William "Smokey" Robinson, Jr. (born February 19, 1940) is an American R&B and soul singer-songwriter, record producer, and former record executive. Robinson is noted for being one of the primary figures associated with Motown Records, second only to the company's founder, Berry Gordy. Robinson's countless hits, and consistent contributions to the Motown label earned him the title of the "King of Motown." As both a member of Motown group The Miracles and a solo artist, Robinson recorded thirty-seven Top 40 hits for Motown between 1960 and 1987, and also served as the company's vice president from 1961 to 1988.
Early years and formation of the Miracles
Robinson was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan's North End neighborhood. When he was a child, he was nicknamed "Smokey Joe" by an uncle because of his love of cowboy movies. In his teens, this was shortened to "Smokey." In an interview, Robinson claims he has been friends with Diana Ross since they were eleven years old. In 1955, Robinson founded a group he called the Five Chimes with his best friend Ronald White, and Northern High School classmates Pete Moore , Clarence Dawson, and James Grice. By 1957, the group was called the Matadors and included cousins Emerson and Bobby Rogers in place of Dawson and Grice. Later Emerson was replaced by his sister Claudette Rogers who later married Robinson, and guitarist Marv Tarplin joined the group in 1958.
With Robinson as lead singer, the Matadors began touring the local Detroit venues. In 1958, Robinson met songwriter Berry Gordy, who co-wrote for them the single "Got a Job", an answer song to the Silhouettes' hit single "Get a Job." The group renamed itself the Miracles, and issued singles on both End Records and Chess Records before Robinson suggested to Gordy that he start a label of his own.
In 1959, Gordy founded Tamla Records, which he soon reincorporated as Motown. The Miracles were among the label's first signees. Gordy and Robinson had a synergistic relationship, with Robinson providing a foundation for Motown's hit-making success and Gordy acting as a mentor for the budding singer and songwriter. By 1961, Gordy had appointed Robinson vice-president of Motown Records, a title Robinson held for as long as Gordy remained with the company.
Motown and The Miracles
The 1960 single "Shop Around" was Motown's first number one hit on the R&B singles chart, and the first big hit for The Miracles.The song was also Motown's first million-selling hit single. They scored many more hits over the years, including the much-covered "Who's Loving You" (1960), "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (1962), "What's So Good About Goodbye" (1962),"I'll Try Something New" (1962), "Mickey's Monkey" (1963),"I Like It Like That" (1964), "Ooo Baby Baby (1965), "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965), "Going to a Go-Go" (1965),"My Girl Has Gone" (1965), (Come Round Here) I'm The One You Need" (1966), "More Love" (1967), "I Second That Emotion" (1967), "If You Can Want" (1968}, "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" (1969), and the international # 1 smash, "The Tears of a Clown" (1970).
Besides penning hits for his own group, Robinson (often assisted by the other Miracles ), also wrote and produced hits and album tracks for other Motown artists. Mary Wells had a big hit with the Robinson-penned "My Guy" (1964), and Robinson served as The Temptations' primary songwriter and producer from 1963 to 1966, penning hits such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do", "My Girl", "Since I Lost My Baby", and "Get Ready". Among Robinson's numerous other Motown compositions are "Still Water (Love)" by The Four Tops, "Don't Mess With Bill" and "My Baby Must Be a Magician" by The Marvelettes, "When I'm Gone" by Brenda Holloway, "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I'll Be Doggone" by Marvin Gaye, and "First I Look at the Purse" by The Contours.
His hit songs also earned him the title "America's poet laureate of love". During the course of his 50-year career in music, Robinson has accumulated more than 4,000 songs to his credit. John Lennon of The Beatles made countless remarks regarding Robinson's influence on his music. In a 1969 interview, Lennon stated that one of his favorite songs was The Miracles' "I've Been Good To You," which has similar lyrics to Lennon's "Sexy Sadie." George Harrison also greatly admired Robinson and paid tribute to him in his 1976 song "Pure Smokey." (The Beatles had recorded Robinson and The Miracles' "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" in 1963.) Bob Dylan said of Robinson, that he was "America's greatest living poet."
After marrying Claudette Rogers, Robinson started a family, and named both of his children after Motown: his son was named Berry after the company's founder, and his daughter Tamla after the Motown imprint for which Robinson and The Miracles recorded.
