William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. has earned the title “King of Motown” for making countless hits and consistent contributions to the label that he helped to get started.
Robinson was born on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan, and was raised in the same place’s North End. His nickname was originally “Smokey Joe”, given by his uncle because of Robinson’s love of cowboy movies, and this was later shortened to “Smokey” when he was teenager.
Smokey Robinson established and made a name as an American R&B and soul singer, songwriter, record producer, and record executive. He was one of the men behind Motown Records who gave success to the company in collaboration with the company’s founder Berry Gordy.
The Miracles as a group was formed in the latter part 1958, but its members were seasoned performers, working for many years under different names. In 1955, Robinson founded the Five Chimes together with Ronald White his best friend, Peter Moore, Clarence Dawson, and James Grice, his former high school classmates. The group’s name was changed to the Matadors in 1957 with Emerson and Bobby Rogers (his cousins) replacing Dawson and Grice. Eventually in 1958, Emerson was replaced by his sister Claudette Rogers and Marv Tarplin joined the group as guitarist.
The newly founded Matadors started a tour in Detroit with Robinson as lead singer. In 1958, his work with Berry Gordy started when the two wrote the song “Got a Job”. Later they decided to change the group’s name to the Miracles and with this name they recorded for End Records and Chess Records. Not long after, Robinson suggested to Gordy that the latter should start his own label.
Thus started Tamla Records in 1959 founded by Gordy and later reincorporated it as Motown. With Robinson and Gordy working together, The Miracles had a good start when they signed in. They complemented each other’s talents and the hit-making power of Robinson made Gordy a more effective mentor.
On the business side, Gordy chose Robinson as vice-president of Motown records. The two continued serving their positions until Gordy left Motown. The Miracles had their first big hit in 1960 with the song titled “Shop Around”. It was also Motown’s first number one hit on the R&B chart and its first million selling hit single. A milestone for the label and for Smokey Robinson himself.
Robinson also wrote and produced music for other artists, most of them under Motown. He wrote “My Guy” for Mary Wells in 1964 which was a massive world-wide hit that year. For The Temptations, he not only wrote but also produced hit songs including “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Twice I Lost My Baby”, and “Get Ready” between 1962 to 1966. He also composed “Still Water (Love)” for the Four Tops, “Don’t Miss with Bill” and “My Baby Must Be A Magician” for The Marvelettes, “When I’m Gone” for Brenda Holloway, “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone” for Marvin Gaye, and “First I Look at the Purse” for the Contours.
Smokey Robinson was much admired by other singers of the stature of John Lennon of The Beatles, who admitted that Smokey’s music also influenced his own. In fact, The Beatles recorded Robinson and The Miracles “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. Bob Dylan gave him the title “America’s greatest living poet”. With over 4,000 songs that made big hit because of his talent, he was honored as “America’s poet laureate of love”.
Motown had also made such an impact on Smokey’s personal life that he named his son Berry, the company’s founder, and his daughter Tamla, after the label for which they earlier recorded as a group. His wife was Claudette Rogers, his co-member in the Matadors who replaced her brother Emerson Rogers.
By 1969, Robinson had given his family such top priority that he considered leaving the Miracles. It was also during this time that the group’s popularity went downhill, and when the band stopped recording Robinson thought that it was finally time to leave. The turn of events however gave them a little hope when their 1969 recording “Baby Baby Don’t Cry” was well received, putting it to the National Billboard Pop Top 10. The future became even more promising when their 1970 release of “The Tears Of A Clown” was a hit in both the US and the UK charts.
This changed Robinson’s mind about leaving the band short term, but in 1972 he finally made the decision to move out of The Miracles and go solo. His solo career did not get off to a good start, and his work as vice-president of Motown took up most of his time. However, the release of his first solo LP in 1973 titled “Smokey” achieved partial success, and contained the song “Sweet Harmony” which he dedicated to The Miracles.
That was the start of a solo career that was continue with his 1975 “Baby That’s Backatcha” in the R&B genre. His other solo hits include “Cruisin'” (1979), “Being With You” (1981), “Tell Me Tomorrow” (1982), and “Ebony Eyes” (1983), a duet with Rick James. What almost never came to be was eventually a resounding success.
By the middle of the 1980s Robinson became addicted to cocaine and divorced Claudette in 1986. His work suffered and it was his friend Leon Kennedy who helped him out of his miserable situation. He eventually recovered from his “bankruptcy”, giving his career another good tune.
He won a Grammy award for “Just to See Her” in 1988 and published his autobiography “Smokey” in 1988, and in the same year was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”.
Robinson’s days with Motown as vice-president ended with the label’s sale to MCA in 1988, so he left the company in 1990. He won a “Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement” in 1991, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
Since 2000, Robinson had some periodic performances and other activities. He served as guest judge in American Idol in 2003 and in 2004, his SFGL Foods Company marketed “Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Soul Is in the Bowl’ Gumbo”. He also spends time as spokesperson of the “Great American Smokeout”.
Some of his more recent performances include his appearance at the Apollo Theater to record a TV special. In March 2009, he was again seen on American Idol Season 8 as mentor and coach of the top 10 contestants, and on May 9, 2009, he was conferred an honorary doctorate degree at Berkley College of Music.
Truly an R&B great, Smokey Robinson has seen it all, and his career is a tale that most boys would regard as no less than heroic, although it was based around the phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s that was Tamla Motown – eventually to become just Motown.