When a member of the press once asked the iconic Bob Dylan who were some of his favorite poets, he replied with a list of the usual suspects - Allen Ginsberg, W.C. Fields and Charlie Rich - and one some may think of as less of a poet and more of a singer - Smokey Robinson.
For most baby boomers, Robinson became synonymous with what music critics and fans termed the Motown sound that came out of Detroit in the late 1950s.
Most members of Generation “X” surely know of Robinson and the Motown sound through their parents, but may also know of him and his poetry from a more current artistic platform, the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” I first saw Robinson recite a piece of work on the cable show that features various readings of original works written by poets from all over the United States. Robinson read the transcendent verse composition entitled “The Black American.”
Robinson, who became the vice president of Motown Records in 1961, met the label founder, Berry Gordy, in 1958 who was then writing songs for Jackie Wilson.
Robinson's first name is William and he got the nickname “Smokey” as a child because of his love for western films. Robinson was born in Detroit in 1940 and formed his first singing group The Five Chimes in 1955 which became The Matadors in 1957.
Robinson and Gordy wrote the song “Got a Job” and Robinson's high school-based group eventually changed its name again to The Miracles. Robinson convinced Gordy to establish the Motown label and The Miracles were one of the first groups signed in 1960.
Over the years with Motown, Robinson penned thousands of songs for groups such as The Temptations, the Supremes and Mary Wells who made famous the song “My Guy,” and became Robinson's most successful protegee.
Robinson married one of The Miracles members, Claudette Rogers, and the couple had two children.
The Miracles remained a successful act with the Motown label until around 1969, and Robinson quit the group to concentrate on his family and his duties as label vice president. However, when the song “Tears of a Clown” became a hit in 1970, Robinson stayed on with the group until 1972.
Since 1975, Robinson pursued a solo career and recently recorded an album of old standards entitled “Timeless Love” due out on Universal Records June 20.
The Beach Reporter spoke with Robinson last week about his career and the new work featuring songs that first inspired the musical prodigy.
The Beach Reporter: Some people know you for both your poetry and music. Do you feel there is a distinction between writing poetry and songs?
Robinson: To me, songs are just poems with music, and the biggest difference in writing a poem as opposed to a song is that in a poem, you don't have to have a chorus, something that repeats itself back in order to familiarize the person with what you're saying. A poem can just go on and on without having a repetitive sentence or part, but other than that, songs are just poems with music.
Do you write about certain subject matter for your poems that is different from the subject matter of your songs?
Not really. I write songs all the time and I write poems all the time, and I just think that it's my gift. God gives everybody a gift, and so it's not a labor for me and even in those times when it is a labor for me, it's a labor of love. I'm not one of those writers who has to take two months to go off to the mountains and isolate myself so I can write or go down to the beach and rent a little hut. Writing happens for me all day, every day, man. In fact, I've been writing a book of poetry for about 15 years which I've never finished. I really keep telling myself I'm going to get around to finishing it.
You've really been in one group or another since 1972. Was it difficult to leave that world and enter into the solo artist world?
Well, actually, yeah, that was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make in my life - to leave the Miracles - they were my brothers and I had grown up with them as a child. We were from the same neighborhood. That was a rough decision for me, but at the time, my two - adults they are now - babies had been born and I got tired of being away from them all the time. The Miracles and I had done everything that a group could do; we had done it three or four times. So that was a decision I had to make. I was vice president of Motown at the time, and I figured I'd just do that and I had no inkling of coming back to show business, no desire to return. But after three years of going to the office every day, I was climbing the walls, and that's why I decided to come back and be a solo artist.
I've had a chance to tour Motown and the environment was very democratic in which people working at the label had a vote on what songs should be recorded and other similar decisions like that. Do you think that made you a better artist?
Well, absolutely, because what we had at Motown was competitive love. We were all competing against each other but we all loved each other so we all helped each other out but at the same time all competing against each other.
Did the process vary in terms of writing songs for The Miracles as opposed to writing songs for other artists such as Mary Wells?
It was the same thing for me, whomever I had the idea to write the song for; it was the same whether it was the Supremes, the Temptations or the Marvelettes.
How do you think the music industry's evolution has changed the recording process from your time at Motown?
When I started as a teenager, before Motown, we would use other recording studios in Detroit and everybody who was going to be on that record had to be in the studio at the same time because they just recorded you on one track and the producer and engineer mixed at the time it was recorded. Nowadays, most of the time people who record on the same record may never even see each other. Many people now have home studios, Pro Tools is the recording king now as far as method of recording.
