Which song drawn from his five-decades career does Smokey Robinson absolutely have to sing, lest the audience tear the seats out of the floor of the theater?
"There are 10 of those," Robinson says with a big laugh. So, to preserve the architectural integrity of the Eastman Theatre, where Robinson sings on Friday's opening night of the Rochester International Jazz Festival, he'd better deliver "Shop Around," "The Tracks of My Tears," "I Second That Emotion," "Quiet Storm," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Ebony Eyes," "Baby, Baby Don't Cry," "The Tears of a Clown," "Being With You" and maybe a couple that he wrote and produced for others, like the Temptations hit "My Girl."
That's a start for the guy who, along with Berry Gordy Jr., built Motown. Now 69 years old, he's preparing to release yet another album, with guest appearances from Joss Stone, India.Arie and Carlos Santana. "It's me being me in 2009," Robinson says. "It's called Time Flies When You're Having Fun, and that's how I feel about my life."
He wrote all of the songs, except for one, Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why." Very little seems to have changed from that Top 10 list. "I write about love," Robinson says. "Love is everlasting. Everything else, as far as I'm concerned, is trendy. I don't want to sing about dances or cars or something political, something that has a limit."
In his years, Robinson says, he has learned much about love. Mainly, "That it's unpredictable, and it's unto itself; there's nothing like it. It's absolutely the strongest emotion that we have. Even people who hate, hate for the love of something. Bigots of all races hate because they love their own kind."
As a young man growing up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit, Robinson heard the power of music drifting from the windows of homes and church doors. It is the righteous sound that informs all black music, particularly the early doo-wop of the group Robinson began singing with back then, the Miracles.
"My mom was a woman who went to church two or three times a week," he says. "My mom was (a) real woman. She lived her life real. We had gospel music in the house, and we lived in a black neighborhood, so gospel music is prevalent. I knew Aretha Franklin when I was growing up, and her father was one of the biggest ministers in the country."
And yet, "I am not religious by any means," he insists. "I just have a great relationship with God." The word he uses is spiritual. It was not religion, he says, but spirituality that rescued him from his darkest moments in the 1980s, when his love became cocaine. "That was when I learned how powerful it was," he says of the drug. He wrote openly of it in his 1989 autobiography, Smokey: Inside My Life.
He now speaks to groups about drug addiction, making it one of the things that he feels he can do to help. "Other than that, I never would have written it," Robinson says of the book. "I wouldn't do it otherwise, because I've always felt like I wanted to keep my life private. I was not cured. I was healed. I went through God, but I think everyone needs to connect with their spiritual self. Healing is a spiritual thing rather than a physical thing.
"There have been things that I have tried in my own singular way. People say, 'What can I do; I'm just one person?' Well, a whole lot of persons make up a group. A group has a point of view."
This man who wants only to write and sing about love has felt the power of that point of view many times over in his years. He was an active participant in the fight for Civil Rights in the 1960s. "I had to be, man," he says. "I was a black man in America at the time, traveling all over the world."
What he remembers most of those moments is "the ridiculousness of those trying to prevent it," Robinson says. He sees that repeated today, with a black man newly elected to the White House. "I only hope," Robinson says, "that Rev. Abernathy and Dr. King are somewhere where they can see this."