Motown star Smokey Robinson (born 1940), co-founder of the Tamla record label, has been a composer and performer for more than 30 years.
Smokey Robinson, the "poet laureate of soul music," has been composing and singing rhythm and blues hits for more than three decades. As the lead singer of the Miracles, Robinson, who moved to SBK Records later in his career, helped to put Detroit and its Motown Records on the music map; his solo performances have netted Grammy Awards and praise from pundits who usually shun the pop genre. People contributor Gail Buchalter labeled Robinson "one of the smoothest tenors in soul music," a romantic idol whose 60 million-plus in record sales "helped turn Motown into the largest black-owned corporation in the world."
According to Jay Cocks in Time, Robinson has written, produced, and performed "some of the most enduring rhythm and blues [songs] ever made. The church kept easy company with the street corner in his rich melodies, and his lyrics had a shimmering, reflective grace that, at his pleasure, could challenge or seduce. With the Miracles, Smokey helped make a kind of soul music that balanced ghetto pride and middle-class ambition. Some of the group's best tunes… stayed true to the R & B roots even as they beckoned, and found, a larger pop audience." In Rolling Stone, Steve Pond concluded that Robinson has written "some 4000 songs and recorded hundreds that have made him a true poet of the soul and a voice of the soul, too."
The Miracles's Success Spawned Motown Records
William "Smokey Joe" Robinson, Jr., not only rose from obscurity, he brought along a number of other now-famous black recording stars when he began to find success. He was born and raised in Detroit, in the rough Brewster ghetto, where, as he recalled in People, " you were either in a [music] group or a gang or both." Young Smokey grew up listening to his mother's records, including the works of B. B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine. These black artists, he commented in Rolling Stone, were "the first inspirational thing I had." When Robinson was ten, his mother died, and his sister Geraldine took him in, raising him along with her ten children. The family was poor but close-knit, and Robinson spent his youth writing songs and singing in local bands.
Robinson would not consider a professional career until he graduated from high school, and even then he tried barber school and courses in dentistry before giving his full attention to music. In 1954 he formed a rhythm and blues group called the Matadors; the name was changed to the Miracles three years later to accommodate a female singer, Claudette Rogers, who married Robinson in 1959. At first the members of the Miracles—who were each paid five dollars per week by their agent, Berry Gordy—found the music business difficult. "For a while," Claudette Robinson related in Essence, " we lived basically in one bedroom. But we didn't stay in that house very long. Fortunately, the music started to happen."
Robinson was lucky to have encountered Berry Gordy during an audition for another agent; Gordy, then a fledgling music producer on a shoestring budget, was equally fortunate to have found Robinson. Gordy began to produce the Miracles's singles in 1958, collaborating with Robinson on lyrics and tunes. Their first release, "Got a Job" —an answer to The Silhouettes's number one hit "Get a Job" — hit Number 93 on the nationwide Billboard Top 100 chart. The debut was encouraging, but nothing prepared Gordy and Robinson for the limelight they would attain in 1960. Late in that year they released an upbeat single, "Shop Around," that became a chart-topping million-seller. The Miracles subsequently became a national phenomenon, and Gordy was able to launch Motown Records, a landmark production company that introduced such talents as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations.
Became a Sought-After Songwriter
Robinson and the Miracles were Gordy's first star-quality group, and they continued their association with Motown as the company gained prestige. Indeed, Robinson wrote hit songs not only for his group but for other Motown headliners as well. He explained the Motown philosophy in Rolling Stone: " We set out to make music for people of all races and nationalities. Not to make black music—we just wanted to make good music that would be acceptable in all circles…. Allwe were doing, man, was just putting good songs on good tracks, songs that anybody could relate to. We had good, solid songs that would fit your particular life situation if you were white or Oriental or Chicano or whatever you happened to be. And that made a world of difference."
Throughout the 1960s, especially in the latter half of the decade, the Motown sound competed with the music of the British invasion for popularity among the young. Robinson and the Miracles were favorites among the Motown personnel, earning more than six gold records containing such hits as "The Tracks of My Tears," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "I Second That Emotion," and "Ooo Baby Baby." Still, Robinson was on the verge of quitting the group in 1968 when his son Berry was born. He reconsidered almost immediately, however, when the Miracles single, "Tears of a Clown," became a Number One hit, first in England and then in the United States. Robinson noted in Rolling Stone that "Tears of a Clown" became the biggest record we ever had. It catapulted us into another financial echelon as far as what we made on dates, and I felt that the band was entitled to reap the benefits." The Miracles, a model group in terms of road behavior, endured until 1972, when Robinson quit.
