Motown legend Smokey Robinson bounces back from COVID to hit MGM National Harbor

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Smokey Robinson at MGM National Harbor (Part 1)

Smokey Robinson has reason to celebrate at MGM National Harbor this Saturday night: The 81-year-old Motown legend is happy to be touring again after surviving COVID-19.

“It was really crazy,” Robinson told WTOP. “Until April of this year, I had not done a concert since February 2020 because everything shut down. Unfortunately, I was afflicted by COVID in December of last year. I got it severely and it was a rough comeback, but I’m totally well now. … The concerts have started back up, which I am very happy about.”

Born William Robinson in Detroit in 1940, his uncle gave him the nickname “Smokey.”

“I grew up loving cowboys and he would take me to cowboy movies starting when I was about 3 years old,” Robinson said. “He had a cowboy name for me, ‘Smokey Joe’ … that lasted until I was 12 when they dropped the ‘Joe’ off and I was just ‘Smokey.’ … I just loved the ones who sang: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, those guys.”

He grew up in the same neighborhood as other future stars in Hitsville, USA.

“I lived four doors down the street from Diana Ross, right around the corner from Aretha Franklin, right across the street from The Temptations and The Four Tops, so there were a lot of people in our neighborhood who had some good things happen for them,” he said.

In 1955, he formed the doo-wop group The Five Chimes, which became The Matadors and finally The Miracles, the first successful act for Berry Gordy’s upstart Motown Records.

“The Miracles and I went for an audition with Jackie Wilson’s manager,” Robinson said. “Jackie Wilson was my No. 1 singing idol at the time, Berry Gordy had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson and I had all of Jackie’s records, so I knew who Berry was. … They rejected us, but Berry came out afterward and talked to us and the rest is history.”

In 1960, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded the hit song “Shop Around.”

“I originally wrote that for one of our other Motown artists, Barrett Strong,” Robinson said. “Berry wanted me to write an album for him, so I thought about money, that’s what I wanted, and what do you do with money? You shop. So I wrote ‘Shop Around’ … ‘Shop Around’ was one of those songs that took about 30 minutes to write. … It flowed out.”

They followed up with another hit “You Really Got a Hold on Me” in 1962.

“Sam Cooke was another one of my favorite idols,” Robinson said. “I loved Sam and he had a record out called ‘Bring It On Home to Me,’ which was very bluesy, and I wanted to write something like that, so that’s where ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’ came from.”

In 1965, he not only wrote “My Girl” for The Temptations, he also created the smooth Miracles hit “Ooo Baby Baby” (1965) by improvising on stage here in the nation’s capital.

“‘Ooo Baby Baby’ was one of those accidental songs,” Robinson said. “The Miracles and I used to sing a love medley of tunes by other artists at that time. At the end of the love medley one night in Washington D.C. at Howard Theatre, I just started to sing to a girl, ‘Ooo baby baby,’ and the guys … started to harmonize, and the people went crazy.”

That same year, he delivered arguably his most iconic song with “Tracks of My Tears.”

“The origin of ‘Tracks of My Tears,’ like so many songs for me, was my guitarist, who’s passed on now, his name was Marv Tarplin,” Robinson said. “He had written that music for ‘Tracks of My Tears,’ and he would put his guitar riffs on tape for me until I could come up with a song for his music — and ‘Tracks of My Tears’ was one of those songs.”

More hits followed, including “I Second That Emotion” (1967) and “The Tears of a Clown” (1970), the latter of which featured a timeless fable over a catchy circus melody.

“The music for that was written by Stevie Wonder,” Robinson said. “That was like Barnum & Bailey, the Ringling Brothers. … When I was a child, I heard the story of Pagliacci, an Italian clown. … He was very loved by all of the fans, but went back to his dressing room and cried because he didn’t have that kind of admiration and love from a woman.”

His last performance with the group was actually in D.C. on July 1972 before briefly retiring from show business, while watching the new Miracles land hits like “Love Machine” (1975).

“The Miracles were my brothers, I’d known them since I was 10, so I was very happy for them,” Robinson said. “I wanted them to carry on. I wrote them a song called ‘Sweet Harmony’ just to them with that message: I want you to carry on, be great, be wonderful like you can be. … I had no intentions of ever coming back to show business.”

He was busy serving as Gordy’s right-hand man as Vice President of Motown Records.

“I was doing my vice presidential thing at Motown and I was very happy with that for about two years or so, and then I started to climb the walls,” Robinson said. “Then one day Berry just came and put me out and told me to go make a record, so I wrote a song called ‘A Quiet Storm,’ which was my debut back into show business.”

His solo career was so successful with hits like “Cruisin'” (1973) that he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an individual singer/songwriter in 1987, controversially without The Miracles. Thankfully, the rest of the group was inducted in 2012.

He later received the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2016.

“The Gershwins were some of the first music I ever heard in my entire life as a baby in Detroit growing up,” Robinson said. “(My family) was always playing music of every kind and the Gershwins’ songs were definitely among those. So for me to be in the Gershwin Hall of Fame as a songwriter, I can’t beat that. It’s an impossible dream come true.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Smokey Robinson at MGM National Harbor (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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