There are some musical experiences you never forget, and for me one was the very first time I ever heard "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. As a child of the Seventies, I already knew the song as a Linda Ronstadt hit, but discovering the pure, stately beauty of this soulfully poetic masterpiece as sung by the man who co-wrote it and made it famous was a revelation. It was also one of the first times I understood how feelings of personal pain could be transformed into something of universal beauty -- the same sort of musical alchemy pulled off all by the greats from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Kurt Cobain.
During these remarkable weeks of posthumous Michaelmania, I've had a few chances to catch up with some of the soulful musical giants who made me love music in the first place, including the eternally inspiring Smokey Robinson. First, I caught up with Smokey Robinson when we spoke about Michael for Rolling Stone's special tribute issue that's so in demand I still haven't gotten my copy.
We had another chance to speak while I was helping on the Michael Jackson Memorial at Staples Center. After watching Smokey and Berry Gordy -- two men who built Motown together -- share some memories in a dressing room backstage, I had a chance to tell Smokey how much his music means to me. There may be a few artists who I've listened to more in my lifetime -- including Stevie Wonder, who was just down the hall -- but I've always thought if I were on that proverbial desert island and had to listen to a single song for the rest of my life, it would probably be one of Smokey's. The funny thing is, I'm not even sure which Smokey song I would choose because the man has created so many quiet storms worth getting caught up in.
Back when I was in college, I remember reading something Bruce Springsteen said about thinking that he wouldn't mind having Smokey's "Cruisin'" on an endless loop. The Boss got that right because there really has always been something hypnotic about certain lovely, languorous Smokey songs.
Another of my all-time favorites is a Smokey hit from the same era called "Tell Me Tomorrow." A few years back I was in a meeting with Gary Goetzman, a great guy and a wildly successful movie and TV producer who runs Tom Hanks' excellent production company Playtone. As we waited one day in a lobby to pitch a project to Leslie Moonves at CBS, I mentioned my love of Smokey Robinson and "Tell Me Tomorrow" to Gary and was dumbstruck to discover that Gary had co-written the song. Suddenly, I didn't care how the pitch went -- almost. For me, Gary might have well said, "Yeah, I co-wrote that play called 'Hamlet' for this guy Shakespeare. Great guy, Bill."
But none of this is why I'm writing now.
I'm writing now because yesterday in the mail, I received an advance of a brand new album by Smokey Robinson entitled Time Flies When You're Having Fun. The album won't be out until August 25th, so I won't jump the gun entirely by raving about it here. But I have to tell you about one song that's coming out as a single now. The very idea of Smokey Robinson singing "Don't Know Why" -- the Grammy-winning Jesse Harris composition that helped make Norah Jones an international phenomenon -- is almost too perfect in theory. In reality, it's much better than that. I love Norah Jones -- a singer who combines great soul, sophistication and restraint -- but with all due respect, does anybody on earth do smooth seduction and heartbreak better than Smokey Robinson?
Listen to Smokey's "Don't Know Why" and you can still trace the tracks of his tears. If you think you never want to hear "Don't Know Why" sung by anyone else except Norah Jones -- or by anyone at all -- then think again. For today at least, this is the song that I want with me on that desert island, and I am so thankful that Smokey is still around to sing it if my desert island happens to be on his tour schedule.
Watching the world rediscover Michael Jackson's music following his death has reminded me of the pressing need to salute our greats while they're still around to hear it. So that's what I am going to do right here from time to time until someone stops me.
So honk if you love Smokey Robinson -- or just pull over and let people with a little taste pass you by.