For a time after leaving the Miracles, Robinson concentrated on his business duties as vice-president of Motown Records. He soon returned to recording, however, this time as a solo artist. His solo albums are, on the whole, more reflective and mellow than his work with the Miracles. All of them highlight the singer's particular talent—the creation and performance of meaningful love songs at a time when many erstwhile romantics have become jaded cynics. Stephen Holden summed up the reason for the immense popularity of Robinson's music in Rolling Stone: "Smokey Robinson is that rare pop singer whose rhapsodic lyricism hasn't diminished with approaching middle age. Indeed, time has added a metaphysical depth to his art…. Smokey Robinson's faith in the redemptive power of erotic love continues unabated. In Robinson's musical world, sexual happiness isn't the product of spiritual equilibrium but its source…. Don't think, however, that Robinson's songs aren't filled with sex. They are. But in this man's art, sex isn't a fast roll in the hay, it's sweet manna shared during a leisurely stroll into paradise. Smokey Robinson creates that paradise every time he opens his mouth to sing."
Inducted Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Robinson's records of the late 1980s, when he was well into his third decade in the music business, continued to garner popularity and the approval of critics. A People magazine reviewer found that on his 1986 album Smoke Signals, for example, the singer "remains a uniquely resilient performer." His 1987's album entitled One Heartbeat was termed "another winning package of sharp, sophisticated soul" by a reviewer from Rolling Stone. Robinson hits like "Cruisin'," "Just to See Her" —a Grammy Award winner— and "Being With You" became both rhythm-and-blues and pop hits and were rendered in a voice Essence contributor Jack Slater hailed as "a hypnotic, airy aphrodisiac that puts tens of thousands in the mood for love." Coupled with his success with the Miracles and as a prolific Motown song-writer, Robinson's solo achievements in the music industry led to his 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1989 he was named a Grammy Living Legend.
Coping with such enormous fame has not always been easy for Robinson. He chronicles his personal struggles in his 1989 collaboration with David Ritz, Smokey: Inside My Life. Musician contributor Jon Young remarked that the autobiography "documents everything from [Robinson's] family history and the early days of the Miracles to his extramarital affairs and, most striking, a graphic account of two years in thrall to cocaine in the mid-'80s." When asked why he chose to provide such candid details about his drug addiction, Robinson responded to Young, "I wrote it because it was God's will… . I was saved from drugs in 1986 when my pastor prayed for me. I never went to rehab or to a doctor. It was a miracle healing from God, so that I could carry the message about the perils of drugs. At the time I was saved, I was already dead. You are now speaking to Lazarus."
Left Motown for SBK Records
With the onset of the 1990s, Robinson's contract with Motown Records expired, and after a long and productive career with the record company, he moved to SBK Records. According to Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, the singer said simply, "My contract with Motown was up, and I was just out of there." He also pointed to the sale of Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988 as one of the reasons for his departure. "After we sold the company," he continued to Graff, "it was never really quite the same for me." With SBK Records, Robinson released a well-received LP he co-produced and recorded in less than six weeks, 1991's Double Good Everything. "It feels like a new day or something, man," he divulged to Graff. "This is the first thing I've everdone outside of Motown; that's a big deal to me… . I feel like a new artist, almost."
Also in 1991, Robinson ventured into previously un-chartered areas of the music world, considering an album of country-western tunes and penning the score for a Broadway musical titled Hoops, which presents the history of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. "I've written 22 pieces so far," Robinson told Young in February of 1992. "I want this to be like [the Broadway musical] South Pacific and produce several hits. The title track is a funk thing that I can envision being a halftime song for the NBA [National Basketball Association]." Robinson plans to continue his often hectic schedule of performing, comosing, and recording. "If the world lasts until the twenty-second century," the enduring singer-songwriter declared to Young, "I hope they're still playing my music."
Further Reading on Smokey Robinson
Given, Dave, The Dave Given Rock 'n' Roll Stars Handbook, Exposition Press, 1980.
Robinson, Smokey, and David Ritz., Smokey: Inside My Life, McGraw-Hill, 1989.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
Detroit News, October 20, 1991.
Down Beat, June 1983.
Ebony, October 1971; October 1982; March 1989; May 1989.
Essence, February 1982.
High Fidelity, June 1980; May 1981; May 1982; July 1982; April 1986.
Jet, January 31, 1980; July 9, 1981; August 3, 1987; March 13, 1989; November 13, 1989; December 18, 1989; April 8, 1991; November 11, 1991.
Musician, February 1992.
New Republic, July 15, 1991.
Newsweek, January 27, 1986.
People, March 10, 1980; April 28, 1980; April 12, 1982; May 16, 1983; August 13, 1984; May 20, 1985; December 16, 1985; March 10, 1986; May 18, 1987; March 13, 1989; April 3, 1989.
Playboy, July 1985; June 1986.
Publishers Weekly, January 27, 1989.
Rolling Stone, April 16, 1981; September 17, 1981; February 12, 1987; April 23, 1987; December 17, 1987; February 9, 1989.
Stereo Review, July 1980; May 1982; January 1984; November 1986.
Variety, May 22, 1985; October 15, 1986; December 23, 1987;March 1, 1989.