William “Smokey” Robinson hardly needs an introduction. With more than 4,000 songs to his credit spanning a musical career of 50-plus years, Robinson was one of the architects of the legendary Motown sound. Producing the label’s first million-selling hit, “Shop Around” in 1960, he charted countless others with The Miracles from 1960 into the ‘70s, wrote and produced tracks for other Motown hit makers, and served as the record company’s VP under lifelong friend and Motown founder Berry Gordy from 1961-1988.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990, Robinson performed at this year’s GRAMMY Awards on February 8, as part of a Four Tops tribute, including Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, and Duke Fakir, the only surviving Four Tops member. Onstage, the singer was a longtime believer in floor wedges when it came to meeting his monitoring needs, this until a fateful meeting with the late Luther Vandross changed his performing style forever.
“My production manager is this guy named Brian French, and Brian had tried to get me to switch to ear monitors for probably eight years,” Robinson admits. “I went to see Luther Vandross—who was a really good friend of mine—and he was at the Hollywood Bowl. Afterwards I went backstage, and he said, ‘Smoke, let me tell you, the ear monitors, they are really what’s happening. It’s like singing to yourself in the studio. When you saw me, when I came on, I was barely singing, because I could hear myself. I don’t have to strain; I don’t have to do anything.’
“Later I told Brian, ‘I saw Luther and he was telling me…’ Brian said, ‘Great man! I’m gonna have the lady come down to the studio and fit you.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ So they fitted me and the first concert that I used them on I could hear myself great, better than I ever could. It was a godsend. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing. It doesn’t matter what the acoustics are. It doesn’t matter if you’re outside or inside. It doesn’t matter if the wind is blowing. It doesn’t matter, whatever is happening, you can hear yourself. I tell everybody, I tell all the singers I know, who haven’t tried them. I told Gladys Knight, ‘Gladys, get the ear monitor. Get it baby, because it is what’s happening.’ I told Aretha, ‘Get the ear monitor because it’s what’s happening.’ It saves your voice. When we do concerts, I’m not kidding, I sing for two-and-a-half hours. I don’t have to strain because I can hear me.”
Timeless Love, Robinson’s latest record released in 2006, was, according to the artist, tracked with all the musicians present at once. “We just did the stuff live, man,” he relates, grinning with his wide and famous smile, “and I had a ball. I haven’t had that much fun recording in years, because it was like doing a concert in the studio.”
Robinson’s tour schedule this year will include stops at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ, on April 17 and 18 as well as a date at the Star of the Desert Arena in Jean, NV, on May 23.
For more information, visit www.smokeyrobinson.com