy getting the chance to talk to people that I normally would never talk to,” he says, “so it really doesn’t bother me when they ramble on like that.”
Get Intimate With Smokey first hit the airwaves in the summer of 2000, running Mondays through Thursdays for two hours a night. Some cynical industry observers originally questioned Smokey’s motives for hosting a local radio show, suggesting that it was just a brief publicity stunt designed to boost both the station’s ratings and the Southern California sales figures of Intimate, his most recent CD. But from the beginning, Smokey’s hushed vocal presence and philosophical musings on romance seemed tailor-made for radio; after all, this is the man whose landmark 1975 album, A Quiet Storm, has inspired dozens of late-night radio shows of the same name.
“I was a quiet singer, and I wanted to go back and try to take the entertainment world by storm, so I came up with a concept I called ‘The Quiet Storm’ and did an album on it,” Smokey explains. “And then in Washington, D.C., this one guy started a ‘Quiet Storm’ program at night, and it just snowballed. In fact, Sean Andre, who is on Hot 92.3 now, he does the Quiet Storm show.”
I ask Smokey if he ever wishes that he’d copyrighted the concept. “I did copyright it,” he laughs. “But a guy in my position, how can I buck radio? I want them to play my songs, so I’m in no position to say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that! I’m takin’ you to court!’”
Considering that Get Intimate With Smokey is a very close sonic and thematic cousin to all those “Quiet Storm” smooch fests, it seems a little strange that KHHT would decide to move it to Sunday mornings; perhaps Get Pancakes With Smokey would be a better title, given the new time slot. But while longtime listeners lament the loss of their evening Intimate fix, Smokey, for his part, is quite content with the show’s weekly status.
“When we started this, I thought that four nights a week, two hours a night, was gonna be a breeze,” he says. “But you’re talkin’ about a job, man! It was just incredible. And now we’re syndicated in San Francisco, and the next syndication point is Dallas; so it’s much better for me now that it’s just one day a week.”
Which is not to say that Smokey’s taking it easy these days; he still goes on the road about four months out of the year, though rarely for much more than two weeks at a time. His present band has been together for over 10 years, but Marv Tarplin, Smokey’s guitarist and musical right-hand man, has been with him since the early Miracles tours. Tarplin’s supple string bending earned him a writer’s credit on “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” “Going to a Go-Go,” and numerous other Miracles and Smokey solo hits; yet Tarplin’s name remains unknown to all but hardcore Motown aficionados.
“I really can’t say how valuable Marv Tarplin has been, as a friend and collaborator,” Smokey says. “His music has been so inspirational for me. He’s just a musical dynamo, and I’m very blessed to have been affiliated with him for all these years. He does get overlooked a little bit, it’s true, but he’s been on so many hits; he did music for Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, and me since I’ve been a solo artist, and on and on — he’s in there, man.”
Smokey and Tarplin still write songs together, employing the same simple collaborative process they’ve used for almost 40 years. “Whenever he comes up with something, he puts it on tape, and I listen to it until I can come up with something,” Smokey says. In fact his approach to writing hasn’t changed much since Motown founder Berry Gordy helped him tighten up his songwriting.
“I met Berry Gordy when I was just out of high school and had a loose-leaf notebook full of songs,” he says. “I was always tryin’ to write songs, but my songs didn’t make sense, because the first verse would be altogether different from what the second verse was, and the bridge had nothing to do with either verse! Berry really taught me how to make my songs into songs. I’m not one of those writers that need to go to the country or the mountains or down by the shore to write — every day of my life, some parts of a song, a melody or phrase or some words, will come into my head. I don’t have to be happy to write a happy song, or sad to write a sad song; it just happens. I’ve got so many little sheets of paper and pieces of cardboard layin’ around with unfinished stuff on it! What I’ve started to do now, in this modern day and age, is if I’m driving along in my car and get an idea, I call my answering machine. So many have gotten away, you know, because I
wasn’t in the position to put anything down.”
Still, despite his ever-expanding song catalog, all of his live performances include a liberal helping of older hits. “I have a lot of songs, so I have the luxury of changing the show every night, but there are some basic songs that I have to do if I don’t want to get tomatoes thrown at me,” he laughs. “‘The Tracks of My Tears,’ ‘Ooo Baby Baby,’ ‘The Tears of a Clown,’ ‘Cruisin’’ — those are always in. I don’t ever go into a gig thinking, ‘I’m not gonna do the old stuff.’ I know for myself personally, if I go see somebody and they don’t sing some of those old songs that I like, then I’m pissed off! So we do everything, man. Because without the old stuff, there would be no new stuff, you know what I mean?”
Smokey Robinson performs at the Universal Amphitheater on Saturday, February 16.