Exclusive Interview: Berry Gordy & Smokey Robinson (Part 1)

Exclusive Interview: Berry Gordy & Smokey Robinson (Part 1)

We recently caught up with Motown founder Berry Gordy and Motown legend Smokey Robinson to discuss the Motown legacy, their friendship and how Gordy went about creating Motown the Musical.


There are so many fantastic songs as part of the Motown legacy how did you decide which ones to release?

Berry: That’s pretty easy because we had a quality control meeting every week and we would vote on the records that we thought were the best. When I first met Smokey he was not a very good writer but he was the greatest poet I had ever heard. I taught him how to write songs and that was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life, because before that I was writing all the songs and I was the head of everything and my songs were the best. Even before Motown, Jackie Wilson was the best! And then of course he comes along and he was the greatest poet, he could rhyme everything but he didn’t know how to write songs and so after teaching him I started slowly but surely bringing his records into quality control meetings and they were kind of catching up with mine. Eventually he began to write better than me. One of the things in our quality control meeting was that it didn’t matter who you were or who was voting on your records, whatever it was had to be honest and true and I had to prove to them that I meant that, that they were completely immune to criticism. So naturally they wanted to prove me, see if I was right or wrong, so they started voting on Smokey’s records over mine! To see if I was right in what I was saying they tested me. So whenever my record would come up against Smokey’s, they would vote on his! To see if I was really serious…

Smokey: I was paying them all off!

Berry: So they started picking songs like “Tracks of my Tears” and “Tears of a Clown” and “My Girl” and all those things over some of my songs, which I can’t really remember at the moment!


How did you pick the songs for Motown the Musical?

Berry: We picked the songs that moved the story forward and meant something to the play. We did not want it to be a review or a concert or anything like that. It was a real story about Motown and how it was built and how we did it; the trials and tribulations that we had, the ups and downs and so forth. In most cases we could find great Motown songs that helped push the story forward and tell it like it was. There were a few new songs that I wrote just to tie the story in together but most of the great songs in the story were written by other people like Smokey and some of the other great writers.


One crucial element of the show is the friendship between you guys, how it’s ever present and constant in your life. When you first started collaborating with one another did you feel like there was something special there? That you were going to change the musical landscape?

Smokey: Well you know I did, because I always had faith and confidence in him [Berry]. When I met him he was a top song writer and Jackie Wilson was my number 1 singing idol so I had all his songs. We met quite by chance because the group that turned out to be named The Miracles, we weren’t called The Miracles at that time, went to audition for Jackie Wilson’s managers and Berry just happened to be there that day with some songs for Jackie Wilson. That’s how we hooked up, I always tell people it was a God day, it was a God day for me to meet him like that because he didn’t have to be there that day, we didn’t have to go and audition on the day that he was there. But that’s how it happened.

Berry: Actually they were turned down, because they had a girl in the group and there was another group called the Platters that had a girl in the group. And even though they sounded good and he [Smokey] was singing his heart out, they were just so cute and nice, especially the girl! Who I found out later was his girlfriend.

Smokey: After, he asked her to be his girlfriend!

Berry: They turned them down and I thought they were good, and then I talked to Smokey. He sang some more songs for me, I told him what was wrong with them and to go out and listen to the radio and so forth. Believe it or not, most of this is in the play because we tried to keep it as real and true to what really happened as we could. He did that, and when he came back I realised that he had made it and I no longer continued to teach him very much, but he continued and went on and he did something which we also show in the play which is historical. He had 1 record that went to number one called “My Guy” and it was so funny to us because when The Supremes came out with a song they went to number 1, he was challenged and he wrote a new song, when we found out what it was, it was called “My Girl”! I said we can’t have duplicates Smokey! You can’t just have a song “My Guy” and then come up with something [called] “My Girl”. But when we heard it, it was like night and day, only things that were similar were the titles, it was a totally different song.

Smokey: No he’s not telling you that they started asking me how many “My” songs was I going to write!? My Dog, my woman, my horse! My car?

Berry: It’s true, we were shocked at the fact that you would come up with the same title only switch the genders. But it was a totally different song. “Nothing you could do could make me untrue to my guy” and “I got sunshine on a cloudy day”, My Girl. Totally different, it was amazing. Then I realised this guy is somewhat of a genius! A lot of times he was locked out of the meetings because he never came on time. “My bus didn’t come!” and I said “You’re not even riding a bus, we had a car pick you up!”


Keep an eye out for the second part of this exclusive interview…

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