Robinson’s songwriting prowess quickly became the stuff of legend. He not only matched but bested many of the offerings from his contemporaries. He answered the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” with the Miracles’ early hit “Got a Job.” He countered Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” with the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” And one night, having just completed “I Second That Emotion” with a friend, Robinson was asked by a young Stevie Wonder at a party for help writing what would become “Tears of a Clown.” Only the renowned creative team of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Edward Holland Jr. surpassed Robinson in the number of Motown hits they wrote and produced. And to be fair, there were three of them, and they didn’t have to tour.
Gordy often said that Motown — which was sold in 1988, leading to Robinson’s eventual departure as an executive and an artist — was modeled on the neighboring auto plants’ assembly lines, but the metaphor was always loose. The assembly line worked by reducing and making routine every human motion so that man became an adjunct to the machine. Motown, on the other hand, was about allowing all sorts of unruly human emotions and aspirations, hopes, dreams, and loves to be expressed and channeled into words and music — and ultimately played back through machines. Bits of conversation, real-life drama, ideas as old as the blues, sheer whimsy — it seemed that anything could be thrown onto the Motown production line in those days. And nobody did it better than Robinson.
Robinson snaps out of the past and back into the present as the limo pulls up to the auditorium overlooking Chicago’s lakeshore. As he is ushered in, he stops to chat with host and interviewer Gwen Ifill, who promises she’s going to “dig deep” during the onstage session to come. “Dig on,” says the bemused Robinson. “I don’t care.”
Onstage, Robinson is the perfect guest; he’s engaging, charming, and radiating with joie de vivre. Guided by Ifill, he covers some of the history that he’d already recounted to me during the past hour and some new areas as well. He talks about Detroit’s street-corner doo-woppers of the late 1950s, and how one of those groups — Northern High School’s the Five Chimes — became the Matadors, which later became the Miracles. He talks about the group’s failed audition and first meeting with pre-Motown Berry Gordy Jr. He talks about his leaving the Miracles, his reemergence as a solo act in the 1970s, his 1980s victory over drug addiction, his faith in God, and the blessing of his late-in-life second marriage.