William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. (born February 19, 1940) is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and former record executive. Robinson was the founder and front man of the Motown vocal group the Miracles, for which he also served as the group’s chief songwriter and producer. Robinson led the group from its 1955 origins as the Five Chimes until 1972 when he announced a retirement from the group to focus on his role as Motown’s vice president.
However, Robinson returned to the music industry as a solo artist the following year. Following the sale of Motown Records in 1988, Robinson left the company in 1990. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Robinson was awarded the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his lifetime contributions to popular music.
Smokey Robinson was born to an African-American father and a mother of African-American and distant French ancestry into a poor family in the North End area of Detroit. His uncle Claude gave him the nickname “Smokey Joe” when he was a child. He attended Northern High School, where he was above average academically and a keen athlete, though his main interest was music and he formed a doo-wop group named the Five Chimes. At one point, he and Diana Ross lived several houses from each other on Belmont; he once said he has known Ross since she was about eight.
Robinson said his interest in music started after hearing the groups Nolan Strong & the Diablos and Billy Ward and his Dominoes on the radio as a child. Robinson later listed Barrett Strong, a Detroit native, as a strong vocal influence. In 1955, he formed the first lineup of the Five Chimes with childhood friend Ronald White and classmate Pete Moore. Two years later, in 1957, they were renamed the Matadors and included Bobby Rogers. Another member, Emerson Rogers, was replaced by Bobby’s cousin Claudette Rogers. The group’s guitarist, Marv Tarplin, joined them sometime in 1958. The Matadors began touring Detroit venues around this time. They later changed their name to the Miracles.
In August 1957, Robinson and the Miracles met songwriter Berry Gordy after a failed audition for Brunswick Records. At that time during the audition, Robinson had brought along with him a “Big 10” notebook with 100 songs he wrote while in high school. Gordy was impressed with Robinson’s vocals and even more impressed with Robinson’s ambitious songwriting. With his help, the Miracles released their first single, “Got a Job”, an answer song to the Silhouettes’ hit single “Get a Job” on End Records. It was the beginning of a long and successful collaboration. During this time, Robinson attended college and started classes in January 1959, studying electrical engineering. Robinson dropped out after only two months following the Miracles’ release of their first record.
Gordy formed Tamla Records which was later reincorporated as Motown. The Miracles became one of the first acts signed to the label. In point of fact, they had actually been with Gordy since before the formation of Motown Records. In late 1960, the group recorded their first hit single, “Shop Around”, which became Motown’s first million-selling hit record. Between 1960 and 1970, Robinson would produce 26 top forty hits with the Miracles as lead singer, chief songwriter and producer, including several top ten hits such as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, “Mickey’s Monkey”, “I Second That Emotion”, “Baby Baby Don’t Cry” and the group’s only number-one hit during their Robinson years, “The Tears of a Clown”. Other notable hits such as “Ooo Baby Baby”, “Going to a Go-Go”, “The Tracks of My Tears”, “(Come Round Here) I’m The One You Need”, “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” and “More Love” peaked in the top twenty. In 1965, the Miracles were the first Motown group to change their name when they released their 1965 album Going to a Go-Go as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
Between 1962 and 1966, Robinson was also one of the major songwriters and producers for Motown, penning several hit singles such as “Two Lovers”, “The One Who Really Loves You”, “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “My Guy” for Mary Wells; “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” for the Temptations; “When I’m Gone” and “Operator” for Brenda Holloway; “Don’t Mess With Bill”, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician” for the Marvelettes; and “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye. After the arrival of Holland–Dozier–Holland and the team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, he was eclipsed as a top writer and producer for the label, and other Motown artists such as Gaye and Stevie Wonder began to compose more original material. Later in his career, Robinson wrote lyrics and music for the Contours such as “First I Look at the Purse”, as well as the Four Tops’ “Still Water” and The Supremes’ “Floy Joy”.
By 1969, Robinson wanted to retire from touring to focus on raising his two children with his wife Claudette and on his duties as Motown’s vice president, a job he had taken on by the mid-1960s after Esther Gordy Edwards had left the position. However, the success of the group’s “Tears of a Clown” made Robinson stay with the group until 1972. Robinson’s last performance with the group was in July 1972 in Washington, D.C.