The Miracles remained a premier Motown act through most of the 1960s. Albums were released as "Smokey Robinson & the Miracles" after 1965. By 1969, the group's fortunes began to falter, and Robinson decided to quit The Miracles so that he could remain at home with his family and concentrate on his duties as vice president. The group stopped recording and Robinson prepared to leave the group. Unexpectedly, however, their 1969 recording "Baby Baby Don't Cry" hit the national Billboard Pop Top 10, and when their 1966 recording of "The Tears of a Clown" was released as a single in 1970, it became a number-one hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
With the surprise success of "The Tears of a Clown", Robinson was convinced to remain with The Miracles for a few more years. In 1972, however, he followed through on his original plans to leave the group, and The Miracles began a six-month farewell tour. On July 16, 1972, Smokey and Claudette Robinson gave their final performances as Miracles at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington, DC, and Robinson introduced the group's new lead singer, Billy Griffin. The Miracles went on for a while, even having another number one hit, "Love Machine", in 1976.
Successful solo career
Smokey Robinson began a low-key solo career while concentrating on his duties as vice president of Motown, releasing his first solo LP, Smokey, in 1973. His first hit single, "Sweet Harmony" (1973), was dedicated to The Miracles.
In 1975, Robinson's solo career went into full-drive after the success of the number one R&B hit "Baby That's Backatcha". Robinson's 1976 single "Quiet Storm" and its accompanying album typified a genre of smooth, slow R&B that has spawned late-night radio shows called "quiet storm." Other Robinson solo hits include "Cruisin'" (1979), "Being With You" (a U.K. number-one hit) (1981), "Tell Me Tomorrow" (1982), and "Ebony Eyes", a duet with labelmate Rick James (1983). He also recorded the soundtrack to the film Big Time (1977).
Later years, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Controversy, and Awards and Accolades
During the mid-1980s, Robinson fell victim to cocaine addiction. His recording slowed, and his marriage to Claudette faltered; the two were divorced in 1986. With the help of friend Leon Kennedy (as described in Robinson's autobiography "Smokey"), Robinson was dramatically healed of his addiction at a religious service. He eventually revitalized his career, scoring hits in 1987 with the Grammy Award-winning "Just to See Her" (a U.S. #8 hit) and "One Heartbeat" (U.S. #10). Also in 1987, British band ABC scored a U.S. and U.K. hit with their tribute to Robinson entitled "When Smokey Sings." In 1988, Robinson published his autobiography, Smokey, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. However, in a decision that has since sparked much controversy, the other original members of his group, The Miracles, Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore, Marv Tarplin, and Claudette Robinson, were not.
Upon Motown's sale to MCA in 1988, Robinson resigned from his position as vice president. After one last album for Motown, Love, Smokey (1990), Robinson departed the company. He released one record for SBK Records, Double Good Everything (1991), the same year he won a Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement. Eight years later, he returned to Motown, which by then was a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and released Intimate (1999). The same year, Robinson received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Since then, Smokey has continued to periodically perform and tour. In 2003, Robinson served as a guest judge for American Idol during "Billy Joel Week." He issued a gospel LP, Food for the Spirit in 2004. A new album of pop standards from the early 20th century, Timeless Love, was released in June 2006. It was originally recorded with a jazz combo, but strings were added after the fact, giving the album more of a lush sound but removing much of the jazz feeling of the disc. In a recent interview (late 2008), Robinson spoke of an upcoming CD of new original songs (except for a cover of Norah Jones' 'Don't Know Why'), due out in May of 2009 called 'Time flies when you're having fun.' Special guests on the CD are said to include India Arie, Carlos Santana, and Joss Stone.
In 2004, Robinson's company, SFGL Foods, launched a special brand of gumbo called "Smokey Robinson's 'The Soul is in the Bowl' Gumbo." Smokey Robinson is the spokesman of the Great American Smokeout, which takes place annually one week before Thanksgiving. It is a day when smokers quit smoking for at least a day.
Robinson has appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, the NBC daytime drama Days of our Lives, and on The Rachael Ray Show. He is scheduled to appear on Duets on Fox with Clint Black, Michael Bolton, Macy Gray, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Richard Marx, Brian McKnight, Aaron Neville, Randy Travis, and Dionne Warwick. David Foster will be a judge.
At its 138th Commencement Convocation in May 2006, Howard University conferred on Robinson the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa. In December 2006 Robinson was one of five Kennedy Center honorees, along with Dolly Parton (with whom Robinson had recorded a 1987 duet, "I Know You By Heart"), Zubin Mehta, Steven Spielberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The ceremony was held on December 3, 2006, and broadcast on CBS on December 26, 2006.
