Bob Dylan called him "America's greatest living poet," and in 1987 ABC's Martin Fry sang that "Everything's good in the world tonight/When Smokey sings." As a writer of love songs, Smokey Robinson is peerless: From Motown standards like "My Girl" to the elaborately constructed, metaphor-driven "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game," "Let Me Be the Time (on the Clock of Your Heart)," and "The Way You Do the Things You Do," he explored every aspect of romantic love. Whether making an elegant declaration of passion ("More Love"), pleading forgiveness ("Ooh Baby Baby"), or musing at love's paradoxical nature ("Ain't That Peculiar," "Choosey Beggar"), Robinson's best songs showed a rare mastery of the pop form. His delicate yet emotionally powerful falsetto is among the most romantic in pop.
In addition, Smokey Robinson made major contributions to the success of Motown, a fact acknowledged by label founder Berry Gordy Jr., when he surprised the singer with a corporate–vice president title in 1961. In addition to providing the label with 27 Top 40 hits with the Miracles, he also wrote, cowrote, or produced some of Motown's biggest hits (the Temptations' "My Girl," Mary Wells' hits) as well as some of its lesser known but more adventurous releases (like the Four Tops' "Still Water [Love]," the Supremes' "Floy Joy").
Robinson founded the Miracles — all Detroit-born — while attending that city's Northern High School. As the Matadors, they played locally, usually performing Robinson originals. In 1957 they met Berry Gordy Jr. while they were auditioning for Jackie Wilson's manager. Gordy, who had written songs for Wilson, was impressed not only by their presentation but by Smokey's prodigious songwriting. "Got a Job," an answer to the Number One hit "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes, attracted local attention in 1958. In 1959 "Bad Girl" was distributed locally by Motown and nationally by Chicago's Chess Records. It hit Number 93 on the pop chart and convinced Berry Gordy Jr. to expand his fledgling record company into one that would produce and distribute its own product rather than creating records to lease out to others. In 1960 "Shop Around" established both the group and the company when it went to Number One R&B, Number Two pop. Its B side was the oft-covered soul ballad "Who's Lovin' You." This marked the beginning of Smokey and Gordy's relationship. According to one Motown history, when Gordy met Smokey, the young songwriter had hundreds of finished and unfinished song lyrics in notebooks, and it was Gordy who trained him to distinguish which were the best among them.
Throughout the Sixties, Robinson wrote songs for and produced many other Motown acts, including the Marvelettes ("Don't Mess with Bill," "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game," and "My Baby Must Be a Magician"); Marvin Gaye ("I'll Be Doggone," with Warren Moore and Marvin Tarplin; "Ain't That Peculiar," with Moore); Mary Wells ("My Guy," "The One Who Really Loves You," and "You Beat Me to the Punch," with Ronald White); and the Temptations ("Get Ready," "Don't Look Back," and "My Girl," with White; "The Way You Do the Things You Do," with Bobby Rogers; "It's Growing," with Moore).
Though the Miracles made numerous uptempo singles such as "Mickey's Monkey" (Number Eight pop, Number Three R&B) in 1963 and "Going to a Go-Go" (Number 11 pop, Number Two R&B) in 1966, they are best known for their ballads, including "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (Number Eight pop, Number One R&B, 1963), "Ooo Baby Baby" (Number 16 pop, Number Four R&B, 1965), "The Tracks of My Tears" (Number 16 pop, Number Two R&B, 1965), "More Love" (Number 23 pop, Number Five R&B, 1967 — by which time they had become Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), "I Second That Emotion" (Number Four pop, Number One R&B, 1967), and "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" (Number Eight pop, Number Three R&B, 1969). Their last big hit together was the uptempo "The Tears of a Clown," a Number One hit on both the R&B and pop charts, and in England, in 1970. A great deal of their work in these years featured Marv Tarplin on guitar; he even appeared on a few album covers as if he were a Miracle.
In 1972 Robinson left the group to record on his own and to spend more time with his wife, Claudette (Bobby Rogers' sister, and a Miracle until 1964, though she continued to sing on the group's records). Claudette had toured with the group until a series of miscarriages forced her off the road in the mid-'60s. Robinson wrote "More Love" for Claudette after one of their babies was lost. Their first child, Berry William (named after Gordy), was born in 1968; their daughter Tamla (named for the label) followed. The couple divorced in 1985.
Robinson continued in his duties as a Motown vice president. He also worked frequently with Tarplin, who, after a few years with the Miracles, rejoined Robinson. A Quiet Storm (1975) is regarded as his best early solo album. (Its title was eventually used to name a smooth subgenre of modern R&B that developed in the 1990s.) While Smokey has always been a popular concert attraction, his record sales during the '70s fluctuated. It wasn't until 1979's "Cruisin'" (Number Four pop, Number Four R&B) that Robinson again enjoyed mass success. His Number One R&B single "Being With You" (Number Two pop) in 1981 continued his performing comeback, but in the ensuing years, he has placed just two more singles in the pop Top 10 (1987's "Just to See Her" and "One Heartbeat") and one LP in the Top 40 (One Heartbeat, also from 1987, which is gold). Despite rampant defections from the label through the Seventies and Eighties, Robinson did not leave Motown until 1990, even though he had resigned his vice presidency there in 1988. He returned to the label in the late '90s and released Intimate (Number 134 pop, Number 28 R&B, 1999). In his 1989 autobiography, Smokey: Inside My Life (cowritten with David Ritz), Robinson openly discussed his marital infidelities and a mid-Eighties addiction to cocaine.
Among the artists who have covered Robinson's songs are the Beatles ("You've Really Got a Hold on Me"), the Rolling Stones ("Going to a Go-Go"), Terence Trent D'Arby ("Who's Lovin' You"), Johnny Rivers ("The Tracks of My Tears"), Blondie ("The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game"), Linda Ronstadt ("Ooo Baby Baby," "The Tracks of My Tears"), Kim Carnes ("More Love"), Rare Earth ("Get Ready"), the English Beat ("The Tears of a Clown"), Rita Coolidge ("The Way You Do the Things You Do"), and Luther Vandross ("Since I Lost My Baby").
He has received the Grammys' Living Legend Award and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Miracles in 1987. In 1999 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The following year he became the host of Intimate With Smokey Robinson, a two-hour program of love songs and call-ins on the L.A. oldies station Mega 92.3. In 2004, he put out a gospel album called Food For The Spirit (Number 44 R&B),; in 2006, a pop standards album, Timeless Love (Number 109). His self-released 2009 album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun (Number 10 R&B), features guest appearances by India.Arie, Carlos Santana, and Joss Stone.
After Robinson made his final concert appearance with the group in July 1972, the Miracles continued with lead vocalist Billy Griffin. While they kept charting through 1978, only three singles had significant chart status: "Do It Baby" (Number 13 pop, Number 14 R&B) and "Don't Cha Love It" (Number Four R&B) in 1974, and their early-1976 Number One pop hit "Love Machine (Part 1)" (Number Five R&B). Billy Griffin was replaced by his brother Donald, but the Miracles disbanded in the late 1970s. They have reappeared in concert and on records, sometimes including Claudette Robinson. White died of leukemia in 1995.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.
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