How did you record your “Timeless Love” album?
Well, it's a CD of standard tunes - Gershwin, Porter, Cohen and people like that - because I've been singing their songs in concert in my life for about the last 14 years. It was the music that I was first influenced by and the first music I ever remember hearing in my home. How I recorded was to get a big studio room and we recorded everybody at the same time, and it was a blast. We had like concerts; it was so much fun.
How did you breathe new life into these old standards?
It's just the way I feel them. That's the best answer I can give, it's my interpretation of those songs. My conductor is a guy by the name of Sonny Burke, and he and I got together and I mapped out how I wanted a song to be and then he did the arrangements.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in urban studies, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman tinkered with the idea of returning to the halls of academia to earn a medical degree. He also thought about a law degree after receiving acceptance into Yale University, but in the end the richly historic and unique world of jazz captured his interests.
In the latter part of 1991, Redman entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition on a whim and won it. Warner Brothers Records then offered him a contract and his debut album with the label was released in 1992.
Redman, who has musical talent in his blood with his father being famed sax man Dewey Redman, grew up in Berkeley, Calif., with his mother in a one-bedroom apartment.
Wy: For those listeners searching the liner notes of your latest album 'Elastic' for a bass player, could you explain who's playing the bass lines and how is it being accomplished?
Redman: It's a trio. It's myself on saxophone. Sam Yahel plays a variety of keyboards. Our original drummer was Brian Blade, but these days we're mostly playing with a great drummer, Jeff Ballard, whom I think is going to be with us when we come to L.A. There is a bass player, but he's also the keyboard player. What Sam does is he has the equipment and the ability to kind of play a lot of different roles at once. He plays the bass parts mostly on an old analog synthesizer that he makes sound a lot like a bass, and then he plays keyboard parts on Fender Rhodes and other synthesizers. He also plays a fair amount of Hammond B-3 organ.
Your keyboardist, Sam Yahel, not only plays as the keyboardist, but he also plays the keys that serve as the songs' bass lines. He not only plays the keys wonderfully, but he moves rather well as a keyboardist running bass lines. Were you looking for someone on the keys, who could do that for this album?
I thought about doing an album like this for a long time. What I've done up to this point has been almost entirely acoustic jazz and the music has mostly been swing-based, not as much groove-based. I always thought that someday I'd do a record that would be more groove-based with a wider variety of instruments, electric as well as acoustic instruments. But I always thought in that situation that I would have an electric bass player and maybe an electric guitar player and who knows maybe a DJ, a horn section, you know, Go Go dancers. I always thought it was going to be a bigger spectacle. I never imagined I'd be playing music like this in a trio format, but it just so happened that by accident I started to play this music with Sam and Brian in a different context. Something about the chemistry we had and our personalities, the way they intersected musically, it really worked and I found that even though it wasn't the original instrumentation I envisioned, that somehow being just a trio made the music in a certain way more open. There was more freedom and that's something that's very important for us in this band. We want to be able to groove. We want the music to have a great feeling of power and force, but we also wanted to remain very open and interactive. That for me is what jazz is about -- the spontaneity, the improvisation in the music. I found that with this band we can kind of do both, have our cake and eat it too. So I definitely wanted the groove, but when I found I could do it with this kind of instrumentation, I found it had a lot of advantages.
Does it pose a challenge at times?
Sure, it's a great challenge at times. With three musicians, we're playing music that should really be played by six in a lot of ways. Through the challenge we grow and it make us better musicians. We discover things that we wouldn't otherwise discover. Sometimes the most creative things happen when you have to face a lot of challenges, when you have to surmount a lot of obstacles.
This album is all about grooves and some songs I couldn't help but think of a rubber band, which makes sense with the title. The grooves are tight, but they are able to stretch so they're just as much tight as they are flexible. There seems to be a lot of freedom on the saxophone but at the same time the compositions seem nailed down, so it's an interesting piece of work in that I think the listener doesn't know when the improvisation begins and the composition ends or vice versa. How did you develop the presentation of the music on this album?