Robinson sang "The Tracks Of My Tears" as a cameo in the 2006 film Last Holiday. Also in late 2006, Robinson reunited with fellow Miracles Bobby Rogers and Pete Moore for the group's first extended interview. This interview forms the basis of the Universal Music DVD release Smokey Robinson and The Miracles: The Definitive Performances, a video retrospective of the group's music and career.
On February 11, 2007 Robinson sang "Tracks Of My Tears" at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, as part of a tribute to R&B music which included Motown labelmate Lionel Richie and current R&B star Chris Brown. Robinson performed on the finale of American Idol (season 6) on May 23, 2007. Robinson and the top six male contestants performed a medley of his hits.
In November 2007, Robinson toured Australia and performed with Australian band Human Nature on the set of local television programme Dancing With The Stars. On 22 November 2007, Robinson was interviewed by Bob Rogers (not to be confused with Bobby Rogers of The Miracles) on Sydney radio station 2CH.
On August 6, 2008, Robinson appeared at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater with English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello to record a television special combining on-stage interview and performance segments.
On March 25, 2009, Robinson appeared as a mentor on the popular television show American Idol. He coached the top 10 contestants of Season 8, who performed classic Motown songs. He also premiered the first single, "You're the One For Me", which features Joss Stone. The song also became available on iTunes and Amazon, March 26, 2009. The song is an updated version of the song "You're The One For Me Bobby," which he wrote and produced for The Marvelettes in 1968 for their album "Sophisticated Soul." On March 20th 2009, The Miracles were finally honored as a group with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Smokey was present with original Miracles members Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, ex-wife (and Bobby's cousin) Claudette Robinson, and Gloria White, accepting for her husband, the late Ronnie White. Smokey's replacement, 70's Miracles lead singer, Billy Griffin was also honored.
Smokey Robinson in popular culture
* ABC recorded a tribute song called "When Smokey Sings" that referenced his influence on the music industry. The single peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. For the week of October 3, 1987, it dropped to #8 as Smokey Robinson's single "One Heartbeat" was peaking at #10. That instance of having a tributor and tributee in the Billboard top 10 at the same time was a rarity if not a unique event.
* Smokey's rendition of the National Anthem before Game 5 of the 1986 World Series at Fenway Park is generally considered one of the greatest renditions of the Anthem at a sporting event ever along with Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and Whitney Houston before the 1991 Super Bowl.
* George Harrison wrote a song called "Pure Smokey," a tribute to Smokey Robinson. The song was on Harrison's 1976 album Thirty-Three and 1/3.
* The character C.C. White, a budding songwriter who finds success as an R&B label's main creative force in the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, is based upon Smokey Robinson. In the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls, C.C. is portrayed by Keith Robinson.
* Several years ago, Smokey received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On March 20th 2009 , The Miracles as a group where so honored, which then made him one of the few artists in recording history to become a double Walk of Fame honoree.
* The 1999 novel An Ocean Apart by Robin Pilcher the central character David is a committed Motown fan and one of Smokey Robinson's in particular, and is always moved by the song Tracks of My Tears. The song's first stanza lyrics are also featured in the book.
* Smokey appears in a classic Sesame Street sketch in a parody of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me", grappling with the letter U... which really has a hold on him.
* Smokey was mentioned in the Tom Tom Club's dance classic "Genius of Love" for his inimitable singing.
* Smokey was guest artist on American Idol March 25th and March 26th 2009.
Tamla (Motown) releases
* 1973: Smokey
* 1974: Pure Smokey
* 1975: A Quiet Storm
* 1976: Smokey's Family Robinson
* 1977: Deep in My Soul
* 1977: Big Time Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
* 1978: Love Breeze
* 1978: Smokin'
* 1979: Where There's Smoke...
* 1980: Warm Thoughts
* 1981: Being With You
* 1982: Yes It's You Lady
* 1983: Touch the Sky
* 1984: Essar
* 1986: Smoke Signals
* 1987: One Heartbeat
* 1990: Love, Smokey
* 1999: Intimate
* 1991: Double Good Everything (SBK Records)
* 1999: Our Very Best Christmas (Universal Records)
* 2004: Food for the Spirit (Liquid 8 Records)
* 2006: Timeless Love (Universal Records)
* 2009: Time Flies When You're Having Fun (Robso Records)