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Smokey’s back and singing timeless love songs

Motown singer releasing new album filled with classic covers
/ Source: The Associated Press

Smokey Robinson was cruising through the hits he wrote for his Miracles, the Temptations and other Motown stars — the audience enthusiastically singing along to “Going to a Go-Go,” “Ooo Baby Baby” and “My Girl” — and then a remarkable transformation took place during his first Carnegie Hall concert in more than 30 years.

The spotlights dimmed to create a more intimate mood. His band put aside the funky electronics to become a mostly acoustic jazz combo with a string section. His dancers changed from miniskirts into evening gowns. And Robinson shed his silver-sequined jacket for a double-breasted suit and striped tie.

In that trademark velvety falsetto, only slightly mellowed by age, the 66-year-old Robinson began singing “Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words),” not with that Sinatra swagger but with a little tenderness. Robinson caressed the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” and slowed the tempo to the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” before launching into a snappy version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby).”

These four classic love songs are included on Robinson’s new CD “Timeless Love,” which marks a comeback for one of America’s greatest romantic singers and songwriters. It’s his first non-holiday, non-gospel album since 1999’s “Intimate,” and the first album of covers he has recorded in a show business career dating back 50 years. The 13 tracks include only one Robinson original, “I Love Your Face.”

But Robinson, who was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, is no Smokey-come-lately to the Great American Songbook bandwagon already crowded with Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton and former Motown labelmate Gladys Knight.

‘This is some of my favorite music’He’s been singing standards in his live shows for the past 14 years, and two songs on the new CD, “Speak Low” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin, he recorded with the Miracles in 1962. Robinson’s love for this music goes back to his Detroit childhood.

“This is some of my favorite music because this is the first music I heard in my life as a baby,” said Robinson, in a telephone interview several days before his Carnegie Hall concert at the JVC Jazz Festival. “These songs were written when the song was king. ... When somebody wrote a hit song, all the popular artists recorded or sang that song. ... Each one of these songs were recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Patti Page. They still are great songs and are timeless. That’s why I call the CD “Timeless Love.”

But even though these songs have often been recorded, Robinson put his own stamp on them, changing some of the chords or adding beats and measures that were not originally there.

“As a singer I just sing what I feel,” said Robinson. “I don’t consider myself a great singer. I consider myself a person who feels what I’m singing.”

On “Night and Day,” he acknowledges his Latino fans by singing a chorus in Spanish. He blends “I’m in the Mood for Love” with saxophonist James Moody’s jive vocal takeoff, “Moody’s Mood For Love.” He makes a medley from the Sammy Cahn standard “Time After Time” and Cyndi Lauper’s similarly titled hit from the ‘80s.

Robinson says he has enough material for two more standards albums. He also plans to release an album of original songs and is keeping up with the latest trends.

“Many people are downing the new artists so much and saying it’s not like it used to be, but nothing is,” said Robinson. “I have a variety of young people on my iPod ... Alicia Keys, John Legend, Beyonce, Maxwell. I even listen to rap people. ... I think Nelly is probably the James Brown of this era because Nelly’s beats are incredible. I listen to everyone not only because I’m a fan but I’m still recording and I need to know what they’re doing so I can be competitive.”

Robinson says it’s unfortunate that record labels today are more interested in turning out “instant artists” rather than nurturing young talent as Motown did during his years as the label’s vice president under Berry Gordy, Jr. from 1961 to 1988. Gordy made it mandatory that the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and the Supremes go to “artist development” school when they were in Detroit.

“We had Cholly Atkins, who was a great dancer, for the choreography and ... Maurice King, who was a big-band leader, for the singing, harmonies and arrangements. Miss Maxine Powell was there to teach our girls etiquette. She would have them walking around with books on their heads ... and have them get in and out of cars 50 times so they would know how to hold their legs.

“That’s why a lot of the Motown artists who are still alive are still around and when you go see them you are going to be entertained because we were taught that.”

With a little help from Berry GordyWilliam Robinson Jr. — an uncle nicknamed him “Smokey” because of his love of cowboy movies — has more than 4,000 songs to his credit, but remembers the first song he wrote, at age 6, for a class play at Dwyer Elementary School. In high school he formed a singing group, the Matadors. who performed his songs at a 1957 audition for his idol, Jackie Wilson, only to be rejected.

“We were very dejected, but Berry Gordy came out behind us and said he liked a couple of my songs. When he introduced himself my mouth flew open because I had all of Jackie Wilson’s records and he was writing all the hit songs for him. Berry and I struck up a relationship there. ... and the rest is history.”

Gordy produced the Miracles’ first single “Get a Job” in 1958, and the 1960 “Shop Around” became the first No. 1 R&B single for the new Motown label. Robinson became the architect of the Motown sound, writing hits for the Miracles (“You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears”), Mary Wells (“My Guy”), The Temptations (“My Girl,” “Get Ready”), Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar”) and the Marvelettes (“Don’t Mess With Bill”).

After leaving the Miracles in 1972, Robinson helped craft the smooth, slow R&B style that was called “Quiet Storm” after his 1976 album of that name, and had big hits with “Cruisin”’ and “Being With You.”

In the mid-1980s, Robinson battled cocaine addiction. “I went on a horrendous drug trip for about 2½ years and haven’t had any drugs since May 1986,” said Robinson, who speaks at rehab centers, churches and schools. “I believe in my heart that God let me live so I could be a spokesperson for him and show people that when you turn things over to God ... you can overcome anything.”

In 2004, Robinson released his first gospel album, “Food for the Spirit.” That same year, with former actor Leon Isaac Kennedy he launched SFGL Foods, Inc., which sells frozen soul food products in supermarkets. Robinson says part of the proceeds will be used for entrepreneurship classes for inner-city youth.

A few wrinkles may now line his once boyish face, but at Carnegie Hall Robinson was prancing across the stage, with an occasional bump and grind, as he closed the show with a medley of his own timeless love songs, with much audience participation and the accompaniment of legendary Motown guitarist Marv Tarplin.

As a songwriter, Robinson says he never worried about writing a hit, but tried to create timeless songs that “are going to mean something to people” 50 years in the future.

“I like to write about love because love is never-ending,” he said “Everything else is trendy. ... Love, to me, is our most powerful emotion. There’s nothing more powerful than love.”