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Smokey Robinson jokes: ‘Retirement didn’t work for me, man’ (exclusive)

Motown legend Smokey Robinson has no plans to put down his microphone anytime soon.

At 84 years old and with a recording career spanning seven decades, the legendary singer, songwriter, producer and manager who shaped and defined the iconic Detroit record label’s soulful R&B sound is still going strong, recording new music and touring across the country, including a stop at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater on Saturday, June 29.

“I tried to retire once, but it didn’t work, man,” Robinson tells PEOPLE exclusively, referring to a year-long hiatus he took back in 1972 to focus on his family and his leadership role at Motown. Before that, he had scored huge hits with his band The Miracles, including “Shop Around,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” “Tears of a Clown” and “I Second That Emotion,” as well as chart hits for labelmates such as The Supremes, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye.

It didn’t last. He stayed with Motown until 1990, had a number of other hits in the middle of his career, such as “Crusin’,” and hasn’t left the recording booth or the stage since. “I’m living my impossible childhood dream,” he says. “I’m doing what I love, and that’s a blessing.”

The singer, who has been committed to his health and fitness for decades, says his all-encompassing love of music is one of the reasons he has remained vital, dynamic and creative.

“I love music, and I always have, before I even knew I would ever have a career,” he recalls. “Fortunately, I grew up in a home where there was always music. I grew up in a musical home. I had two older sisters and my mother, and they were always playing music – blues, gospel, jazz, classical, everything. I grew up around a lot of music and I’ve always loved music. Music is very, very, very important in my life and in my life. So yeah, man, I’m a music lover!”

Smokey Robinson performs at the Apollo.

Lewis Bent

After a lifetime of extraordinary achievement and unimaginable experiences, Robinson says the thrill he gets from making music today is “the fact that I’m still doing it… I’m trying to step away, and nothing compares to that for me. Nothing gives me the same as being on stage, being around people, having fun.”

The singer-songwriter attributes his long-standing avoidance of a fast-paced, lavish lifestyle to living so long and being able to enjoy the joys of performing. “When you’re in show business, people think that’s all you do: you’re in show business and you party and that’s it, and your whole life is partying. When I was there after the shows, someone would always come backstage and say, ‘Okay, Smokey, where’s the party now?’ I’d say, ‘I just had the party! I only had a two-hour party. To me, that was a party. I had a great time, so I just celebrated. Now I’m going to go back to my hotel room, watch some TV and go to sleep.'”

He is especially excited to return to the Apollo stage and honor the legacy the theater has built over nearly a century of spotlighting outstanding black artists.

“The Apollo is very, very, very precious to me,” he says. “The Apollo is the granddaddy of black music. Ella Fitzgerald won the talent show at the Apollo – that’s how she became popular. They played all the black artists for eons – people who were born before my mother! The Apollo is known for that. The Apollo is that place… It has a tradition for black music. It’s been the launching pad for so many black artists, and I think that’s why it’s a wonderful place for me.”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

courtesy of Apollo Foundation

“It was also my very first professional gig with The Miracles,” he recalls. “We were at the Ray Charles show at the Apollo Theater… There’s a mural in the lobby there with all these black artists from then until now. When we first walked in there, I said to The Miracles, ‘Oh my goodness, one day I hope we’re on that wall.’ We finally made it on the wall!”

“It has sentimental value to me, and they’re getting ready to close it now for three, four years, so I want to play there before they do that, and I would always go back and play at the Apollo… It’s a special place to me, and there’s no place like it.”

Robinson says audiences will not only hear him play his long list of indelible classics; there will also be plenty of fresh music from his most recent studio album, where he added a spicier, sexier twist to his style that raised eyebrows among some longtime fans.

“About fourteen months ago, an album of mine was released, called Gasme – yes, I said Gasme!he laughs. “It’s out now and doing well, and we play music from it at our live shows. At the same time we were working on it, we were working on one in Spanish. I still have two more songs to finish for it.”

Smokey Robinson performs at the Apollo.

Lewis Bent

“I’m always working on music, man,” he says of his tireless creative work ethic. “I do that all the time.”

“There were two days that were profound in my life: the day I met Berry Gordy and the day he founded Motown,” Robinson recalls. “I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful life, man, and so many wonderful events and things have happened. There’s been a lot of negatives too, but as far as I’m concerned, the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Tickets for Smokey Robinson’s night at the Apollo are available here.

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