Smokey Robinson on love, Motown and sex at 83
Rancho Mirage, Calif. — Smokey Robinson rises from an overstuffed armchair and lowers the volume of the Masters golf tournament on the TV in his 11th-floor suite at the Agua Caliente casino here.
The 83-year-old Motown legend is here in the desert to play a sold-out gig several weeks ahead of the April 28 release of his provocatively titled new album, “Gasms.” (You know what that’s short for.) But Robinson, who calls golf “the heroin of sports,” drove out early from his home in Los Angeles to squeeze in a round before showtime.
“There’s really nothing like it,” he says of the game, nodding toward his clubs in a corner of the room. “Ain’t (expletive) else you could call me for at 5 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Let’s go.’”
For Robinson, golf is the most enjoyable part of an overall wellness regime that also includes yoga — he’s been practicing for 37 years — and a diet he says has been free of red meat since 1972. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: Dressed in high-end athleisure wear, his blue-green eyes so clear that they look like they could chill a drink, this master of the American love song is the picture of health as he discusses “Gasms” and recounts detailed episodes from throughout the career he launched nearly seven decades ago as frontman of the Miracles.
Among the many, many foundational hits he sang or wrote for other Motown acts — and which got him into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — are “My Girl,” “Shop Around,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “I Second That Emotion,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready” and “Cruisin’,” the last of which he says he struggled to finish for five years until one December afternoon in 1978 when he found himself driving down Sunset Boulevard with the car’s top down.
“Couldn’t do that in Detroit,” he says with a laugh of the city where he and Motown were born.
A set of luxuriously appointed R&B slow jams, “Gasms” looks back to “A Quiet Storm,” the boudoir-minded LP Robinson released in 1975 after he’d left the Miracles, worked as a Motown record exec, then returned to performing as a mustached solo artist.
“All the guys at Motown were growing beards back then,” recalls the singer, who splits his time between L.A. and Las Vegas with his second wife, Frances Gladney. “Marvin (Gaye) had a great beard. But hair never grows on my face. The mustache was the best I could do.”
Onstage in Rancho Mirage, Robinson’s voice is as soft and silky as the purple shirt he’s wearing beneath a crisp white suit. His set is a well-practiced digest of the classics he recorded at Motown — with whose founder, Berry Gordy Jr., he recently received the Recording Academy’s prestigious MusiCares Persons of the Year award — although he throws in “ The Agony and the Ecstasy,” a deep cut from “A Quiet Storm,” at the request of an audience member with a lyric from the song tattooed on her arm.
Q: Did anyone in your life try to persuade you not to call the new album “Gasms”?
A: I must admit that my wife and one of her daughters, they set up a conference call to tell me I shouldn’t be going out talking about “gasms” and all this. I said, “Why?” They said, “Well, because, that’s just not a cool thing for you to be talking about.” They didn’t say it was perverted, but something like that. I said, “Why does it have to be, though?” A gasm is any good feeling you might have.
Q: Sure — you sing about eyegasms and eargasms. But the first thing anyone thinks of is an orgasm.
A: Great. That was my plan, man.
Q: At Motown, you were known for writing about romance as opposed to sex. Did you ever want to write about sex?
A: That message is in there. It’s just not blatant. As a songwriter, I’ve always wanted to write “I love you” different than anybody’s ever said it.
Q: There’s an ageism at work in pop music — in the wider culture, really — regarding who’s allowed to enjoy sex and to talk about it.
A: I was watching TV recently, one of those talk shows, maybe Wendy Williams. The subject of sex comes up and she turns to this guy in the audience. He said, “Oh, gosh, I’m 60 years old. I don’t think about sex.” What’s the matter with you? Are you kidding me? I understand that I’m 83, and normally that’s an old person in people’s minds. But I feel as good as I felt when I was 40. And I do the same stuff.
Q: What’s old to you?
A: Probably 100. I tell people: When you’re 20, you can hurt your arm and go to bed; when you wake up, your arm is fine. When you’re 40, you can go to bed and your arm is fine; when you wake up, your arm is hurting. So you have to consciously take care of yourself, which I do because I don’t ever want to be decrepit.
Yesterday, I took my wife to her dentist — very popular dentist, has a wall of all the celebrity people he’s done, one of them being Frank Sinatra. He asked me if I ever met Frank. I said, “Yeah, I met him when I was a kid. Nice man.” But they let him get to the point where Frank could be onstage and he’s singing one song, forgets the words and goes into another song. Even with the teleprompter. I told my wife, “If you ever let me get like that, I’ll kill you.”
Q: That would be the time to hang it up.
A: It’s over. I’m out there singing “Tracks of My Tears,” and all of a sudden I’m singing “Going to a Go-Go”? I’m done at that point.
Q: You ever use a prompter?
Q: Billy Joel once told me that he uses one even though he knows all the words to his songs. He said he’s hooked on it, that now he feels unsafe without it.
A: Well, I know Billy, and I feel bad for him if that’s where he’s at. I think the brain is the greatest computer that’s ever been. I could be onstage singing a song and thinking about, “Hey, who is that over there?” But the words are still coming out. They’re all in there.
Q: You’ve said that a biopic about your life is in the works.
A: The script is done. We’ve got it to the people, and they’re reviewing it now.
Q: Why is a movie important to you?
A: Because I would like my side of my Motown life to be told. But my script isn’t just about music and Motown. It’s about my life and my family. There’s a lot of stuff in there that people don’t know.
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