Smokey Robinson just dropped his first album of new material in 14 years, a nine-track collection provocatively titled “Gasms.”
At 83, the iconic Motown singer-songwriter says he’s feeling creatively charged, still randomly struck by song inspirations in his day-to-day life, whether driving or playing golf – ideas he often records with a quick call to his own voicemail.
Some of the new songs have actually been in the works for years (indeed, three tracks feature work by Ricky Lawson, the acclaimed Detroit session drummer who died in 2013). They find Robinson applying his feathery, falsetto-touched voice to assorted love songs and sultry late-night serenades.
In one case, Robinson even reaches back to his Motor City youth with a heartfelt cover of the 1960 personal fave “Beside You,” as once recorded by the doo-wop group the Flamingos.
Robinson recalls listening to the Flamingos' jukebox tune at a Detroit confectionery while hanging out with childhood friend Aretha Franklin: “I regretted that she didn’t get a chance to hear (my version) because it was one of our favorite songs,” he says of the late Detroit star.
“Gasms” comes as Robinson embarks on a busy round of touring that will include an Aug. 5 homecoming show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, and his team is in talks with film companies about a Smokey biopic that may begin production later this year.
How about that album title?
When “Gasms” was announced in January – along with a track list featuring song titles such as “I Wanna Know Your Body” and “I Fit in There” – it certainly raised eyebrows in some quarters of the R&B world, where fans are accustomed to a Smokey Robinson who sticks to a PG brand of romance.
“I know that’s a controversial title,” Robinson says, laughing. “I think when people hear the word ‘Gasms,’ their mind first goes to orgasms. But ‘gasms’ is any good feeling you might have.”
On the breathy title track, Robinson sings of “eye-gasms, when I look at you it makes me feel better than good” and “ear-gasms, when I hear your voice my eardrums start to quiver.”
The album’s lead single, “If We Don’t Have Each Other,” has a slide-dance feel that’s a departure for Robinson, who heralds the album as an updated spin on his vintage style: “I’m really excited about it because it’s a mixture of old and new at the same time,” he says. “That’s the flavoring on this.”
Smokey’s special bond with Berry Gordy
In February, Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy were jointly honored for the first time, celebrated as the 2023 MusiCares Persons of the Year at a glitzy pre-Grammy ceremony in LA. The night was a tribute to two longtime friends who together spearheaded the Motown empire.
“I just think we’re people who have that charisma together, that gelling with each other, those parts of the person that make you best friends,” Robinson says. “We understand each other. And we made a pact when we very first met that we would never let anything come between us. And we haven’t.”
From Motown's modest origins – when he joined Gordy and three employees in a West Grand Boulevard home office in 1959 – the label's story became a series of triumphant milestones, Robinson recalls.
“It was just a buildup of things. There were thousands of those instances for me,” he says. One week, “we had eight of the top 10 records on the Billboard chart, you know? We had a lot of moments like that.”
Hearing his songs interpreted by other artists
At MusiCares, Robinson watched proudly as an array of singers, from Brandi Carlile to Chloe X Halle, performed his compositions made famous by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, his own Miracles and others. Robinson’s songs have been covered on thousands of recordings through the decades, but he says it never gets old.
“As a songwriter, I want to write music that people will be singing forever,” he says. “I want to be Beethoven, man.”
He adds: “Most of the people who have recorded my music are songwriters themselves. There are a billion songs in the world. So when somebody picks one of mine, that’s a dream come true for me.”
Robinson recently launched a line of wines
Guests at February’s MusiCares event were treated to bottles of wine featuring names such as My Girl Chardonnay and Being With You Pinot Noir.
Smokey Robinson Wines, launched under the Grapevine Ventures banner with business adviser Bob Buzzelli and attorney Louis Caputo, is a line of California varieties that also includes a Second That Emotion Cabernet and Cruisin’ Bordeaux Blend. The wines debuted to the public in 2018.
Robinson doesn’t consider himself a connoisseur – he’s not even a big drinker – so he set out to create mild blends “for people like me.”
“I was involved from the very beginning. I didn’t want them to just put my name on some existing wine,” he says. “So I tasted grapes, tasted nuts, wine ingredients and so forth a year before we even came out with the first bottles.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Smokey Robinson talks new 'Gasms' album, controversial title and all