Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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ROBINSON, Smokey

(b William Robinson Jr, 19 February 1940, Detroit) Lead singer of the Miracles, songwriter, producer; became vice-president of Motown '72. The group was called the Matadors in high school; other founder members were Ronnie White (b 5 April 1939; d 26 August 1995), Bobby Rogers (b 19 February 1940; d 3 March 2013), Pete Moore (b Warren Moore, 19 November 1939), Claudette Rogers (Bobby's sister, b 1942), all from Detroit. They knew Berry Gordy when he was writing songs for Jackie Wilson and hadn't formed a label yet; they were among the first signings when he did, although their first records appeared on other labels: 'Got A Job' on End, 'Bad Girl' on Chess (Hot 100). The Miracles had 46 Hot 100 hits '59-75, 29 in the top 40, all but the first on Motown, all but the last four with Smokey, including 'Shop Around' (no. 2 '61), 'You've Really Got A Hold On Me' (8 '62, covered by the Beatles), also 'That's What Love Is Made Of' '64, 'Ooo Baby Baby' and 'The Tracks Of My Tears' '65.

Claudette and Smokey had married '59; after a while she stopped touring. They were known as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles from '67, 'I Second That Emotion' was no. 4 that year and their first UK top 30; then 'If You Can Want', 'Yester Love', 'Special Occasion', 'Baby, Baby Don't Cry' (no. 8 '69), 'The Tears Of A Clown' (no. 1 '70, both USA/UK), 'Satisfaction' '71 (not the Rolling Stones song), many more written or co-written by Smokey. Also 'Mickey's Monkey' '63, 'Come 'Round Here (I'm The One You Need)' '66 written by Holland/Dozier/Holland, his only rivals for total number of Motown hits; guitarist Marvin Tarplin (d 31 August 2011, Las Vegas, aged 70) not only played the classic riffs on the hits but co-wrote 'I Like It Like That', 'My Girl Has Gone', etc, became a regular member of the group; other co-writers included Ronnie Wright and Bobby Rogers; Al Cleveland came up with the title of 'I Second That Emotion' while they were Xmas shopping (and later co-wrote 'What's Goin' On' for Marvin Gaye).

Gordy, not only an old friend but seasoned spotter of talent, soon assigned other work to Smokey, who wrote 'My Guy' for Mary Wells, 'I'll Be Doggone' and 'Ain't That Peculiar' for Gaye, hits for the Marvelettes and above all for the Temptations: 'My Girl', 'Get Ready', 'The Way You Do The Things You Do', many others as well as classic LP The Temptations Sing Smokey '65. He went solo '72 to spend more time with his family and on other Motown duties; the Miracles had a few more hits including no. 1 'Love Machine' '75, left Motown and had no more success. Smokey had seven solo hits in the top 40: with 'Cruisin'' (no. 4 '79), 'Being With You' (no. 1 UK/2 USA '81), he became one of the few recording artists to have hits in four decades; his memorable tunes, unique falsetto and way with a metaphor were probably helped by his strong marriage (two children named Berry and Tamla). His songs were covered by Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Rivers, many others; Bob Dylan called him the greatest living poet in America (but Motown's Al Abrams later admitted that he and Dylan's friend Al Aronowitz had made up the quote). David Morse wrote that Robinson's voice 'recognizes no distinction between speech and song; it uncoils from a breathy intimate whisper into a clear, bright, continuously intense verbal pressure ... While other singers land heavily on the beat, Smokey Robinson maintains a subtle continuous contact with it, a kind of prehensile touching' (quoted by Nelson George in his Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise And Fall Of The Motown Sound '85). Three-disc Anthology by the Miracles is a priceless document; 15 chart solo albums included Smokey '73, A Quiet Storm '75, Where There's Smoke '79 ('Cruisin''), Being With You '81, Essar '84, Smoke Signals '86. The 35th Anniversary Collection is a four-CD compilation.