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Robinson, William, Jr. ("Smokey")

ROBINSON, William, Jr. ("Smokey")

(b. 19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan), singer, songwriter, record producer, and record-company executive who in the 1960s led the Miracles, a popular rhythm and blues (R&B) group, and contributed to the careers of several other R&B artists at Motown Records.

Robinson's father, William Robinson, Sr., worked in a bowling alley; his mother, Flossie Smith Bynum Ligon, was a homemaker. His parents divorced when he was three, and his mother died when he was ten, after which he was raised in a household containing many family members, including his sister Geraldine and his father. The nickname "Smokey" was applied to him ironically because he was actually quite light skinned. Robinson was interested in singing as early as the age of six and formed his first vocal group in grade school; he also began writing songs at an early age. His voice was a high tenor, and he claimed to use falsetto only rarely to hit high notes. Robinson's high school group, at first called the Five Chimes, was later dubbed the Matadors. This was the group that would evolve into the Miracles. In addition to Robinson, it consisted of Warren "Pete" Moore, Ronnie White, Emerson "Sonny" Rogers, and Rogers's cousin Bobby Rogers. When Sonny Rogers went into the army, he was replaced by his sister Claudette Rogers, who was also Robinson's girlfriend. When Rogers returned from military service, he rejoined the group, and Claudette retired from touring, although she continued to sing with the Miracles in the studio. Robinson and Claudette Rogers married on 7 November 1959; they had two children. They divorced in 1985.

After graduating from high school in 1957 and briefly attending college, Robinson met the songwriter Berry Gordy at an audition. Gordy became the Matadors' manager. Their name changed to the Miracles, the group recorded Robinson's composition "Got a Job," an answer record to the Silhouettes' hit "Get a Job," and Gordy leased it to End Records for their first release. In the winter of 1958 Gordy founded his own label, Motown Records, with the Miracles as one of its flagship acts. He continued to lease their tracks elsewhere at first, and the group scored their first chart entry with Robinson's "Bad Girl" on Chess Records in 1959. On the Motown subsidiary label Tamla, they enjoyed their first major hit in 1961 with Gordy and Robinson's "Shop Around," which topped the R&B charts and just missed topping the pop charts.

Subsequent Miracles' singles were more modest successes over the next few years, but Robinson scored as a writer/producer with other Motown performers. His song "The One Who Really Loves You" was a Top Ten hit for Mary Wells in the spring of 1962, as were his and White's "You Beat Me to the Punch" that fall and his "Two Lovers" in the winter of 1962–1963. In early 1963 Robinson and the Miracles returned to the Top Ten with his "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," and they were back in September with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier's "Mickey's Monkey." Robinson's "The Way You Do the Things You Do" became the Temptations' breakthrough pop hit when it reached the Top Ten in April 1964, and, continuing to work with Mary Wells, Robinson topped the charts with her in May 1964, writing and producing "My Guy." "My Girl," which Robinson wrote with White, was a number-one hit for the Temptations in March 1965. Also in 1965 he cowrote two Top Ten hits for Marvin Gaye, "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I'll Be Doggone." In recognition of his contributions to Motown, Gordy appointed Robinson a vice president of the company in charge of acquiring new talent.

Robinson's next major hit as a songwriter was "Don't Mess with Bill," which peaked in the Top Ten for the Marvelettes in February 1966, the same month the Miracles' recording of Robinson's cocomposition "Going to a Go-Go" did the same. As of the start of 1967, the group was rebilled as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in recognition of his increased stature. That year Johnny Rivers reached the Top Ten with his revival of Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears," which had been a Top Twenty hit for the Miracles in 1965. In December 1967 Robinson and the Miracles had their biggest hit in seven years, when Robinson and Alfred Cleveland's "I Second That Emotion" reached the Top Five. Several lesser hits followed in 1968, but it was not until early 1969 that Robinson and the Miracles returned to the upper reaches of the charts with the Robinson cocomposition "Baby, Baby Don't Cry."

By 1969 Robinson had tired of touring with the Miracles and decided to leave the group. Unexpectedly, however, a track from a 1967 Miracles' album, "The Tears of a Clown," which he had cowritten with Henry Cosby and Stevie Wonder, took off as a single in the fall of 1970 and became the Miracles' first number-one pop hit. As a result Robinson felt obligated to stay with the group until June 1972. At first he intended to retire from performing, but by 1973 he was releasing solo records, and by 1975 he was back to doing concerts. Robinson's later hits as a solo artist included "Cruisin'" (1979), "Being with You" (1981), "Just to See Her" (1987), and "One Heartbeat" (1987). His 1975 album A Quiet Storm launched a radio format of romantic R&B ballads. In the early 1990s, after Motown had been sold to a major label, Robinson left the company, but he had returned by the end of the decade.

Robinson's autobiography claims he is the author of 4,000 songs. In addition to those previously mentioned, they include "Ooh Baby Baby," a Top Twenty 1965 hit for the Miracles that became a Top Ten hit in 1979 for Linda Ronstadt; "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game," a Top Twenty hit for the Marvelettes in 1967; and "Get Ready," a Top Forty hit for the Temptations in 1966, which became a Top Five hit for Rare Earth in 1970. In Joel Whitburn's Pop Annual 1955–1999, a compendium of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, Robinson is ranked as the eighth most successful songwriter of the forty-five-year period covered, with 123 hits.

Robinson tells his own story in Smokey: Inside My Life (1989), written with David Ritz, which details not only his songwriting and performing career but also his romantic ups and downs and a late bout with substance abuse. Many accounts of Motown Records are available, with Robinson figuring prominently in the story. The best of these are Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? (1985), and Don Waller, The Motown Story (1985).

William Ruhlmann

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