Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Music legend Smokey Robinson has made his way to NPR's Tiny Desk


Smokey Robinson was watching a video online.


ANDERSON PAAK: (Vocalizing) Ay, you might not ever come down. Nah, nah, want to get down. Help me out now.


It was a performance by a much younger artist who he's gotten to know and work with in recent years - the singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, Anderson .Paak.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: I call him my nephew. He calls me Uncle Smoke, you know? And he was going to come on it. And so I saw him, and I was wondering, why is he playing that little office like this? You know, what's up with that?

SUMMERS: That office is also our office. The video was from Anderson .Paak's Tiny Desk concert. That's where musicians, known and unknown, play stripped-down concerts. And that starts the chain of communications, which results in Smokey Robinson, who has, at this point, played just about every other type of venue there is to play in music, singing from behind a cubicle at his own Tiny Desk concert.

ROBINSON: I have never played anything like this ever. That's what I was looking so forward - you know, we've been talking about this for a long time.


ROBINSON: (Singing) Quiet storm blowin'...

SUMMERS: Smokey Robinson, who is now 83 years old, is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice - the first time as a solo act who did and still does a sultry, slow-burning vibe so well that an entire R&B subgenre was named after his song "Quiet Storm." The second time was as the lead singer and songwriter of The Miracles. That's the first group that Berry Gordy took on when he started the record label that became Motown. After his performance, I asked Smokey Robinson, after such a long career, how often he writes music today.

ROBINSON: It's whenever it comes, you know? I don't write like I need to go somewhere and isolate myself or something like that, or I'm going to take these two weeks to go write. It just comes. It's just there. It's - you know, it's just - I write all the time.

SUMMERS: Your new album is called "Gasms," and it's sensual - dare I say, even a little sexual.

ROBINSON: (Laughter) All right.

SUMMERS: You have been writing so many songs across your career about love and lust and romance and intimacy.


ROBINSON: (Singing) We fit together perfectly. We come to a meeting.

SUMMERS: What do you want the audience to feel when we are hearing those songs? What drives you to keep coming back to that well of topics?

ROBINSON: Well, I think that love is probably the most important subject you can write about, really. It's the most - it's the greatest emotion that we have as people, you know? Love tops everything. Love is the catalyst. You know, we should all learn it. If everybody did, we'd have a much better planet.

SUMMERS: I mean, there's this perception in this country that when you reach a certain age, you stop feeling some of these feelings, you stop talking about intimacy. We're very hushed about all of this.

ROBINSON: I don't want to reach that age (laughter).

SUMMERS: You haven't gotten there yet?

ROBINSON: No, no, no, no. I don't want to reach that age.


ROBINSON: We dedicate this one to all the ladies.


ROBINSON: No, I don't want to get to the point where love is not important or I don't think that women are attractive or - I don't want to get there.

SUMMERS: Well, we just heard you dedicate a song to the ladies, so clearly that's not the case.

ROBINSON: Yeah. You know, it's a - I can't imagine being that way (laughter). You know, I think that, you know, age is a frame of mind, and it's going how you feel. 'Cause I feel 40.


ROBINSON: (Singing) I love you. Yes, I love you. I guess, my dear, that's why I need you.

But I'm very blessed and very happy to have lived for this long and to have my life be something that was my impossible dream as a kid.


ROBINSON: Here's one that I wrote with Stevie Wonder.


SUMMERS: I mean, I'm a person who grew up in my mom's kitchen back home steeped in Motown. So I have to ask you, as you're thinking about the foundation that you played in Motown and looking at the music landscape of today, do you think there could ever be anything like Motown again? Do you see it?

ROBINSON: No, I don't. I think that Motown was a once-in-a-lifetime musical event, really, you know? Nothing had been like that before that time. And I doubt, seriously, if anything like that will ever happen again.


ROBINSON: (Singing) But ain't too much sadder than tears of a clown.

SUMMERS: What made it so special?

ROBINSON: Well, first of all, see, if you going to talk about that for me, my answer to that is, first of all, Berry Gordy. You know, Berry Gordy is my best friend. And for a dude who - with a high school education, to pull off something like Motown, you know, that's a special guy. You know, back in those days when Motown got started, you know, a lot of record companies were run by attorneys or other guys who had money, and they just wanted to get into as a novelty or something like that - in the record companies. And very few of them were run by music men, but we were.

SUMMERS: At this point in your career, what keeps you going? What makes you so excited about the music still today?

ROBINSON: I can't find anything in life that I love like this. You know, people say, well, how come you ain't retired and go somewhere? You know, I tried it. I tried retiring.

SUMMERS: You did?

ROBINSON: Didn't work for me. You know, I can't find anything that I'd rather be doing workwise other than this. When you have a job that you look forward to going to and you can't wait to get there, that's a blessing. So I'm blessed.

SUMMERS: That's a real gift. But in terms of the music, is there a direction you want to explore? Are there are things that are inspiring you?

ROBINSON: Music itself inspires me, you know? So I don't know what's going to come. Like I said, I don't know. It just comes. So I have no idea what's going to come to me next musically, but music itself.


ROBINSON: (Singing) And the way is clear.

I love music. I love all kinds of music. You know, I grew up in a home where I heard every kind of music you can think of all day of my life. You know, I had two older sisters. They played jazz and bebop, you know? My mom played the Five Blind Boys and The Ward Singers and all those gospel groups. And then some days, she would just play Muddy Waters and B.B. King and the blues and all that. And then sometimes she would play Bach and Beethoven and Chopin and - you know, so I had a great dose of music growing up, and I love all kinds of music.

SUMMERS: Smokey Robinson, thank you for coming to the Tiny Desk, and thanks for talking to us on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBINSON: Well, I thank the Tiny Desk 'cause, like I said, we've been looking so forward to coming here, doing this. And we had a ball. It was so much fun.


ROBINSON: (Singing) The music is played for love. Cruising is made for love.

SUMMERS: And you can watch Smokey Robinson's Tiny Desk concert now at


ROBINSON: (Singing) Baby, tonight belongs to us. Everything's right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.