Picks and Pans Review: Smokey: Inside My Life

UPDATED 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

by Smokey Robinson with David Ritz

Robinson, the golden-throated soul singer and composer, knows how to get a reader's attention. He begins his autobiography with a vivid description of the excruciating, deracinating pain he suffered as a crack addict three years ago. The rest of the book isn't as intense, but it's just as interesting. As the lead vocalist for the Miracles and a vice president and prolific-songwriter for the Motown label, Smokey has had himself some life. He recalls being with his Miracles at the bottom of the bill of a soul revue in Philadelphia that featured the Coasters, the Drifters, the Shirelles, the Isley Brothers and Jerry Butler. He shares his memories of Aretha Franklin (whom he first met and heard sing when she was 3), Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and others. All these experiences are written in a loose, vernacular style, as when Smokey describes how the flush of success affected the staff at Hitsville, the Motown studio: "Where there used to be old beat-up Fords and Chevys parked in front of the Motown bungalows, now you'd see Cadillacs in every color of the rainbow. Soon as the new models came out, we'd be down at the dealers, scooping them up. Diamonds would be flashing, furs flying, gold glittering." Smokey shows how he has been a crossover artist right from the start. When William Robinson was born in 1940 in a segregated maternity ward in Detroit, with his blond nap, blue eyes and light complexion, he was placed in the white nursery. The childhood nickname, Smokey, was a reference to his light coloring. Still, Robinson has not been without a racial consciousness. He recalls being driven to Cleveland by his father to watch early black major-league baseball players Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. He remembers "eating popcorn and hot dogs and watching Larry Doby smack that little Whitehall beyond the big banks of blazing lights, sending it sailing all the way to the moon." It's not surprising to see Smokey wax lyrical; after all, this is a man who has written more than 4,000 songs, including "Shop Around," "My Girl," and "I Second That Emotion." No doubt he got some help polishing the prose from David Ritz, who performed the same buffing duties on Ray Charles's autobiography. Brother Ray, and wrote an admirable biography of Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul. He helps turn Inside My Life into a very lively book. If you want to read the best pop autobiography in recent memory, look for a Miracle. (McGraw-Hill. $18.95)

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