Interview Sept 06
Motown veteran Smokey Robinson tells James Hastings about his faith, his career and his love for gospel music
He probably has more hit songs than any other popular singer from the last 50 years.
Classics such as Tears of A Clown and The Tracks of My Tears are just two of Smokey Robinson’s chart-toppers still played on radio stations across the world today.
But when he was asked to choose a song for the famous Motown Comes Home album alongside Stevie Wonder and The Temptations, Smokey opted for a favourite gospel track called I’ll Keep My Light In My Window.
“In case someone doesn’t quite get the title, let me spell it out for them,” he smiles. “The Light is Jesus. I want Jesus’ light to always shine on me, to illuminate everything that I do."
The world’s best soul singer, and certainly one of its most honoured by the music industry, was last called William Robinson round about the age of five in Detroit, Michigan.
He loved cowboy movies so much he quickly earned the nickname Smokey and when he formed his famous group The Miracles, it seemed natural to use it as his stage name. The group were an instant success, crossing the divide between the numerous doo-wop bands and the more sophisticated soul sound.
Smokey and The Miracles were one of the first bands signed by the legendary Berry Gordy for his new Motown label. Apart from hits such as Tears of A Clown, Smokey also wrote classics like My Guy for Mary Wells and tracks for Marvin Gaye.
But even with his worldwide success, Smokey’s Christian faith has been a major part of his life – something he puts down to his mother’s prayers and example.
“My mom was a real God-lady,” he jokes. “She lived her faith, didn’t just talk about God but showed her faith by example and lifestyle. I always knew Jesus was the Son of God.
“Mom died when I was just 10, but her strong faith stayed with me all during the hectic years.”
He goes on: “I am certainly not ashamed at all to tell of my relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve known God since I was a child, growing up in the ghetto section of Detroit.
“Then in 1977, I made a personal decision, I decided for myself to accept Christ as my Saviour.”
After many years as Motown’s best selling artist, he was invited to join the board which gave him the chance to write and produce more hits.
Smokey Robinson guided popular music over four decades. Numerous performers have paid tribute to his influence in their own careers while many others will be unaware of his pioneering sound and musical technicques.
Smokey has won every major honour and award the music industry and his peers could bestow on him. He received the Grammy Legend Award, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and Vocal group Hall of Fame.
Yet, despite all his soul success, Smokey says his first love, gospel, has always been close to his heart.
Now after decades at the top, he has combined his love of Jesus with his musical talent to produce his first ever gospel album, Food For The Spirit.
“I don’t really call it gospel, more inspirational,” he explains. "I really haven't strayed too far, musically, from my roots. What you'll find on Food For The Spirit isn't too different from what I’ve done over the years on other projects.
“I’ve always written gospel songs. I had been stockpiling them for other artists. But the Lord impressed on me that these were songs that I needed to sing myself. I needed to let it really be known where I stand. And I’m ready to do that.”
With songs such as The Road To Damascus, I Praise & Worship You, Father and Jesus Told Me To Love You, Robinson stamps his signature sound onto statements of his faith.
"This album is really all about making people conscious of their spiritual selves," he declares.
"Some songs have to do with my personal relationship with the Lord, others are about certain situations that I’ve gone through.
“One song, Let Your Light Shine On Me, is particularly very close to my heart. It says that I always want the Lord’s light to illuminate all that I do. I’m especially aware of the spotlight that is brought on artists that are in the public eye. I don’t just want that sort of spotlight on me – I just want the Lord’s."
James Hastings is a journalist based in Taunton
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