Smokey Gets In Your Soul

A recent assignment to interview Smokey Robinson brought back some personal memories for CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver. But what would he be like in person? An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is rbc@cbsnews.com.
OK, lets admit it up front, thereÂ's lots of important news happening: the aftermath of the Egypt Air crash, the Microsoft decision, and Al GoreÂ's hiring of an Alpha Male coach.

But IÂ'm not going to write about any of those burning issues. IÂ'm going to write about a time long ago (too long ago, I might add), when nights were made for dancing, and nothing was better than dancing to the music of Smokey Robinson.

"Shop Around," "Would I Love You," "You Can Depend on Me," "IÂ'll Try Something New," "YouÂ've Really Got a Hold on Me," "ThatÂ's What Love Is Made of," "Going to a Go-Go," "Tracks of My Tears," "Tears of a Clown," "I Second That Emotion," "Ooh, Baby, Baby," and the list goes on.

And it wasnÂ't just the songs Smokey wrote for himself and the Miracles. He wrote "My Girl," for the Temptations, "My Guy," for Mary Wells, "IÂ'll be Doggone" for Marvin Gaye, and countless songs for other entertainers.

These were the tunes of my youth, and I can still sing all the lyrics, still remember the exhilaration of clapping and stomping to the fast ones and gliding along to the slow ones, deep in the arms of the boyfriend of the moment.

So when I finally got to interview Smokey Robinson, I was both excited and apprehensive. Would the Poet of Motown be as nice as IÂ'd dreamed heÂ'd be, or one of those slick and programmed celebrity jerks who only performs for the camera?

What if he turned out to be a showbiz creep? The pre-interview buzz in my family was noisier than it had ever been before I talked to presidents or prime ministers. "Tell him how much we loved him," my younger sister said. "Tell him how we danced to his music," my older sister instructed.

Our senior producer wanted to know if his eyes were as green as they looked on TV. Our videotape editor couldnÂ't wait to tackle the story. But I was edgy. What if I met Smokey Robinson and didnÂ't like him? WouldnÂ't I have lost something? IsnÂ't it sometimes better to keep your distance and your fantasies intact?

Well, this hardened journalist is happy to report that Smokey Robinson was even nicer, funnier and more down to earth than even I imagined that he could be. Yes, I know, IÂ'm gushing. But isnÂ't it nice when your illusions donÂ't have to be shattered? At 59, Smokey is still fit and handsome, and those green eyes still sparkle.

He isnÂ't sure how many gold record hits heÂ's had. He interrupts to mention how proud he is of his daughter, whoÂ's just started designing a line of childrenÂ's clothing. When you ask him about his work, he keeps giving credit to Berry Gordy, who foundeMotown, and to the other artists he wrote and sang with. He proudly shows off his house in Los Angeles, saying, "IÂ'm living way beyond my wildest dreams."

Robinson was born in Detroit. His parents divorced when he was 3, and his mother died when he was 10. His dad and his sister raised him, and he says, "I grew up in a neighborhood where some of my friends would come to me and say, Â'Hey man, weÂ're going to rob the gas station, like, come and go with us.Â'"

"IÂ'd say Â'No man, IÂ'm not going with you. IÂ'll see you tomorrow.Â' Sometimes I would see them tomorrow; sometimes theyÂ'd be in juvenile....But I didnÂ't want to do that," Robinson recalls.

The friends Smokey preferred were the guys who got together "on a street corner or on someoneÂ's front porch or something...and youÂ'd just start to harmonize." ThatÂ's how the Miracles began. At 14 he met Claudette Rogers, who joined the group. They married a few years later, and though theyÂ're divorced now, he says, "I think I had the best marriage."

Robinson has had some hard times. He got hooked on cocaine, but got off of it, he says, when a friend dragged him to church.

He does not seem like a religious man and does not talk about it except when pressed, but says, "It was almost like God said, 'I let you go down that road. I let you go off the deep end so that you could be my living example of what I can do if you let me.'"

Now he speaks at churches, schools and juvenile detention centers, but he doesnÂ't use his music to preach. Thank goodness.

At a recent gig, he sang a song from Intimate, his new CD. It was smooth, romantic and adult. I liked it. I really did.

But it was "Tears of a Clown," "Being With You" and "Ooh Baby Baby" that really had me and everybody else singing and dancing in the aisles. And for just a moment, the whole world seemed 17 again.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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