With 4,000 songs to his credit in his 50-year music career, there’s a good chance you’ll happen upon a Smokey Robinson hit in a Spotify playlist. But, on top of being a renowned singer and songwriter, Robinson is a part-time Pittsburgher, and owns a home in the area with his wife, Frances and is a partner in Smokey Robinson Wines, based here.
According to Nielsen, US wine sales over the holidays will be over $1 billion. Robinson knew that sort of growth would be a good opportunity to continue his legacy and grow a new audience. According to Louis Caputo, one of the partners responsible for helping Robinson bring his wine to life: “Smokey is an icon. He is class and perfection and with wine you can get as close to that as possible. With his history, getting behind a product like that, we just think he can touch his fan and wine audiences in a different way.’”
The Current got a chance to sit down with the Robinson to talk about wine, the holidays, and some of his favorite things.
How did you get involved in the wine business?
These two guys (gestures to Louis Caputo and Robert “Bob” Buzelli). My wife is a Pittsburgher, so she’s known Bob for a while, and she introduced me to him at the Kentucky Derby one year, and he and I became friends, and he introduced me to Lou. They talked to me about doing a wine company. I started to taste grapes and wine, and here we are.
You were born in Detroit, but you have a strong connection to Pittsburgh. When did that start and how did that sort of grown.
I’ve always loved Pittsburgh, I’ve loved Pittsburgh since I came here many, many years ago, way before you were born, way before your parents were born. I came here to play at a place called the White Elephant with the Miracles, the group I was singing with. And so, I’ve always loved Pittsburgh, but my real bond with it now is my wife. I’ve known my wife for 30 years, and we’ve been married for 17.
You are an incredible songwriter. When did you realize you had this knack for songwriting?
Honey, I’ve been trying to write songs since I was four or five years old. I’m serious about that. The first song that I ever wrote that anyone ever heard of, other than my mom and me, I was in first grade, and I was in the school play, and a teacher let me write a song for it, and so I’ve been trying to do that all my life. Professionally, I met Berry Gordy, I graduated from high school when I was 16 in June. I met him in August of that year by chance. I had a singing idol, Jackie Wilson, and Berry Gordy was a songwriter and record producer in Detroit and he had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson. I had all of Jackie Wilson’s records. The Miracles and I went to audition for Jackie Wilson’s managers. We sang five songs that I had written rather than what was currently popular by other artists, and they hated us. They told us that we would never make it. Berry happened to be there and he liked a couple of the songs. He came out afterwards and introduced himself, and he started to teach me how to write songs professionally. That’s when I started to write songs professionally, when I met him.
Did the songwriting come before the singing, or were they happening at the same time?
Oh no, my mom said I was singing from the time I could open my mouth. I always sang around the house. I grew up in a music house. There was always music. Singing and music and stuff like that was a part of me from pre-birth (laughs); from embryo-ism.
If you could choose, would you rather be viewed more as a singer or a songwriter?
I don’t care. I don’t really have a preference on that. I hope people remember me for being a good person who loved the Lord.
What’s your favorite song written by you and performed by someone else?
I don’t have that either.
You’ve written like, 4,000 songs…
When someone records one of my songs, I’m totally flattered and totally overwhelmed by it, always. When young rappers first came out and they first started sampling people’s songs, people would ask me all the time, “Aren’t you upset that they’re sampling your songs?” No, I’m not. Sample all of mine, please. Because if you sample my song, that says that that song had an influence on your musical self, and you liked it enough to put it in one of your songs. Plus, I’m going to make some money (laughs). So, I don’t have a favorite.
So I’m guessing it’s also hard to choose a favorite artist that you’ve worked with or even a favorite song you’ve written?
Oh yeah, I can’t do that. The only favorite thing that I can tell you I have is a favorite album of all time. It’s “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, because it’s prophecy. It came out in 1970-something, and it’s more poignant today than when it came out. That’s the only favorite I can tell you I have.
How have the holidays been for you over the years? Now, earlier in your career and growing up?
Honey. I’m very blessed. Growing up as a child, I was poor. My oldest sister, who was 17 when I was born, ended up being my mother, because my mother passed away when I was 10. My dad was still alive, but my older sister raised me as my mom. And she ended up having 10 kids of her own, so there were 11 of us. And we grew up in the hood, and we were struggling, but we didn’t know because everybody there was under the same conditions. We still had good Christmases because we loved each other. There’s an organization called Goodfellows that would come and bring us toys at Christmas when we were kids. But since I’ve been grown, all of my Christmases are beautiful. Like I said, I’m very blessed. I think once you are grown, you don’t think about Christmas like you used to, except for the fact of how fast it comes. When I was a kid, Christmas didn’t come but every three or four years. And now it’s here every week.
Favorite holiday food? You’re a wine guy, but what do you like to eat during the holidays?
Well, I like the traditional holiday foods. I’m a vegan, and for the last three or four years I haven’t had any meat, but I like the traditional holiday foods: macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, dressing, and turkey and all that. I don’t eat the turkey anymore.
Cranberry sauce preference: homemade or in the can?
I like the can. I don’t like the one with the little cranberries in it. I’ve never liked that. I like the can, it’s almost like gelatin.
What’s something about Pittsburgh that you wish more people were aware of?
The progression. Pittsburgh is probably the most progressive eastern city we have left. The rest of them are dying, basically. The maintenance and the upkeep of them, and the input is not the same. Pittsburgh is very, very conscious of that kind of thing, and it’s probably the most progressive eastern city that we have left.
You’ve been all over the world, so what makes you say that?
Pittsburgh. That’s the answer. You live here. Have you been anywhere else?
I lived in New York for a couple months.
Ok, so what do you think?
I like it, I mean… Pittsburgh also feels like home —
Absolutely. See, I love New York, for about 12 days (laughs). But I feel the same way about Hawaii. I’ve never been to any place in the world that I love for living as Los Angeles, but I do love Pittsburgh because, like I said, it’s very progressive and there’s a lot happening here, and all those things like that, and I’m very happy that I had the connection with it that I do, and I’m happy that my wife is from here, because I got a chance to see it first-hand and the intimacy of it. I’ve had the chance to know Pittsburgh and to really love it.
Interview has been condensed for clarity and length.