Born: February 19, 1940
African American singer, songwriter, and producer
Hailed by some as the greatest living American songwriter, Motown star Smokey Robinson has been composing and singing rhythm and blues hits for more than three decades.
William "Smokey" Robinson Jr. was born on February 19, 1940, in Detroit, Michigan, in the rough Brewster ghetto, a poor and generally dangerous neighborhood. Young Smokey grew up listening to his mother's records, including the works of B. B. King (1925–), Muddy Waters (1915–1983), John Lee Hooker (1917–2001), Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990), and Billy Eckstine (1914–1993). These black artists, he commented in Rolling Stone, were "the first inspirational thing I had." When Robinson was ten, his mother died, and his sister Geraldine took him in, raising him along with her ten children. The family was poor but close-knit, and Robinson spent his youth writing songs and singing in local bands.
Robinson would not consider a professional career until he graduated from high
Robinson was lucky to have encountered Berry Gordy during an audition for another agent; Gordy, then a fledgling (just starting out) music producer on a limited budget, was equally fortunate to have found Robinson. Gordy began to produce the Miracles' singles in 1958, collaborating with Robinson on lyrics and tunes. Their first release, "Got a Job"—an answer to the Silhouettes' number one hit "Get a Job"—hit number 93 on the nationwide Billboard Top 100 chart. The debut was encouraging, but nothing prepared Gordy and Robinson for the limelight they would gain in 1960. Late that year they released an upbeat single, "Shop Around," that became a chart-topping million-seller. The Miracles became a national phenomenon, and Gordy was able to launch Motown Records, a landmark production company that introduced such talents as Diana Ross (1944–) and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder (1950–), Marvin Gaye (1939–1984), and the Temptations.
Robinson and the Miracles were Gordy's first star-quality group, and they continued their association with Motown as the company grew. Indeed, Robinson wrote hit songs not only for his group but for other Motown headliners as well.
Throughout the 1960s, especially in the latter half of the decade, the Motown sound competed with the music of the British invasion (the sudden appearance of extremely popular British bands, led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones) for popularity among America's youth. Robinson and the Miracles were favorites among the Motown personnel, earning more than six gold records (five hundred thousand or more records sold) containing such hits as "The Tracks of My Tears," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "I Second That Emotion," and "Ooo Baby Baby." Still, Robinson was on the verge of leaving the group in 1968 when his son Berry was born. He reconsidered almost immediately, however, when the Miracles single, "Tears of a Clown," became a number one hit, first in England and then in the United States. Robinson left the Miracles in 1972; the band went on without him until the late 1970s.
For a time after leaving the Miracles, Robinson concentrated on his business duties as vice president of Motown Records. He soon returned to recording, however, this time as a solo artist. His solo albums are, on the whole, more thoughtful and mellow than his work with the Miracles.
Robinson's records of the late 1980s, when he was well into his third decade in the music business, continued to gain popularity and the approval of critics. A People magazine reviewer found that on his 1986 album Smoke Signals, for example, the singer "remains a uniquely resilient performer." His 1987 album entitled One Heartbeat was termed "another winning package of sharp, sophisticated soul" by a reviewer from Rolling Stone. Robinson hits like "Cruisin'," "Just to See Her"—a Grammy Award winner—and "Being With You" became both rhythm and blues and pop hits. Coupled with his success with the Miracles and as a major Motown song writer, Robinson's solo achievements in the music industry led to his 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1989 he was named a Grammy Living Legend.
Coping with such enormous fame has not always been easy for Robinson. He wrote of his personal struggles in his 1989 collaboration with David Ritz, Smokey: Inside My Life. Musician writer Jon Young remarked that the autobiography (a story that recounts one's own life) "documents everything from [Robinson's] family history and the early days of the Miracles to his extramarital affairs and, most striking, a graphic account of two years in the [depths] of cocaine addiction in the mid-'80s." When asked why he chose to provide such candid details about his drug addiction, Robinson responded to Young, "I wrote it because it was God's will.… I was saved from drugs in 1986 when my pastor prayed for me. I never went to rehab or to a doctor. It was a miracle healing from God, so that I could carry the message about the perils of drugs. At the time I was saved, I was already dead. You are now speaking to Lazarus."
With the onset of the 1990s, Robinson's contract with Motown Records expired and after a long and productive career with the record company, he moved to SBK Records. With SBK, Robinson released a well-received album he coproduced and recorded in less than six weeks, 1991's Double Good Everything.
Also in 1991 Robinson ventured into previously unchartered areas of the music world, considering an album of country-western tunes and penning the score for a Broadway musical titled Hoops, which presented the history of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
Musical productivity and recognition for his accomplishments have not slowed for Smokey Robinson. In 1999 he released the well-received Intimate album. Two years later Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame & Museum, which is dedicated to "honor the greatest vocal groups in the world."
Given, Dave. The Dave Given Rock 'n' Roll Stars Handbook. Smithtown, NY: Exposition Press, 1980.
Robinson, Smokey, and David Ritz. Smokey: Inside My Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.