The first and one of the greatest talents to ever record for the fabled Motown label, Grammy winner Smokey Robinson was a singer, songwriter and music executive who, as part of the Miracles, produced some of the greatest songs of the 1960s, from "Shop Around" and "Mickey's Monkey" to such elegant statements of love as "Ooo Baby Baby," "I Second That Emotion" and "Tears of a Clown." Robinson's unmistakably smooth, heartfelt tenor was the emotional linchpin of the songs, which transcended racial barriers by becoming hits on the white-dominated pop charts of the time. As vice-president of Motown, Robinson was also responsible for crafting the careers of such legendary acts as the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, and penned countless hits for them and other artists that became classics of soul and R&B. After leaving the Miracles in 1972, Robinson was a key figure in the establishment of urban contemporary music, as epitomized by the polished groove of songs like "Cruisin'," "One Heartbeat" and "Just to See Her." As both a solo artist and as a member of the Miracles, Robinson was frequently mentioned by fans and music publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard as one of the greatest artists of the century.
Born William Robinson, Jr., in Detroit, MI, Smokey Robinson was raised by his mother and two sisters in the North End, one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. He gained his stage moniker at an early age from an uncle, who dubbed him "Smokey Joe." At first, Robinson, who was a diehard Westerns fan, assumed that this was his "cowboy name." But as he later learned, he was given the name "Smokey" from a pejorative term for dark-skinned African-Americans. His uncle had wanted the lighter-skinned boy to never forget that he was black. Growing up, Robinson's home was filled with jazz music, but he also developed a taste for the R&B vocal groups of the time. He soon formed his own group, the Five Chimes, with his best friend, Ronald White, and his Northern High School classmates Pete Moore, Clarence Dawson and James Grice.
The group soon changed its name to the Matadors, and replaced Dawson with cousins Emerson and Bobby Rogers. When Emerson Rogers was drafted in 1956, his sister, Claudette Rogers, who sang with the band's sister group, the Matadorettes, took his place, and it was this lineup that auditioned for R&B singer Jackie Wilson's managers shortly after graduating high school in 1958. They were rejected due to their similarity to the Platters, who also had four men and a female vocalist, as well as a lead singer with a high, fine tenor voice like Robinson. On their way out of the audition, Robinson met one of Wilson's songwriters, Berry Gordy, Jr., who had heard the group sing and complimented Robinson on the original material he had written for the group. Gordy took the Matadors under his wing as manager, and worked closely with Robinson on honing his songwriting talents.
Gordy and his songwriting partner, Billy Davis, penned the Matadors' first single, "Got a Job," which was a musical response to the Silhouettes' comic doo-wop number "Get a Job." The song, credited to the group's new name, the Miracles, was released through End Records, along with a follow-up, "I Need Some Money." But the label failed to pay Gordy, prompting Robinson to suggest that he launch his own company. In 1959, Tamla Records was born, and was soon followed the new imprint Motown, which released the Miracles' fourth song, "Bad Girl," in the Detroit area, while blues giant Chess handled its national release. But with End Records, Chess never paid Gordy the returns on the song, which again spurred Robinson to encourage his friend to think on broader terms. Motown soon became the dominant company, and signed its first act, the Miracles, in 1959. That same year, Robinson married Claudette Rogers, who then billed herself as Claudette Robinson.
In 1960, years of hard work finally paid off with the percolating single "Shop Around," which became not only the Miracles' first No. 1 hit on the R&B charts, but also the first chart-topper for the label as well. Robinson's faith in Gordy's company helped make him its first vice-president in 1961, and he soon divided his time between recording with the Miracles and developing new talent for the label. Maintaining both positions was a challenge, because the Miracles amassed an extraordinary number of Top 10 and Top 20 hits between 1962 and 1966, including the R&B No. 1 "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Mickey's Monkey," "That's What Love Is Made Of," "Ooo Baby Baby," the epic "Tracks of My Tears," and "Going to a Go-Go." Robinson penned most of the group's material, often with Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and the Miracles' guitarist, Marvin Tarplin. As vice-president of Motown, Robinson and his bandmates were also responsible for writing and producing many of Motown's greatest hit singles, including the Temptations' "My Girl" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do," Mary Wells' "My Guy" and "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I'll Be Doggone" for Marvin Gaye, among many others. Robinson was also key in shaping new talent into Motown stars, grooming acts like the Temptations, Gaye and Wells. In doing so, he was a key figure in their rise to stardom.
But no matter how popular or successful Motown's group became, none could surpass the Miracles in their early to mid-'60s heyday. They were an astonishing live act, as shown in the 1964 concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show" and footage from countless television shows from the period. And their constant presence on both the Billboard 100 chart, which followed the pop songs of the day, and the R&B chart demonstrated, they were equally popular with white and black audiences. In doing so, they truly embodied the label's moniker: "the Sound of Young America." The Miracles were also hugely influential on other pop and rock artists. The British Invasion, in particular, had an overwhelming response to their music, with such artists as the Beatles, the Who, the Hollies, and the Zombies all covering Miracles songs in their early repertoire. Interestingly, the Miracles were among the few acts not affected by the influx of U.K. rockers in the early '60s, as evidenced by their continued popularity in 1965 and beyond. American performers also mined the Miracles' catalog for hits, including Johnny Rivers, Percy Sledge, Sonny & Cher and others who earned chart hits with Robinson's songs.
