Smokey Robinson at SXSW: From Singer to Label-Owner


Sam Machkovech

Smokey Robinson seemed like a natural fit for a keynote conversation at the South By Southwest Music Festival. A legend as much for his voice as for his singular songwriting, the best-known Miracle and the biggest singer associated with Motown Records doesn't just have a new record of original songs that he's still supporting from last year. He also put it out.

"It's the first time starting my own record label," Robinson said shortly after taking the Austin keynote stage in appropriate attire: leather jacket, leather boots. "And it's a whole lot more than I bargained for."

At times, the keynote teetered in this direction, making sense of a new music industry through Robinson's perspective. But it wasn't Smokey's favorite talking territory. When asked if he might release other artists on his record label, Robinson's trademark smile faded: "Our label is still in its infancy. I'm working my own CD like mad. I thought, you know, especially in today's world, you make a record, you put it online, you put it in some stores, and that's it. Well, that's NOT it!" He paused to laugh with the crowd, then quickly admitted, "It's a day-to-day grind."

So it was no surprise to see Robinson direct the conversation to the infancy of his career—and for the crowd to gobble up his charismatic storytelling. He went for laughs and awe with his every tale: his earliest musical memory ("The first singing voice I remember hearing was Sarah Vaughan"); his first meeting with eventual Motown boss Barry Gordy at an audition; the inspiration for one of his largest solo singles, "Cruisin'"; the young artists he still befriends to this day ("I met Joss Stone when she was 14 years old. I told her that day she was Aretha Joplin"); and even the day Gordy convinced him to leave Motown Records as its Vice President: "I want you to get a band, I want you to make a record, and I want you to get the hell out of here," Robinson recounted about the last point, his smile beaming to be out of the cloud of administration.

The stories may not have been new, but the access to the legend in a small Austin convention room was enough to keep the SXSW-hangover crowd hanging onto his every classic story. Musically, he doesn't get to enjoy such comfort with an album of new songs, Time Flies When You're Having Fun, but the making of that record gave him a chance to reflect on the way he used to make records at Motown's Hit Factory. "When I first started making records, you had to be in the studio that day, that time, 'cause there was no other day to do it. There was no going back and remixing. Nowadays, I could record with somebody in London right now, that's how far the tech has come."

He took that to heart when putting together Time Flies, keeping all musicians in the studio for every take. Though the band lost a bit of sonic edge, Robinson admits, he'd rather lose that than the emotion of the full-band session. "I'm gonna do it like that from now on, I'm telling you," he said. "It reverted back to the old days of recording. It was so inspirational."