This guest blog post is written by our friend and Pillar Partner, Patrick Sweeny of Caliper Corp. In this article, Patrick asks "How can you create something that’s bigger than yourself?" His answer? Surround yourself with top performers, know the distinct qualities that make them exceptional, and trust them. That’s just what Smokey Robinson did.
The way he tells it, Smokey had a melody swirling in his head, and the words, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” Not exactly Shakespeare. It could have been a Hallmark card.
Instead, it became a classic. A tune that can still makes us smile, nearly a half-century later, as soon as we hear the opening bass line. That’s because Smokey knew how to collaborate. He knew how to recognize potential in others, to tap into their talents and to really connect with those he surrounded himself with.
Fade to the backstage of the Apollo Theater, in the early 1960’s.
Back then, Smokey recalls, everyone was trying to write a song for Eddie Kendricks, who had just sung the lead on the Temptation’s first number one hit “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” Smokey, instead, was thinking of David Ruffin’s gruff, tough baritone voice – and how, if he sang something sweet and sincere, the contrast would connect with the young girls who were buying albums.
When he was on the road with the Temptations, at the Apollo Theater, he played “My Girl” on the piano. And with David Ruffin singing lead, the rest of The Temps started adding background vocals, singing, “hey-hey-hey,” then adding on a series of “my girls,” echoing David’s vocal. They knew they had something.
A few weeks later, in the recording studio, the Funk Brothers (Motown’s studio band) started filling in the sound. Robert White started walking around the studio, playing a riff that became the song’s signature line. But halfway in, Robert cut it off saying , “No, no, no.” He didn’t think what he had was right. But Smokey said, “No, no, no, my butt. That’s going to be in the song.” Now, of course, that opening line has become one of the most famous guitar riffs ever recorded.
What does it all mean?
What I love about that story is that, while it started with Smokey’s germ of an idea, it could have gone nowhere if he wasn’t the kind of leader he was. He surrounded himself with great talent, knew what they were capable of, understood how to tap into their potential, and trusted them enough to let them run with an idea–and take it somewhere he could never have imagined himself. That’s how he was able to create something bigger than himself.
That trust was at the heart of everything he did. From there came his amazing ability to lead by improvising and collaborating with others. He would respond to what others were putting forth. Then he became engaged in the unfolding reality.
If he had held on to the song in his head, and insisted that he be the one to sing it, “My Girl” probably would have been just another “B” side of one of the many hits he recorded with The Miracles. Instead, he reached out, he reached beyond himself, and he touched all of us.
Collaborating starts with believing. In yourself. And in others.
Then it is being open to shifting–from a pre-determined idea to what is happening in the moment.
Finally taking advantage of the messages that are inspired.
You want sunshine on a cloudy day?
Surround yourself with top performers, know the distinct qualities that make them exceptional, and trust them.
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