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Smokey Robinson on Meeting MLK, Drugs, and Why He Called His New Album ‘Gasms’

Rolling Stone 3/23/2023 Andy Greene
© Provided by Rolling Stone

At this stage of his life, you could forgive Smokey Robinson for coasting off past glories. The 83-year-old icon wrote some of the most enduring songs in American history during his time at Motown and with the Miracles, not to mention the pop hits (“Just to See You” and “One Heartbeat”) he scored in the Eighties.

But Robinson still feels a need to create, which is why his new album, Gasms, comes out April 28. It’s his first LP in nearly a decade. “I’m still in the record business and I still write songs,” Robinson tells Rolling Stone on the phone from his Los Angeles home. “I’m still in, man. I’m trying to stay in.”

For our Last Word interview series, we spoke with Robinson about Gasms, his memories of the Beatles and Marvin Gaye, dealing with loss, his Eighties drug addiction, his fitness routine, Motown’s role in the civil rights movement, Donald Trump, his infamous Cameo video where he mispronounced “Chanukah,” and much more.

Why did you call your new album Gasms?

Well, I wrote a song called “Gasms,” and that’s the title of the album, Gasms. All the songs on the album have a connotation to them. Most people, when you say “gasms,” they think about orgasms. But “gasms” is any good feeling that you get. It’s probably a controversial title, but I wanted it to be that way.

What music still moves you the most?

I listen to everything. Man, I grew up in a home where I had a great dose of music. There was a lot of classical, like Beethoven and Chopin, but I also heard everything from gospel to jazz to blues. What I listen to now depends on my mood. There’s a station here in L.A. called KUSC, and it plays nothing but classical music. And sometimes, maybe a week or so, I might not listen to anything but that. And then, sometimes I’m going to listen to smooth jazz, sometimes I’m listening to R&B.

Do you recall the first time that you heard the Beatles cover of “You Really Got a Hold on Me”?

I don’t recall the first time, but every time for me is the first time on that, man. It was just a joy. As a songwriter, man, I want people to record my songs. I want people to sing my songs forever. I just got through talking about Beethoven and Chopin and those guys. I want to be like that, man. Five hundred years from now, I hope people are still listening and playing my music.

Do you have a favorite Beatles song?

They wrote so many great songs. I think one of my favorites, off the top of my head, would be “Yesterday.” I used to sing “Yesterday” with the Miracles. In fact, we sang it on The Ed Sullivan Show.

You go way back with those guys, too.

I knew all of them. And I still see Paul from time to time, though I haven’t seen Ringo in person in a long time. George and I were really close. The Miracles and I first met them in Liverpool on a tour. They were playing in a little dive club, and the promoter took us to see them after we did our own concert in town. That was before they were the Beatles. They hadn’t even broken ground over here yet.

What’s your favorite memory of your friendship with Marvin Gaye?

Marvin and I were together almost every day. So, my favorite memory of him was just knowing him. He was my brother. We met at a Christmas party at Motown. Harvey Fuqua, one of the founders of the Moonglows, who I grew up idolizing, brought him. He started singing this Christmas song and drew a crowd. We became very, very close after that.

You’ve seen so many members of your Motown family die young. How do you get over losses like that?

Well, because you have to, man. We have the Motown Museum in Detroit. Right now we’re getting ready to expand it, with a big building and a theater connected to it. And when I go back there and I walk through the building and I look at those pictures, 80 percent of those people are gone.

We grew up together as brothers and sisters. I mean, it wasn’t like we were just labelmates. We hung out at Hitsville. We had picnics, went to each other’s homes, had dinner. We bowled and played chess and checkers and ping-pong and football. We did everything together, man.

To see those people passing on … When you’re young, the last thing you think about is that you’re going to see somebody dead. And so, it’s always a rough emotion.

Do you ever wonder why you’ve been blessed with such a long and healthy life?

Well, I’m blessed, man. I’m very, very blessed. God got his hands on me. And I thank God every day for my life. For me to be my age that I am right now, and feel like I’m 40, I can’t beat that, man.

What are the secrets of living a long life, one where you can be 80 but feel 40?

There’s nothing you can do, man. When it’s your time, it’s your time. If there was a secret to longevity, man, you can believe somebody would’ve bottled or boxed it by now and made a fortune.

I’m sure your fitness routine helps. Tell me about it.

I’ve been doing yoga for 40 years. I get up every morning and the first thing I do is yoga to keep myself together and stretch my body. Then I do a workout — I work out at least four or five times a week. I try to eat right. I’ve never been a party person. It’s ironic that I’m in show business, man, because I’ve never been a really night person. Come 11, 12 o’clock at night, I’m sleepy.

Do you eat red meat?

I haven’t had any red meat since way before you were born, man. I had my last piece of red meat in 1972. And for a while, I was a total vegan. Now, I’m back to eating a little chicken and a little fish.

You managed to get through the Sixties and Seventies without getting into drugs. And then in the Eighties, you developed a severe habit. What did you learn from your drug experience?

Not to do it again. I speak at churches and schools and rehabs and places like that all the time. In fact, judges have asked for me to come to other states to speak at rehab graduations and things like that. I see people there who are 20 years old, they’ve been doing drugs for 10 years. And I don’t understand, because I did it for two years and I was dead. I was a walking corpse after two years when I started messing with that cocaine. Thank God it was before crack.

What advice can you give to someone who’s trying to get a loved one to stop using?

You can talk to them, you can demonstrate, you can do everything you want to do, but they have to make up their minds that they don’t want to do it anymore. Interventions do some good because it points out to [the user] how they’re beating their bodies up. But unless they make up their minds that that’s not what they want, it’s not going to do any good.

It’s awful that we just lock up so many drug addicts in prison here in America.

