Wine, Women and Song
NOT TO MENTION SHEETS, STOCK TRADES AND SKIN CARE
“Songwriter Berry Gordy Jr., who owns two record labels in Detroit, reports that the big tune under wax is the Miracles quartet voicing ‘Shop Around.’ He thinks that it is the perfect theme for one of the big, nationwide supermarket chains.”
Judging by that showbiz column item, the founder of Motown Records was searching as far back as 1961 for fresh ways of bolstering and broadening his business. So he may well be impressed by the commercial tie-ins achieved since then by his “Shop Around” songwriting partner, Smokey Robinson.
During the past 15 years alone, the Robinson “brand” has been attached to wine, greetings cards, skin care products, food, a restaurant chain, electric cars and ocean cruises. Not to mention ventures closer to the world of music, such as a 2017 album of Christmas songs made exclusively for Amazon, and a consulting role for a forthcoming Netflix animated children’s TV series.
Smokey is far from the only one to extend his reach in this way, of course. Over her decades-long career, Diana Ross has endorsed – or been involved with creating – consumer products ranging from bread (with the Supremes) to mink, from sewing patterns to perfume. “We’re pleased,” declared the vice chairman of the Simplicity Pattern Co. in 1983, “that Miss Ross will now be sharing her style and attitude of dressing with the 35-40 million women across America who sew.”
Meanwhile, Diana’s former “Endless Love” partner has been sharing his style and attitude about comforters, quilts and bedsheets. The “Lionel Richie Home” line of such products made its debut this month in J.C. Penney stores across America. “This is what I do at home,” he told Forbes. “You can’t pick things out for me, I’m going to pick them out for myself: the fabric for the chairs for the table, the guy who will pick out the linens.”
Richie’s Penney pact has attracted media attention comparable to his multi-million-dollar partnership with Pepsi in the mid-1980s, when the soft-drinks giant sponsored his concert tours. Then again, if you’re not interested in bedding, you may be aware of Lionel recently promoting the virtues of alcohol (“Hello – is it beer you’re looking for?”) in Australia and 24-hour stock trading in America.
West Grand Blog readers are sure to recall many other Motown-related advertising adventures, such as Stevie Wonder’s endorsement of blank cassettes in 1980 (“Natural sounds go into my music, and they sound natural on TDK”) to the Temptations’ taste for Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1991 (“How to satisfy a Temptation for just 79¢”).
In Robinson’s case, his wife Frances Glandney was responsible for at least two of the commercial connections. She comes from Pittsburgh, the singer/songwriter explained on TV a couple of weeks ago, where Engine House 25 Wines – his business associates in Smokey Robinson Wines – are also based. “There’s this dude in Pittsburgh…he came to me and said, ‘Do you drink wine at all?’ I said, ‘Yeah, occasionally,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got an idea.’” The outcome was the Smokey Robinson seal on a $60 Cabernet Sauvignon and a $20 Rosé, among others. Last year, the star promoted them at wine festivals in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, signing purchased bottles for enthusiastic fans.
Smokey’s other recent venture is the Skinphonic brand of skin-care products: “My Girl,” tailored for women, and “Get Ready ’Cause Here I Come,” the men’s line. “We just wanted it for ourselves,” Glandney told New York magazine. “When it came out so good, we were, like, ‘Wait a minute, we need to share this with the public.’” Robinson added, “There’s nothing like it. It was designed for people of colour, from light-beige to dark-brown.”
Several years earlier, it was Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel that he was in business with. The restaurant chain was the exclusive outlet for an album, Now And Then, featuring six tracks from Smokey’s 2009 release, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, coupled with in-concert recordings of six of his Motown classics, including “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “Cruisin’.”
(One irony: Cracker Barrel was sued in 2004 by the U.S. government for racial discrimination at some of its restaurants, and subsequently agreed an $8.7 million settlement. When asked about this, Robinson told Adweek how diverse the firm had since become in its employment practices. “I’m very happy to be the one breaking that ground with them,” he said. “It’s progress.”)
During media promotion for Now And Then, Robinson also mentioned his involvement with a Chinese-made, all-electric, zero-emissions sport utility vehicle, distributed by Green Automotive Co. “We’re planning on doing a plant in Detroit,” he noted, “to try and create some jobs there. I’m a very green-conscious person.” A more philanthropic effort was his 2015 association with Boot Campaign, a charity to promote patriotism and raise awareness of military veterans’ problems. Robinson endorsed the campaign’s boots; the proceeds raised from their sale at retail helped to fund programmes supporting military families in need.
And when the 60th anniversary of Motown Records is celebrated next year, whither Smokey? On January 23rd, at least, he’ll be on the “Soul Train” ocean cruise, singing for patrons as they relax on the 86,000-ton Nieuw Amsterdam, which will sail between such holiday destinations as the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. Others on this cruise include Gladys Knight, George Clinton, the Ohio Players, and Stephanie Mills. The organisers urge you to “Book with promo code SMOKEYFAN for special savings!”
Hey, maybe Lionel Richie can helicopter in as a guest star, and persuade the cruisin’ – sorry, cruise – line officials to fit some of those gold-embroidered pillows from J.C. Penney while he’s on board.
And it sure looks as if Mr. Gordy had the right promotional perspective all those years ago: “My mama told me/You better shop around.”
Music notes: most of what’s mentioned above is available digitally, including Smokey’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun album. The live material on Now And Then seems rather more elusive, although the Cracker Barrel CD can be acquired on Amazon. So can TDK blank cassettes, although Stevie is sure to have moved on from such sound carriers.