*Los Angeles, CA – Smokey Robinson once wrote a song called “When The Words From Your Heart Get Caught Up In Your Throat” – which had to be one of the longest R&B song titles up to then.
It was the B-side to “If You Can Want.” Smokey had a huge influence on me as an up and coming songwriter. Growing up, we did not have a musical instrument in our home; just a record player.
So, I listened intently to records and began making up my own words and melodies. Then I’d beat on the side of the couch, or an empty cornmeal box for my rhythm. Smokey became my main teacher (Sam Cooke was first). I listened to him and the rest of The Miracles forge ahead in front of that fabulous Motown band called The Funk Brothers.
It got so I could identify Smokey’s style whether it was a song he wrote for Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Marvelettes or any of the many other talents. He was a master at his craft.
Now, the reason I mention the song “When The Words” is because every time I see Smokey, I can’t seem to find the words to talk about songs with him. Even though I signed an exclusive songwriters contract with Motown in 1984 (the day after Marvin Gaye passed away); even though I spoke with Ray Charles off and on about my songs; even though David Ruffin once gave me accolades from the stage, and said my style reminded him of Smokey, I have never had that kind of conversation with him. When people hear my songs like “Baby Please,” or “Maybe I Can Help (MICH)” they’ll often ask, “has Smokey heard this?”
Oh, he’s friendly enough. We’ve taken pictures together at different social functions; he acknowledges me when he sees me, but that’s about it. The first time I saw him in person (I believe it was him) is when I took my sisters to see The Jackson 5 at Detroit’s Olympic Stadium (former home of the Red Wings hockey team) back in 1972. Looking through binoculars, I spotted him with what appeared to be a camera case strapped to his shoulder.
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In 1977, my uncle had set up a music studio on Detroit’s east side, and was instrumental in getting one of my songs “December Love” printed as sheet music. I was so excited! I was sending it to everyone I could. I called Motown in Hollywood and asked for Smokey’s office. The receptionist put me through, and this voice answered the phone. It sounded like a singers’ voice – nasal, warm and sure – it sounded like Smokey! So, I said I had a new song that I’d like to get to Mr. Robinson. The voice said, “well this is not the way to do it…you gotta do the thing man” – meaning I had to go through the proper channels which I knew nothing about at the time. The voice was polite; in a moment we hung up, and I smiled with the thought “I think I just spoke to Smokey!”
[Note: After David Ruffin passed away, his daughter Cheryl found a copy of “December Love” (see Sandra Fairley video on YouTube) in his recovered briefcase; he had kept it all those years.]
It wasn’t until years later in 1986 that I actually met Smokey. It was at a venue in Santa Monica, California called At My Place. I couldn’t believe it when he walked in the door. He was in the audience watching the performance onstage. Afterward, I met him curbside and got his autograph before he left. I often wonder if it would have mattered had I told him I was signed with Motown at the time under the tutelage of Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua. I couldn’t seem to bring it up. Was it a missed opportunity?
The next time Smokey and I met was at Mr. Gordy’s home for the surprise birthday party for Berry’s brother Robert. Everybody was there! When it came time to cut the cake, Smokey and Motown’s Mickey Stevenson hammed it up singing “cut the cake…!” The “live” band picked it up as we all joined in…it was fun!!
[Note: At that time, I had just released “(Going) Back To Motown” recorded by Scherrie Payne (formerly of The Supremes) in time for the City of Detroit’s 300th birthday celebration (see the video on YouTube). The original title of the song, “Smokin’ In Motown” was intended for Smokey.]
Through the years we would see each other again at the annual Heroes and Legends (HAL) Awards hosted by Motown’s Janie Bradford. I was pleasantly surprised when at the memorial for Motown writer/producer Harvey Fuqua, Smokey called out to me, “Hey Larry…how you doin’ man?” as he walked over and we hugged. I didn’t think he even remembered my name.
I guess one day I’ll have a chance to talk shop with him, but for now, it’s good enough for me that I’ve had a chance to be in the presence of one of the greatest, most prolific songwriters and song stylists of all time.
At the ceremony for The Miracles receiving the honorary star on Hollywood’s Star Walk of Fame, I was telling Eddie Holland of songwriting team Holland/Dozier/Holland fame how amazing it was to be around so many great songwriters. Eddie responded, “yeah, but Smokey was the best!”
[Note: As I’m writing this article sitting in a Tony Roma’s restaurant, someone just played “Choosey Beggar” by The Miracles on the jukebox! Ain’t that a coincidence!!]
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” and “Book To The Future” (Amazon). E-mail: LBuford8101@hotmail.com