Smokey Robinson takes a walk down memory lane

By Chris M. Junior
Smokey Robinson tells his classic tale at SXSW about meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Smokey Robinson and Dave Marsh at SXSW Thursday (photo by Chris M. Junior)
Smokey Robinson and Dave Marsh at SXSW Thursday (photo by Chris M. Junior)
Some stories never get old.

Not much time passed during Thursday’s South by Southwest keynote interview before Smokey Robinson told his classic tale about meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and how the experience changed his life both personally and professionally.

At the time they met, Gordy was best known as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson, and the astute Robinson knew that. Gordy asked to hear some of the aspiring Robinson’s material, so Robinson sang about 20 original songs for him.

But Robinson was far from a polished composer, and Gordy was quick to critique what he heard.

“I would have five songs in one song,” he told interviewer Dave Marsh. In many cases, Robinson added, all he really had was “a bunch of stuff rhymed up.” He improved thanks to Gordy, who was essential to teaching him how to “write songs professionally,” as Robinson put it.

Here are some other highlights from Robinson’s keynote interview:

• “I was just a kid who loved music and always had. That was my dream since I was 6, 7 years old. I really wanted to be in showbusiness. I just didn’t think that would ever be possible. … I grew up in the ‘hood, in Detroit. So [showbusiness] was just my impossible dream.”

• “As a writer, my goal is to always write a song. … Some songs take longer than others. Some songs just flow right out. The biggest contrast for me as far as time that it took to write a song is ‘Shop Around,’ which was the first million-seller we had at Motown. It took me about 25 minutes. It just flowed out.”

• “I wasn’t actually writing ‘Shop Around’ for the Miracles and me. … Berry had assigned me to do an album on Barrett [Strong]. … [But when Gordy heard ‘Shop Around’], he said to me … ‘I want you to sing this song, man.'”

• “I get in moods about music. … For the last three weeks, I’ve just been loving classical. I listen to classical music all the time, so I’ve been listening to Mozart and Beethoven and people like that. … When I listen to that music, I think how wonderful that is: This music is 300 years old, it’s 400 years old, and we’re still listening to it. … So I want to be Beethoven; I want to be Mozart.”

Robinson has a SXSW showcase Friday night at Austin Music Hall.

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