The way we developed this music was, well, first you have to understand that Sam, Brian and I had been playing together informally for about two years in a totally different musical context as an organ trio under Sam's leadership. We had familiarity with each other as musicians. So when it came time to for me to start moving this band in another direction, we had something to build upon. We have chemistry, a rapport. So the first thing we kind of had to figure out was how the instrumentation worked and Sam and I did some research on experimenting with different kinds of keyboards and sounds. Then we started to rehearse the music, and we went out on the road and started playing the music. We did about three weeks on the road before we recorded the album. When we got in the studio we basically recorded all of the tunes live and then found good takes of each tune. Then from that point we enhanced them a little bit, always with the sense of balancing composition and improvisation. Improvisation is the most important thing. We're jazz musicians and it's the essence of the music. That's one of the most important things about the music and that's what we live for. I mean, 90 percent of what you hear is improvised, but I think with this band, perhaps more so than with any other band that I've had, there's a real heightened compositional sense. The compositions themselves are maybe more involved, but also what's important is the sense that the improvisations take place within a compositional framework so that even though we're taking solos, we're doing so with the sense that it's a part of something larger. From beginning to end, we are trying to tell a story. We are trying to create something that has shape.
You mentioned you went on the road and then went into the studio. It seems like more and more rock and pop bands are doing this nowadays where they are taking their songs out on the road and then coming back and recording them. What do you think this does for the song?
It's hard for me to answer that question because I don't know of any other way of doing it. With jazz, generally that is the way we work because jazz musicians don't have the luxury of being able to sit in the studio for six months and come up with a few power chords and create a masterpiece rock record. We generally have to have our stuff together before we set foot in the studio. I find that the more you've played the music on the road, the more you really understand the music and the more the music becomes real. You can write a composition from beginning to end, but until you've played it and performed it, it's almost like you haven't really given birth to the music yet. I would love to be able to have the luxury of spending a lot of time in the studio and really develop things in the studio because I really think there is a creative process that can happen in there which is unique. I think about some of the great pop and rock records made over the years, and a lot of those were made with a tremendous amount of time spent in the studio.
For any of your songs on any of your records, how do you pick which saxophone you want to use for each tune?
Each has a different voice and certain voices sound better on certain songs. The way I pick which one I'm going to use is the one that sounds the best. It's hard to put into words what the different instruments are like, but say you compare the tenor sax to the soprano. The tenor sax, which is my main instrument, has a very powerful, full-bodied sound, a muscular sound. It has a tenderness and a poignancy to it and it's in general, a fuller, richer sound. The soprano is a more mysterious and more haunting sound. It also depends on how the song is written and what octave the melody is in. Certain melodies sound better in certain octaves. It also depends on what the other musicians are doing. What I've tried to do over the years is develop the certain saxophones to the point where each one really is it's own independent voice where I can be expressive on each one. As a saxophone player, if you can play one then you can pick up any of the others and get a sound out of it, but just because you can physically play it doesn't mean you can really express yourself on it.
On this album, you're also overdubbing the soprano and tenor with harmony parts over some of the songs. In this process, are you actually writing out harmonies or are you listening to the songs and then just throwing things in spontaneously?
This is the first time I've ever done this on an album. So, in sense it was my first experience with being a little bit more creative in the studio. The improvisation in the studio, playing live, became the basis for more composition. So in other words, maybe there was something I played on the saxophone that was just an improvised idea that all of a sudden made me think about what would it sound like if I harmonized that or there's a certain keyboard part that Sam's playing and I would think of what it would sound like if I had a horn section underneath it. It's a very creative and exciting process for me and I feel like I've only scratched the surface of it as a jazz musician.
On the song 'Boogielastic' I hear hints of Radiohead happening there and you strike me as the person who listens to everything. In being a part of such a free art form that's always evolving, how do you feel your interest in all kinds of music has influenced both your technique and writing style?
There's really no style of music that I don't listen to except I've never really got into a lot of country and western. I like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock, and a lot of classic soul and R&B. I came of age with hip-hop and so most forms of pop music I've listened to and been influenced by. It gives you so many options, so many resources. I think the fact I enjoy so many different kinds of music, it gives me a wider perspective and more fuel for the fire, more ideas and inspirations. I think it's a great advantage as a jazz musician to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. As a jazz musician you're being called upon to improvise to create something in the moment from scratch and I think the more you've listened to in a certain sense, the more material you have to work with. The danger of course is losing focus because I can listen to John Coltrane one minute and say that I just want my music to sound like that or I can listen to Stevie Wonder the next minute and want my music to sound like that or I can listen to Nirvana the next minute and say if I had electric guitars I would want my music to sound like that. You can't start to lose focus, but actually now in my life and in my music, I'm starting now to have more focus and be able to bring all of the different influences in to develop a sound which is my own.