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Smokey Robinson still Cruisin'

| Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008

Legendary soul singer Smokey Robinson probably will be associated with Motown until the end of time. But he actually lives in Southern California -- where his home just had a close call with an out-of-control wildfire. And don't be surprised if you see him in Pittsburgh -- and not just this Saturday at the Benedum.

"Yeah, my wife, Frances, is from Pittsburgh," Robinson says. "She was born and raised there. We have a home there. We have a great connection with Pittsburgh."

As for the fire, "It's passed on, but the smoke and stuff is still in the air. It was rough, man."

In Pittsburgh, Robinson also is supposed to be in charge of entertainment at the new North Shore casino -- if it ever gets up and running.

"That's the plan," Robinson says. "I know everybody in show business. But that's way down the line. The economy doesn't help."

Still, if there's one thing in this world that's recession-proof -- and seems unlikely to change, no matter what -- it's the immortal high tenor and built-to-last songs of Smokey Robinson.

"I've been following him since I was 17," says Lucy Zarochak, 58, of North Huntingdon. "He is a very romantic singer, and just is a kind, caring man, wonderful to his fans. My husband says he could sing 'Happy Birthday' and it would seem like the best song ever."

Remarkably, Robinson's voice seems to have changed very little since the 1970s.

"I try to take care of myself," Robinson explains. "I tell young singers all the time, there's really no magic remedy -- no honey, tea, lemon, whatever. There's no recipe. Your voice is your instrument. I'm at my house in the gym, right now, working out. I don't smoke or drink, and I've never been a night person, even as a teenager. It's amazing to me that I'm in show business. Unless I'm working, doing a concert, I'm at home."

It's been that way since the beginning, long before "The Tracks of My Tears" or "I Second that Emotion" burrowed their way into the American consciousness.

"I've been singing my whole life," Robinson says. "My mom told me that when I first opened my mouth, instead of crying, I sang. The first songs I wrote that someone other than my mom or me heard was when I was 6 years old, for the school play. But growing up where I grew up (in Detroit), it seemed like an impossible dream. So I just kept it as my impossible dream. But thank God for Berry Gordy."

Robinson, 68, met Motown Records founder Gordy in the '50s, beginning a symbiotic relationship that forever changed the course of pop music, creating "the sound of young America." Robinson found a mentor and an outlet for his songwriting talents. Gordy found an unparalleled singer and a songwriter Bob Dylan would famously describe as "America's greatest living poet."

"I'm just blessed," Robinson says. "I get a chance to live my dream. I never, ever take that for granted. Where I grew up (in the North End section of Detroit), there were a whole lot of people who never made it out of there.

"Diana Ross grew up four doors down the street from me, Aretha Franklin right around the corner, The Four Tops right round the corner from a guy in the Miracles. But some of the guys who would sing me under the table never made it.

"So that's my secret. I know I'm blessed -- I'm getting a chance to live what I love."

A typical Smokey Robinson performance consists of "two-and-a-half hours of everything," he says. "I'm not one of those artists who says, 'Well, I don't do the old stuff.' If it weren't for the old stuff, there would be no new stuff. I do the old stuff, the new stuff, the in-between stuff."

Of course, some of the new stuff also is old stuff. Robinson's most recent album, "Timeless Love," is entirely devoted to his interpretation of standards. Most of them -- like Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and George Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay" -- were smash hits long before Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.

Luckily, he never gets tired of his own hits. Somehow, even after singing "Tears of a Clown" for the thousandth time, he finds a way to keep it fresh and interesting.

"They're all my babies," Robinson says. "I assure you, from the bottom of my heart. I've been singing some of those songs for 50 years, man. Every night, they are new to me.

"Performing is my favorite part of my work. I love writing and producing records in the studio, but performing is where I get to be with the fans. I never do a show for people -- I do a show with people. We have a great time."

Over the years, the one question that always seems to come up is about his name. "Smokey" is not an adjective that typically springs to mind when describing Robinson's voice.

"It was given to me by my favorite uncle, who was also my godfather, Uncle Claude," Robinson explains. "When I was a kid, I used to love cowboys. If you had asked me at the time what I wanted to be, I would have said, 'a cowboy.' He had a cowboy name for me, which was 'Smokey Joe.' If anybody at the time would have asked me what my name was, I would have said, 'Smokey Joe.' When I got to be 12, they just dropped the 'Joe' off, and I became 'Smokey.'"

For a guy who has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in the music business, it ought to be hard to keep setting goals. But Robinson has no problem coming up with new goals for himself.

"There is no top to show business," he says. "There's always something you can do. For instance, I'd love a great part in a great movie. I have done some cameos in some movies and TV shows, but I'm always me."

Career highlights

Feb. 19, 1958: "Got a Job," the first single by the Miracles, is released on the End label. Its release coincides with lead singer Smokey Robinson's 18th birthday.

Oct. 15, 1960: "Shop Around," credited to "The Miracles (featuring Bill 'Smokey' Robinson)," is released. The first national hit for Berry Gordy's Tamla label, it tops the R&B chart for eight weeks.

June 16, 1961: "Hi, We're the Miracles," the first album by the Smokey Robinson-led group, is released.

Dec. 29, 1962: "You've Really Got a Hold On Me," by the Miracles, makes the R&B chart, where it will become the group's second No. 1 R&B hit.

March 6, 1965: "My Girl," written by Robinson and Ronnie White of the Miracles, becomes a No. 1 hit for the Temptations.

Nov. 1, 1965: "Going to a Go-Go," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, is released. It reaches No. 8 and yields four hits: "Ooo Baby Baby," "The Tracks of My Tears," "My Girl Has Gone" and "Going to a Go-Go."

April 1968: "Greatest Hits Vol. 2," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, reaches No. 7. It will be the highest-peaking album of the group's career.

Dec. 12, 1970: The single "The Tears of a Clown," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, reaches No. 1 for the first of two weeks.

July 14-16, 1972: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' concert performances in Washington, D.C., are recorded for the album "1957-1972," which ends Robinson's quarter-century with the band he founded.

April 19, 1975: "A Quiet Storm," the third solo album by Robinson, is released. The title would be adapted as both the name of a radio format and a romantic subgenre of soul, as defined by Robinson.

March 21, 1981: The biggest hit of Robinson's solo career, "Being With You" (No. 1 R&B, No. 2 pop), is released.

Jan. 21, 1987: Robinson is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the second annual induction dinner. Daryl Hall and John Oates are his presenters.

February 1994: Motown issues "The 35th Anniversary Compilation," a four-CD overview of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' remarkable career.

Feb. 27, 1997: Robinson reunites with the Miracles to be honored at the eight annual Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Awards in New York.

Feb. 24, 1999: Robinson receives a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 41st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

April 2004: Robinson releases "Food for the Spirit," his first gospel album and first album of any kind in five years.

May 2006: Howard University awards Robinson an honorary doctorate of music.

December 2006: Robinson is among the year's Kennedy Center honorees, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Dolly Parton, Steven Spielberg and Zubin Mehta.

Source: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Essential songs

"The Tracks of My Tears"

"Tears of a Clown"

"Ooo Baby Baby"

"Going to a Go-Go"

"I Second That Emotion"

"The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage"

"You Really Got a Hold on Me"

"Shop Around"

"Being With You"


Note: the first eight songs are credited to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Source: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Additional Information:

Smokey Robinson

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $65.50-$125.50

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666

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