When you’re Smokey Robinson, all you need to do is walk into a room to get a standing ovation. Sure enough, the great singer-songwriter received a hero’s welcome when he showed up shortly after 11 A.M. today at an Austin Convention Center auditorium for SXSW’s keynote event.
Interviewer Dave Marsh opened the session by noting that – appropriately enough for SXSW – the Motown architect is now an indie artist, having put out last year’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun as the first release on his own Robso Records. So how’s life as the head of an independent label? “Man, I’ll tell you, it’s a whole lot more than I bargained for,” Robinson admitted. “It’s a lot of work.”
Robinson is a natural storyteller, and the best parts of the Q&A came when he shared his well-worn memories of a life in music. He’s got plenty of those, going all the way back to his childhood. “Where I grew up, I didn’t think [a successful music career] was possible,” he said. “I grew up in the hood in Detroit. That was my impossible dream.” Robinson was still a high school student when he met Motown founder Berry Gordy at an audition, “quite by accident, or fate, or something.” The Miracles (then calling themselves the Matadors) didn’t get the gig, but they did form a lasting relationship with Gordy, who encouraged Robinson to hone his songwriting: “You’ve gotta stop going north in the first verse and south in the second,” Robinson recalled being told. Soon he was writing and performing No. 1 hits with the Miracles like 1960’s “Shop Around” (below) – a classic tune that he says he penned in just 25 minutes. Scattered applause followed Robinson’s mention of “Shop Around.” Without missing a beat, he turned to the crowd and deadpanned, “Thank you both,” drawing laughter and much more enthusiastic clapping.
The stories kept on coming for nearly an hour. If you’ve read an interview with Robinson any time recently, you’ve probably heard more than a few of them. But, hey, some tales are worth repeating, and I’d include anecdotes of being awoken by Berry Gordy at 3 A.M. for an urgent recording session in that category.
These days, Robinson said, he keeps his car radio tuned to L.A.’s classical radio station. “I’ve been listening to Mozart, Beethoven, people like that,” he said. “This music is 300 years old, 400 years old, and we’re still listening to it!…I want to be Mozart. I want to be Beethoven.” I don’t know about you, but if you ask me, with his track record, Smokey Robinson is already well on his way there.
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