Despite his R&B legend status, Smokey Robinson remains a modest man. Ask which of his more than 4,000 songs, recorded as a member of Motown hit-makers the Miracles and as a solo artist, he'd enjoy hearing Martha Reeves, original Supreme Mary Wilson or Temptation Dennis Edwards perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Music Masters concert honoring him, and he's not picky.
"There are a billion songs in the world," says the 75-year-old singer, songwriter, performer, producer and former Motown executive. "When somebody picks one of my songs out of a billion songs to sing, that's great for me."
As Robinson prepares to attend the Nov. 7 show at the State Theatre — the last event in a weeklong schedule of lectures, conferences and a Rock Hall display — he talks about the Motown sound's enduring appeal, his first trips to Cleveland and his addiction.
With the help of Smokey Robinson, the music world discovered the Supremes. "Smokey was really responsible for [introducing] us to Motown," says Supreme Mary Wilson, who'll perform at Music Masters. "He treated us like we were his younger sisters."
Robinson had met Diana Ross in the Detroit neighborhood where they lived and offered the girls — known then as the Primettes — an audition in front of the Miracles. "We were just 15 years old, but they loved us," says Wilson. "It was more than a big thrill. For us, [the Miracles] were big stars."
Pleased, Robinson introduced the trio to Berry Gordy, the famed founder of Motown Records. "He turned us down and told us to come back after we graduated from high school," says Wilson.
But the girls were determined. They hung around the Motown offices and did handclaps and backup vocals on songs for Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells before landing a deal in 1961 as the Supremes. Although Robinson collaborated with them on several early songs that never became hits, he later wrote their Top 20 single "Floy Joy." To Wilson, he's family.
"He's one of the greatest. He's been a part of my life and career," says Wilson. "He's a genius with his poetry and melodies. He was always very friendly and warm, no attitude ... just one of the group. Smokey is such a cool person. It's a great honor to have been asked to be a part of this concert."