AKA William Robinson, Jr.
Birthplace: Detroit, MI
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Motown singer, A Quiet Storm
One of the principal architects behind the Motown phenomenon of the 1960s, Smokey Robinson would help to shape the subsequent development of vocal pop music as both a composer and a performer. Although raised amongst the rust and clutter of the Brewster ghetto in Detroit, Michigan, his enthusiasm as a child was directed towards the cinema of the Wild West, and it was because of this that he earned the nickname "Smokey Joe" from his uncle Claude. He also found inspiration in his mother's record collection, which introduced him to black performers such as Billy Eckstine, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Sarah Vaughan. During his tenth year, however, the death of his mother would place him in the care of his older sister Geraldine, as Robinson's father's employment as a truck driver kept him away from home for extended periods of time; it was not long afterwards that the young prodigy began performing doo-wop on the street corners with neighborhood friends, his skills as a songwriter already in evidence.
In 1955 Robinson formed a high school vocal group called The Five Chimes, which initially also included classmates Ronnie White, Pete Moore, James Grice and Clarence Dawson. The following year Dawson was replaced by Emerson Rogers and the group's name was changed to The Matadors, although by 1957 both Rogers and Grice had been replaced by Rogers' sister Claudette and his cousin Bobby. It was at this time that the group (now using the name The Miracles to accommodate their female member) came to the attention of young songwriter Berry Gordy through a failed audition for the manager handling Jackie Wilson; Gordy offered them a song he had co-written called Got A Job, and arranged to have it released as a single by End Records in early 1958. The label issued a second single Money later in the year, but for their third attempt Gordy and Robinson moved over to Chess Records with their co-written track Bad Girl (1959). It was with this song that the Miracles would finally crack the national top 100.
Inspired by this tentative brush with success, Gordy allowed himself to be talked into starting his own record label by Robinson, and after securing a loan for $800 he established Tamla Records in 1959 (expanded to include the associated Motown label in 1960). The Miracle's first offering for the label Way Over There failed to receive much attention, and the band spent most of the subsequent year away from the studio developing their stage act in venues around Detroit and along the East Coast. With his next recording, however, Robinson brought about a dramatic change in both the label's and his own fortunes -- the self-penned track Shop Around entering both the pop and R&B charts upon it's release in October 1960, and ultimately climbing to #2 and #1 (repectively) by February 1961. As a result, the young songwriter had successfully established both himself and the Motown label as significant forces in the record industry.
In addition to his work with the Miracles, Robinson contributed extensively as a writer and producer to the output of other Motown acts, and his obvious talents in these areas prompted Gordy to promote him to label vice-president in 1961. Over the next several years Robinson continued to generate hit songs for the Miracles (What's So Good About Good-Bye (1962), I'll Try Something New (1962), You Really Got A Hold On Me (1962, an R&B #1 and pop #8), Mickey's Monkey (1963, another R&B #1 and pop #8)), while also crafting successful material for Mary Wells (including You Beat Me To The Punch (1962), Two Lovers (1962), My Guy (1962) -- all R&B #1's) and The Temptations (including The Way You Do the Things You Do (1964), My Girl (1964, a pop #1), Since I Lost My Baby (1965)), as well as several other of the label's leading names. By 1964 Claudette Rogers -- who had married Robinson in 1959 -- had retired from live performance to focus instead on raising a family, although she continued to participate in the group's recording sessions. Not long afterwards, the decision was made to change the name to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles -- initially just for the albums, but extended to include the single releases in 1967.
Despite the drop in interest that many other performers experienced as a result of the "British Invasion" phenomenon of 1964/65, the Miracles' flow of hit singles remained unchecked throughout these years, and songs such as Ooo Baby Baby, The Tracks Of My Tears, My Girl Has Gone and Going to a Go-Go (all 1965) still reliably charted in the mainstream top 20. 1967's I Second That Emotion became the Miracles' most successful track after their breakthrough single Shop Around, but as the end of the 1960s approached the popularity of Motown began to wane; this, combined with the strain of constant touring and recording while juggling his duties as a producer and vice-president, prompted Robinson to announce his resignation from the group in 1969. This decision would be undermined, however, by the unexpected climb of the re-issued single The Tears of a Clown to the top of the UK charts in September of 1970, followed by a corresponding jump to the top of the US charts a few weeks later. Robinson subsequently postponed his departure for a couple more years, but as the group's fortunes failed to maintain any permanent change he once again chose to resign in 1971. A six-month farewell tour was launched in early 1972, concluding with a performance in Washington, D.C. with a line-up that once again included Claudette and established Billy Griffin as the Miracles' new lead singer.
