The word icon often gets tossed around too lightly, but in Smokey Robinson’s case, it barely begins to encompass his talent.
William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. is so legendary that he long ago entered the realm of artists for whom a last name is superfluous. His voice is so light and smooth that, as ABC described in its 1987 top 5 hit, “When Smokey Sings,” it soars “like a bird in flight.” George Harrison simply gave thanks to God for “that voice so free” on 1976’s “Pure Smokey.”
The man Bob Dylan declared America’s “greatest living poet,” penned the soundtrack to our lives, co-writing such classics as “The Tears of a Clown,” “Ooh Baby, Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “My Girl,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” and literally thousands more.
On “Smokey & Friends,” Robinson revisits many of his most-beloved Motown songs and for the first time, he is accompanied by old friends like James Taylor, Sir Elton John, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, and Mary J. Blige, as well as newer pals, like John Legend, John Mayer, Gary Barlow, Miguel, Aloe Blacc, JC Chasez, CeeLo, Jessie J and Ledisi.
On the Randy Jackson-produced set, Robinson and his guests pay homage to the timeless originals, while creating new versions that feel instantaneously contemporary and classic. Robinson and John turn “The Tracks of My Tears” into an organ-drenched call and response, while Legend’s graceful piano playing adds a new elegance to “Quiet Storm.” On “My Girl,” Miguel, Aloe Blacc, and *NSYNC’s JC Chasez match The Temptations’ unforgettable harmonies, as John Mayer recreates the song’s instantly recognizable opening guitar riffs.
The album’s 11 tracks will delight longtime Robinson fans, as well as introduce these ageless songs to younger listeners not necessarily familiar with the enduring melodies and lyrics. “We’re trying to captivate some new audience members,” Robinson says of the decision to pair him with many of today’s hottest artists, like Miguel, Aloe Blacc, and Jessie J. “I would just like the younger listeners to take away that somebody who is their era or in the genre of music that they like is singing with me and they’re going to be curious as to why this particular person wanted to sing with me if they don’t know who I am.”
After all, Robinson meant for these songs to last forever, regardless of when he wrote them. “If I [wrote] it 50 years before, it would have meant something to people then,” he recently said, “And it’s going to mean something to people now, and 50 years from now it’s going to mean something. That’s my goal as a songwriter.”
When picking the artists to duet with Robinson, Jackson considered it vital to embrace a wide cross section, given the universal appeal of Robinson’s music that defies genre, trends or time. “It’s about playing to Smokey’s core, which loves him dearly — as they should— and also about building that bridge because I want the younger kids to know where this music came from,” says Jackson, who also plays bass on the album. Not surprisingly, artists clamored at the chance to sing with one of their musical heroes. “Everybody we reached out to just wanted to be on this,” Jackson says. “They loved him, they were passionate about him, they had songs that they wanted to sing and started singing different songs to me. It’s been a joy.”
Jackson cast the album with careful consideration for how the guests’ voices would blend with Robison’s beautiful tenor. “It was really about where their voices could fit, where it would lead, what it would sound like,” he says. “For me, it was all about hearing someone’s voice on it. John Legend was easy. He knows ‘Quiet Storm,’ he plays it live, he loves Smokey to death. [Then] it was thinking that Smokey and Elton would sound great on this [song] together or Smokey and James.”
Though Robinson is renowned for his production talent and, in fact, produced many of the original renditions of these classics, he was happy to stay in the recording booth instead of the control room for “Smokey & Friends,” and leave the production chores to his long-time friend, Jackson.“The great thing for me in doing this is Randy’s got it and I trust him totally,” Robinson says. “I don’t have to worry about anything but coming to the studio and singing.”
For Robinson to focus on only one facet is a rarity. In addition to writing, producing and performing (both as a member of The Miracles and as a solo artist) many of Motown’s biggest hits, he also served as VP at the label, working side-by-side with Berry Gordy. Robinson first met Gordy in 1957 after an audition for Brunswick records, prior to Gordy starting Motown Records. Gordy was impressed with Robinson’s ambitious songwriting, and the relationship quickly blossomed. Robinson helmed The Miracles’ 26 Top 40 hits, as well as produced and wrote hits for scores of other Motown acts, including The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye. Since launching his solo career more than 40 years ago, the Grammy winner has logged such smashes as “Cruisin’,” and “Being With You.” He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice —once as a solo artist and again as a member of The Miracles— and is also in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Robinson, who has written more than 4,000 songs, remembers crafting each of these masterpieces included on “Smokey & Friends” and revisiting them as being “a joy,” he says. Jackson seconds that emotion. “These records will go to the end of time,” he says, looking at Robinson with reverence. “This is not like a hit that is a hit today and a year from now you never hear it again. These are amazing songs. Dude, I love it.”