Despite their stratospheric success, the rigors of being a top music act took its toll on Robinson and the Miracles. Illness forced Robinson to miss much of the first Motown tour, which took the label's top acts throughout the South. Their hectic schedule also negatively impacted Robinson's ability to start a family, with wife Claudette suffering several miscarriages that ultimately led to her retirement from touring in 1964, though she continued to sing on studio recordings with the group until 1972. Robinson would later pen the Miracles' 1967 single "More Love" to express his affection and support for her during this difficult period. Eventually, they produced two healthy children, a son named Berry, after Gordy, and a daughter, Tamla, who took her name from the Miracles' first record label.
In 1965, Berry Gordy renamed the group Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to acknowledge the singer's central contributions to the group and the Motown label as a whole. The group would continue to score hit singles throughout the remainder of the 1960s, including the gorgeous No. 1 R&B track "I Second That Emotion, " "If You Can Want" and "Baby, Baby Don't Cry," but by the end of the decade, the Miracles' stock had begun to plummet with listeners, with subsequent songs charting much lower than their predecessors. Robinson himself was ready to divest himself from the group; years of touring had not only kept him away from his family, but also put a serious strain on his executive duties with Motown. In 1970, he began to sever ties with the group, but to nearly everyone's surprise, a three-year-old song called "Tears of a Clown," which featured a melody by Stevie Wonder, shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts in the U.S. and the U.K. He remained with the group for another two years before giving his final performance with the Miracles in 1972.
The following year, Robinson launched his solo career with the 1973 album Smokey. It followed in the vein of his work with the Miracles, with the majority of songs addressing love, both everlasting and fleeting. He did, however, take a distinctly political take on the album's "Just My Soul Responding," which voiced his frustration over poverty and racial injustice. Smokey shot to No. 10 on the R&B chart but hovered at No. 70 on the pop charts, establishing a template for nearly all of Robinson's subsequent solo work. Marv Tarplin left the Miracles in 1973 to join Robinson for his next album, Pure Smokey, which offered the unique "Virgin Man," in which its protagonist asked his intended if she could love him, despite his lack of sexual experience. The following year, Robinson's third solo record, Quiet Storm (1975), found him exploring disco with the No. 1 R&B single "Baby That's Backatcha," and the cooler sounds of urban contemporary music at a time when most black acts were working with heavier funk and rock rhythms. In later years, the album's title would be adopted to name a whole subgenre of urban music that favored smooth deliveries, impeccable instrumentation and glossy production.
Robinson recorded steadily throughout the late '70s, scoring modest R&B album chart hits but few hit singles until 1979's "Cruisin'," a warmly nostalgic tune that echoed his work with the Miracles. It shot to No. 4 on both the pop and R&B charts, and was soon followed by the Grammy-winning "Being with You," which rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. Another pair of hit songs, "Just to See Her" and "One Heartbeat" brought him back to the Top 5 in 1987 and 1988, respectively. But with the newfound success also came a number of personal and professional issues. Robinson had been addicted to cocaine throughout much of the decade, which cost him his marriage to Claudette Robinson in 1986. The following year, he found himself at the center of a controversial decision by the Rock and Roll of Fame to induct him without the Miracles, despite their joint success in many of their hit songs. Fans, music journalists and Robinson himself all protested the move, but the Miracles did not follow Robinson into the Hall. In 1988, Motown was sold to MCA after years of low record sales. Robinson resigned from his position as both vice-president and Motown artist - titles he had held for nearly four decades.
Robinson eventually conquered his addictions with the help of his longtime friend, actor Leon Isaac Kennedy, and wrote about his tribulations in his 1989 autobiography, Smokey. In 1991, he returned to recording with Double Good Everything for the SBK label, the same year he won the Soul Train Award for Career Achievement. But he would remain inactive as a singer until 1999, when he reunited with Motown, which had become a subsidiary of Universal. Robinson would continue to record sporadically over the next decade while reaping numerous accolades for his contributions to popular music. In 1999, he received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, which was followed by the National Medal for the Arts in 2002. The year 2006 saw him receive both an honorary doctorate from Howard University and a Kennedy Center honor alongside Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Zubin Mehta.
In 2006, he reunited with surviving original Miracles members Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers for an extended interview that was made part of a DVD retrospective, "Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The Definitive Performances" (2007), as well as a tribute performance to the Motown label and founder Berry Gordy. Robinson appeared frequently on television music competitions like "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16), where he served as both judge and mentor in 2007 and 2009. All of the Miracles finally received a proper tribute with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009, though dedicated fans and the band members themselves were saddened that Marv Taplin was not included in the honor. That same year, Robinson released Time Flies When You're Having Fun on his own label, RobSo. The self-produced album featured mostly new material penned by Robinson and guest vocals by the likes of Joss Stone, India.Arie and Carlos Santana.
By Paul Gaita