In the wake of his departure from The Miracles, for a short time Robinson abandoned his role as a performer and devoted himself to his obligations as Motown's vice-president. In 1973 he launched his solo career with the album Smokey and the R&B top 40 single Sweet Harmony, followed by a return to the R&B top 10 by way of his second single Baby Come Close. Throughout the next decade he continued to release at least one album every year, while the majority of his singles still consistently found their way into the R&B top 40 (the 1975 track Baby That's Backatcha earning him his first solo R&B #1). The mellow tone of his solo material did not have as much impact on the mainstream as had his earlier output with the Miracles, but on two occasions Robinson managed a return to the pop top 10: in 1979 with Cruisin' (#4) and in 1981 with Being With You (#2). In 1977 he also expanded his recording credits to include a film soundtrack by providing a funk-inflected score for the blaxploitation comedy Big Time.
In the mid-1980s Robinson's solo career experienced a temporary lull when his decade-long struggle with cocaine addition reached a crisis point; the singer managed to overcome the problem, but the strain it had created on his marriage to Claudette ultimately led to their divorce in 1986. This slump was brought to and end the following year by the back-to-back top ten singles Just To See Her and One Heartbeat, which concurrently positioned him in the upper reaches of the US R&B, US pop and UK pop charts. These two songs would prove to be Robinson's last significant impact (to date) on the mainstream music industry, although his popularity as a live performer remained undiminished. Upon the sale of Motown to MCA, a nearly three-decade long tenure as the label's vice-president was concluded in 1988 -- as was his status as a Motown artist two years later, his contract to the label being fulfilled by 1990's Love, Smokey, and his next album Double Good Everything (1991) being issued through SBK.
Smokey Robinson would remain absent from the music scene for most of the 1990's, returning only at the very end of the decade with the album Intimate (1999) on the now Universal-controlled Motown. In the interim Robinson pursued his non-musical business interests, as well as collaborating with Ron Milner on the score to a Broadway musical called Hoops! based on the history of the Harlem Globetrotters (this project, apparently later renamed Hoopz, continued to be developed without Robinson's involvement). The 00's found him taking a on variety of television guest appearances, including a brief stint as a judge on American Idol and a pair of acting appearances on the network sitcom One on One. In 2004 Robinson branched out into the frozen food business through his company SFGL, which manufactured a brand of gumbo, pot roast and red beans & rice bearing the singer's name and likeness. His music output resumed through different small labels in the mid-00s with Food For The Spirit (2004) and Timeless Love (2006), the former being his first foray into the contemporary gospel genre and the latter a collection of jazz standards.
Father: William Robinson (truck driver)
Sister: Geraldine Burston
Sister: Rose Ella Jones (songwriter, "Aunt Woody", b. circa 1928, d. 26-Apr-2010)
Wife: Claudette Rogers (singer, m. 7-Nov-1959, div. 1986)
Son: Berry Williams
Daughter: Tamla Claudette
Girlfriend: Diana Ross (singer)
Wife: Frances Gladney Robinson (interior designer, m. May-2002)
High School: Northern High School, Detroit, MI (1957)
The Miracles 1955-65
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 1965-72
National Medal of Arts 2002
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1987
Songwriters Hall of Fame 1990
Grammy Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, for Just To See Her (1987)
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1990)
Grammy Hall of Fame Award, for Tears Of A Clown (with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) (2002)
Risk Factors: Cocaine, Marijuana
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Rejoice and Shout (30-May-2011) · Himself
Last Holiday (13-Jan-2006)
Hollywood Homicide (10-Jun-2003) · Cabbie
The Temptations (1-Nov-1998) · Himself
Knights of the City (14-Feb-1986) · Himself
We Are the World (28-Jan-1985) · Himself
The T.A.M.I. Show (29-Dec-1964) · Himself
Author of books:
Smokey: Inside My Life (1988, autobiography)
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