After a year of retirement, Robinson announced his comeback with the release of the eponymous Smokey album, in 1973. The album included the Miracles tribute song, “Sweet Harmony” and the hit ballad “Baby Come Close”. In 1974, Robinson’s second album, Pure Smokey, was released but failed to produce hits. Robinson struggled to compete with his former collaborators Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and former Temptations member Eddie Kendricks, as all three had multiple hit singles during this period. Former Beatle George Harrison featured the track “Pure Smokey” on his 1976 album Thirty Three & 1/3 as a tribute to Robinson. (Harrison’s fellow Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also fans of Robinson’s songwriting and the group covered “You Really Gotta Hold on Me” on their second UK album With the Beatles.)
Robinson answered his critics the following year with A Quiet Storm, released in 1975. The album launched three singles – the number-one R&B hit “Baby That’s Backatcha”, “The Agony & The Ecstasy” and “Quiet Storm”. However, Robinson’s solo career suffered from his work as Motown’s vice president, and his own music took the backseat. As a result, several albums including Smokey’s Family Robinson, Deep in My Soul, Love Breeze and Smokin, saw poor promotion and received bad reviews. At this point Robinson relied on other writers and producers to help him with his albums.
Following these albums, Robinson got out of a writer’s block after his close collaborator Marv Tarplin, who joined him on the road in 1973 after Robinson left the Miracles, presented him a tune he had composed on his guitar. Robinson later wrote the lyrics that became his first top ten Pop single, “Cruisin'”. The song hit number one in Cash Box and peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It also became his first solo number one in New Zealand. Robinson would follow a similar approach with his next album, Warm Thoughts, which produced another top 40 hit, “Let Me Be the Clock”, though it didn’t repeat the success of “Cruisin'”.
In 1981, Robinson topped the charts again with another sensual ballad, “Being with You”, which was another number one hit in Cash Box and peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. It also hit number one in the United Kingdom, /becoming his most successful single to date. The Gold-plus parent album sparked a partnership with George Tobin and with Tobin, Robinson released his next several Motown albums, Yes It’s You Lady, which produced the hits, “Tell Me Tomorrow”, “Touch the Sky” and “Essar”. In 1983, Robinson teamed up with fellow Motown label mate Rick James recording the R&B ballad, “Ebony Eyes”.
In 1987, following a period of personal and professional issues, Robinson made a comeback with the album, One Heartbeat and the singles, “Just to See Her” and “One Heartbeat”, which were Top 10 hits on Billboard‘s Pop, Soul, and Adult Contemporary charts. They were aided by hugely popular music videos. “Just to See Her” won Robinson his first Grammy Award in 1988. The album became one of his most successful ever, selling over 900,000 copies in the United States alone. In the same year Robinson released One Heartbeat, he was inducted as a solo artist to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, later igniting controversy as the committee had inducted only Robinson and not members of his group, the Miracles, which Robinson was personally offended by. In 2012, however, the committee rectified the mistake announcing that the group would be inducted on their own merit. Though Robinson was not listed as an inductee, he was due to induct his former group at the ceremony in April 2012. The same year he was inducted, the UK group ABC released a tribute song, “When Smokey Sings”.
After Motown was sold off to MCA in 1988, Robinson relinquished his position as vice president. Following the release of the album, Love Smokey, in 1990, Robinson left Motown for a deal with SBK Records in 1991. However, the album, Double Good Everything failed to chart. Robinson remained virtually quiet during the nineties (though he would make a notable cameo appearance in The Temptations 1998 miniseries), making a brief comeback in 1999 when he re-signed with Motown and issued the album, Intimate, which included the song “Easy to Love”. In 2003, he once again split ties with Motown, releasing the gospel album, Food for the Soul on Liquid 8 Records in 2004. In 2004 Robinson sang the main title theme song “Colorful World” to the American children’s animated series ToddWorld for Discovery Kids, TLC and Mike Young Productions. Two years later, Robinson released the standards album, Timeless Love, in 2006 on Universal Records. In 2009, he issued the album, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun on his own label, Robso Records. It reached number 59 on the Billboard album chart, his highest showing since One Heartbeat. He subsequently released “Now And Then” in 2010, which peaked at number 131.
Smokey & Friends was released in mid-August 2014. It was an album of duets, including ones with Elton John, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. It reached number 12 on the Billboard album chart.
Listen to some of his songs below
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