America’s greatest poet, according to Bob Dylan.
When it comes to Motown titans, Smokey Robinson is second only to Berry Gordy Jr. Not only did he put the company on the map with his gorgeous, passionate ballads, but he also acted as producer, songwriter, talent scout and vice-president.
Save for founder Berry Gordy, no single figure has been more closely allied with the Detroit-based recording empire known as Motown than William “Smokey” Robinson.
In addition to leading the Miracles, Robinson served as a Motown producer, songwriter, talent scout and Gordy’s most trusted confidant and right-hand man.
"He reminded me of me—so excited and passionate about his music," Gordy wrote in his autobiography, To Be Loved. Robinson’s Miracles were the second act signed to Gordy’s management and production company. Everything at Motown was a family affair in those days. The Supremes (first known as the Primettes) wound up auditioning at Motown because Diana Ross was a neighbor of Robinson’s, and Primettes guitarist Marv Tarplin became an accompanist, arranger and co-writer in the Miracles.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles scored twenty-seven pop-soul hits at Motown between 1960 and 1971, including the classics “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Going to a Go-Go” and “I Second That Emotion.” They also explored the sweeter side of soul with a string of exquisite ballads sung by Robinson in a satiny falsetto. The Miracles’ brightest moments on record—“Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and “The Tears of a Clown” foremost among them—still kindle memories for those who came of age in the Sixties.
The Miracles began as the Matadors, a five-member harmony group who sang original songs by the prolific, teenaged Robinson. Their lineup included Robinson, Ronnie White, Warren Moore, and cousins Bobby and Claudette Rogers. The Matadors charmed Gordy at an impromptu audition, and the renamed group’s first single ("Got a Job” b/w “My Mama Done Told Me") was released on Robinson’s eighteenth birthday in 1958. The Miracles’ first Top 40 hit, “Shop Around,” established Gordy’s Tamla label on the national scene and paved the way for Motown’s family of labels and artists. “Shop Around,” which had a rawer, bluesier feel than much of the Miracles’ later work, sold a million copies in early 1961.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were founded upon devotion and constancy. The Miracles recorded on Tamla through 1976, and Robinson remained allied with Motown’s original imprint as a solo artist through the mid-Eighties. Robinson married Claudette Rogers in 1959, and their union lasted twenty-seven years. She withdrew from the Miracles’ touring lineup in 1965, leaving them a quartet, but continued to sing on every Miracles record until Robinson’s departure from the group in 1972.
Robinson’s words mingled sincerity and eloquence, often describing love with unique metaphors. Bob Dylan once pronounced him America’s “greatest living poet.” As a singer, Robinson could evoke joy, sadness and their bittersweet combination with his velvety high tenor. Legend has it that audience members would break into tears when Robinson and the Miracles sang “The Tracks of My Tears.” Even the notoriously hard-to-please Berry Gordy proclaimed the song a masterpiece. It also presaged another tear-streaked classic, “The Tears of a Clown,” which in 1970 became the Miracles’ first Number One pop hit. The period of 1963 to 1966 found the group operating at a creative and commercial peak, including the release of their best album, the hit-filled Going to a Go-Go (1965).
Excluding compilations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles released nineteen albums for Motown. On his own Robinson recorded sixteen albums for Tamla and Motown. He also wrote and produced for numerous other Motown artists, including Marvin Gaye ("Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I’ll Be Doggone"), the Temptations ("Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl"), Mary Wells ("My Guy,” “You Beat Me to the Punch") and the Marvelettes ("Don’t Mess With Bill,” “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game").
In July 1972 Robinson parted ways with the Miracles, and both entities enjoyed continued success. Robinson’s biggest solo hits—“Cruisin’” (Number Four) and “Being With You” (Number Two)—came in the late Seventies and early Eighties. A fixture at Motown, he served as vice-president until the company’s sale to MCA in 1988. He remained with the label as an artist for two more years after that. In 2004 he released his first gospel album, Food for the Spirit. His most recent album, Smokey & Friends, peaked at Number Two on the R&B charts and Number Twelve on the Billboard 200 and included collaborations with Elton John, James Taylor, Mary J. Blige and John Legend. In 2015 Robinson received a BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
Inductee: Smokey Robinson (vocals; born February 19, 1940)