Well, that makes no sense, man. Doing drugs, you’re not hurting anybody but yourself. If you’re selling it, OK, fine, you deserve to get a little time for that. They don’t lock people up for drinking, unless the person gets drunk and hurts another person.

The Miracles toured the Deep South when Jim Crow was still the law of the land. What was that like for you?

It was real educational, man. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with the South, because my mom was born in Memphis and my grandmother lived in Memphis for her whole life. But I was a child and I wasn’t really conscious or thinking about racial this and racial that because she lived in a Black neighborhood, so we weren’t worried.

It was different when I went on tour down there with Motown. They were blatant: “We don’t want you here, don’t come in here.” We’ve been shot at for trying to go to the bathroom. You’re definitely not staying in any of these hotels. You have to go to the Black side of town and find rooming houses to live in.

What role do you think Motown played in the civil rights movement?

Dr. Martin Luther King came to Motown, and he met with Berry [Gordy] and me. He wanted us to record his “I Have a Dream” speech, which we released on Motown. He said to us, “You guys are doing with music what I’m trying to do legally and politically.”

That’s because music is the international language. It gives people a common love. And that’s what happened with us going to the South. We would go down at first, and the arenas would be roped off, with Black people on one side and white people on the other, or Black people upstairs and white people downstairs, never to meet. They wouldn’t even be looking at each other.

Eventually, after a year or so of making Motown music, we came back and saw white boys with Black girlfriends or Black boys with white girlfriends. The music brought them together. They had a common love.

That even happened internationally. The Temptations, during the height of the Cold War, went to Russia. They came back and said, “Russia was deep, man, but the people loved the music.” Music is the international language. And I’m very proud of the fact that we broke down some of those barriers.

Are you able to understand how the same country that elected Barack Obama twice voted Donald Trump into office? What happened?

I’ve known Donald Trump for 30 years or more. I’ve sang at two of his birthday parties. I’ve even played golf with him. And Donald Trump is a narcissist.

I think that, at first, he was running just to see if he could, just to see what would happen. And he was a celebrity, so many people voted for him for that reason. They thought, “Well, he’s got his own money so he’s not obligated to any corporations or anything like that.”

But then, Donald Trump showed up, and they could see what was going on. I don’t understand why he’s not in jail. I don’t understand how he’s still a free man walking after the insurrection on the Capitol. But I think that the people who are going to vote for him are desperate. And the powers that be in the Republican Party, they’re desperate too.

Do you feel hopeful about the future of this country?

I’ve been basically all over the world, and America is the greatest country on Earth. We have the greatest philosophical thing, the greatest democracy and all that on Earth. We’re free. That’s why I feel so bad about the people in Ukraine, because they want freedom.

You shot a Cameo video a little while back where you mispronounced “Chanukah.” How did you feel when it went viral?

I didn’t feel anything, man. I’ve been hearing about “Hanukkah” all my life. But by the time I said that — I was 80 years old, man — I’d never heard Hanukkah spelled with a “C.” There’s a whole lot of people who had never heard it with a “C.” I got ridiculed by some people, but that didn’t mean anything to me because I was being honest.

Saturday Night Live did an extended bit about it during “Weekend Update,” where Chris Redd played you. Did it bother you?

No, they were talking about me. Didn’t bother me. Didn’t bother me at all.

Tell me the hardest part of success?

The hardest part of success is maintaining it. When you’re in show business, you got to respect it, first of all. You’re blessed to get a spot because there are millions of people in every city trying to get in. And when you get a spot, you need to cherish it, and do what you can to keep it. And you can’t be negative towards your fans and think you’re a big shot because you’re in show business or you got a hit record.

I’ve seen thousands of people, and I’m not exaggerating that number, come through show business. And they come through, and they get a hit record or they get a little notoriety or something, and they start to think, “Oh, man. The world is aware of me now. It could not possibly do without me.” That’s a bad mistake.

What’s it like to stand onstage, sing a song like “My Girl,” which you co-wrote, and watch everyone in the audience sing along to every word?

I can’t even describe the feeling. That’s one of the reasons I continue to do this, because the feeling that I get from being onstage, I don’t get anywhere else in life. And to be having fun with all the people who are out there and they’re singing the songs … We go to foreign countries where 60 percent of the audience doesn’t even speak English. They hear [hums the opening chords of “My Girl”], and they know what’s getting ready to happen. They’re saying all the words verbatim. It’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s like you wrote the national anthem.

It’s my international anthem. And one of the beautiful things for me, as far as performing, is the fact that people come to the concert with babies in their arms. The first time I ever saw those people, they were in their parents’ laps.

Will there ever be a biopic about your life?

We’re in the process of doing that now. We’re just finishing up the script.

How will they cram the whole story of your life into a two-hour movie?

You just do it. They’ve done Elvis and Whitney and everybody. You have a maximum page count that you can do to make a movie. First, we were going to make it a miniseries because the people who were talking about doing a movie, they said, “Well, your life is so intricate and stuff, we should do a miniseries.” Then, they decided against that and to do the movie. But my two biopics that I would like mine to come up to are Ray and The Temptations. The Temptations was one of the greatest biopic miniseries that’s ever been done.

Do you think you’ll ever retire and stop touring?

Not anymore, man. I tried it one time, after I left the Miracles. I was vice president of Motown. I thought I was going to do that for the rest of my life. But after three or so years, I was just miserable. I tried to hide it from everybody. But Berry came to me and said, “Go make a record, man, because you’re miserable.” He’s my best friend, so he noticed. So, I did [go make a record]. And I will never try retirement again.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a good person, as someone who left something positive. And like I said, I want to be Beethoven, I want to be Chopin. I want them to be playing my music 500 years from now.

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