ED GORDON, host:
The silky voice of R&B pioneer Smokey Robinson connects five decades of American music. Over those years, Robinson has created thousands of songs that have earned him the title of America's Poet Laureate of Love. The legendary singer and songwriter spoke earlier with NPR's Farai Chideya about his new CD. It's a collection of standards called, Timeless Love.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Let me start out with asking you for reminiscence. Tell me about a time that you first heard one of the songs that you recorded on this album of standards.
Mr. SMOKEY ROBINSON (Singer/Songwriter): Oh, probably I was - I know I heard them before I knew that I was hearing them. Because, you know, I heard them as a baby, because I had two older sisters and my mom and that's the music that was played at our house and in our home. All day long there was music, which I'm very happy about, you know.
But these songs that are included on this CD are songs that I've been hearing all my life.
(Soundbite of song, I'm in the Mood for Love)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) I'm in the mood for love, simply because you're near me.
I always tell people that these songs were written like when the song was king, because - see, it's a different thing nowadays. An artist makes a song and the artist is basically the focal point. At the time these songs were written, these songs - when a hit song was written, it was sung and recorded by everybody. And so I've heard each one of these songs by several people.
(Soundbite of song, Fly Me to the Moon)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Fly me to moon and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.
CHIDEYA: What do you think that you bring to the table? Because, you know, you have such a rich, smooth voice and you play around with the vocal stylings. What do you bring to the table with these songs? What are you trying to convey with these songs as you sing them?
Mr. ROBINSON: You know what, honey, the only thing that I can see to answer you on that question is I'm bringing me. These songs are songs that I've been singing in my live show about the past 14 years or so.
CHIDEYA: And you've even recorded some of these standards before. I think dating back to the 60s? Is that correct?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A couple of them I recorded with The Miracles, and they are two of my favorite songs: I've Got You Under My Skin and Speak Low.
(Soundbite of song, Speak Low)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Speak low. When you speak low, a hot summer day withers away too soon, too soon.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about a moment in your life when you were really low and music lifted you up.
Mr. ROBINSON: How many - do you want to hear the top 20 on that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Give us a couple of cuts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: You know what I mean. Wow. There's been many of those times. And I think that music is a great comforter. But I think that one of the lowest points in my musical life was when I left The Miracles, because they were guys that I had grown up with. I mean, I knew those guys since I was 10 years old. And we grew up in the same neighborhood and we've been singing together since we were like, 12 years old and like that, you know.
So when I decided that I was going to leave the group, it was a very low period for me. And I felt like I was never going to do this again because I was vice president of Motown at the time. So I figured, I'd say, I just go to my office every day, do that and just - I might write some songs for some people or produce some records on some people. But I will never, ever do this again myself.
And so, you know, after going to the office every day for about three years, I was climbing the walls because I missed this. But I think that being involved in music kind of carried me through that.
(Soundbite of song, I Can't Give You Anything But Love)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby. That's the only thing I have plenty of, baby.
CHIDEYA: Like a lot of musicians, I understand that you went through a period of addiction.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes.
CHIDEYA: And you're well out of that now. At that time, was music a blessing or a curse? Because sometimes the access to substances that control you comes through fame or comes through the industry, if not music itself.
Mr. ROBINSON: You know what, honey, I'm glad you brought that up because I disagree with you totally.
Mr. ROBINSON: You know what I mean? What I do now is I go and I speak. I speak all the time, everywhere, you know. I am one of the national spokespersons for the drug rehabilitation graduation sessions all over the country. And I go and I speak. But it's almost like a resent for me when people say, well, you know you're in show business so you had access to the drugs and the drugs are there and everything.
Drugs are everywhere. In fact, the person who introduced me to the drug that really got me going for those two and a half years that I did that was not in show business at all, you know. So I made that mistake (unintelligible) in my life. But thank God, and I do thank God, because I came out of it through prayer.
CHIDEYA: You're a strong man. And your music I'm sure has given comfort and strength to a lot of other people. What kinds of stories do people tell you who have a chance to meet you about what your music has meant to them?
Mr. ROBINSON: I hear a lot of good stories. And, like I said, I am so blessed, man. I am so blessed because I'm living a life that I absolutely love. And it's a blessing to me when people come to me and say things like that. See, I'm not a person, I'm not an entertainer - many entertainers get to the point where they hide out or they isolate themselves from people. I will never, ever do that because I like - I love people. I love meeting people.
And when they tell me how much enjoyment or whatever enjoyment they've gotten from my music, it always makes me feel (unintelligible) to say, hey man, I was conceived to one of your songs.
CHIDEYA: I'm sure there's a lot of babies that were made to your music.
Mr. ROBINSON: So that makes me feel good. Or if I meet, I'm in the airport and a guy comes up to me and say, Brother Smokey, I am from Tanganyika, I love your music. I can't believe people in Tanganyika are hearing my music. But, you know, it's a blessing and it makes me very happy.
CHIDEYA: Smokey Robinson, thank you so much.
Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you, honey.
(Soundbite of song, I've Got You Under My Skin)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) I've got you under my skin.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. You can hear more of her conversation with Smokey Robinson and listen to songs from his new album, Timeless Love, on our Web site at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
GORDON: That's out program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.
(Soundbite of song, I've Got You Under My Skin)
Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) …until you're really a part of me. I've got you under my skin.
GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.