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Robinson, Smokey (1940—)

Robinson, Smokey (1940—)

William "Smokey" Robinson did more to define the Motown sound than anyone except founder Berry Gordy. Involved in all facets of the operation—songwriter, producer, vice president, member of the Quality Control board that approved or rejected every candidate for single release—Robinson somehow found time for a successful singing career, first as leader of the Miracles and then as a solo artist. Along the way, he set a standard for clever wordplay and smooth crooning that has rarely been equaled.

Robinson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 19, 1940. He put together his first vocal group, the Matadors, at the age of 14. They were a smooth doo-wop group in the tradition of the Five Satins or the Platters. In 1957, the Matadors became the Miracles, when original member Emerson Rodgers went into the army and was replaced by his sister Claudette, who would later become Mrs. Smokey Robinson and retire from the group. From the start, Robinson had a hand in writing the group's material, as well as handling most of the leads with his pure, expressive tenor. He met Berry Gordy in 1957, and together they wrote the Miracles' first local hit, "Got a Job," an answer to the Coasters' "Get a Job." When Gordy started his own Motown label with his modest songwriting royalties and a loan from his parents, the Miracles were one of the first acts he signed, and Motown's 1960 breakthrough hit was a Miracles tune written by Robinson—"Shop Around." Robinson soon branched out into songwriting and production for other Motown artists. He wrote and produced nearly every hit single for the label's first bona fide star, Mary Wells, including her #1 hit "My Guy." More than his early Miracles numbers, which were often simplistic, this song showed Robinson's genius at creating intelligent, moving music within the restrictions of the pop single format. He also wrote the first charting Supremes single, "Breathtaking Guy," though their incredible run of success came later with the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing/production team.

From 1963 to 1965, Motown grew at an unprecedented rate, and Robinson grew along with it. His hits with the Miracles included "Mickey's Monkey," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Going to a Go-Go," and "Ooh Baby Baby." He was also chief songwriter for the Temptations, giving them "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "My Girl," and "Get Ready." Robinson was demanding in the studio and often recorded dozens of takes of a track before he was satisfied, but his perfectionism resulted in many of the best-crafted, most memorable recordings of the 1960s. His catchy melodies, painstaking arrangements, and cliché-free love song lyrics influenced such 1960s giants as the Beatles, who covered his "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," and Bob Dylan, who once called Robinson "America's greatest living poet."

Robinson scored more hits in the late 1960s—"I Second That Emotion," "Baby Baby Don't Cry," and "The Tears of a Clown" (his first #1 as a performer)—but musical tastes were changing. The Temptations left Robinson behind, reaching new commercial heights with the psychedelic funk of producer Norman Whitfield. Holland-Dozier-Holland had left Motown, and flagship acts the Supremes and Four Tops were struggling. The tuneful precision, exemplified by Motown at its peak, had lost popularity to the rawer sounds of hard rock being incorporated by James Brown and Aretha Franklin. After a number of lackluster albums, Robinson left the Miracles, but he was unable to resist the lure of recording, and regained chart success with the 1975 solo album A Quiet Storm, which adopted the long song formats and thematic coherency of his former protégés Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Though he scored a number of hits in his second singing career, including "Cruisin'," "Being with You," and "Just to See Her," Robinson had nothing like his former influence over the pop scene. His key contribution came with the rapid maturity of the pop song in the early and mid-1960s.

—David B. Wilson

Further Reading:

Robinson, William "Smokey", and David Ritz. Smokey: Inside My Life. 1990.

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