Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
Courtesy of Photofest.
Motown's Main Men
The numbers speak for themselves. The Miracles, with Smokey Robinson at the helm, had 46 Hot 100 hits between 1959 and 1975 and 29 of those landed in the Top 40. On the list of the hundred greatest songs of the 1960s, at least 10 of them would have Smokey Robinson's byline on it, including “Tracks of My Tears,” “My Girl,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” and “Ain't That Peculiar.” The material is indelibly etched into the pantheon of popular music. If there were a contest to name the all-time number one songwriter of mainstream soul, Smokey Robinson would win hands down, in the face of some towering competition.
As a songsmith, few have matched Robinson's craft, his melodic grace, and his mastery of arranging. As a singer, he communicated innocence and devotion better than any other, via a flexible tenor that soared effortlessly into falsetto. He and the Miracles explored the sweeter side of soul with a string of exquisite ballads sung in that satiny falsetto.
As a lyricist, Robinson's words mingled sincerity and eloquence, often describing love with unique metaphors. Even Bob Dylan recognized him as one of America's greatest living poets.
The Miracles used to headline the famous Motortown Revues, which says an awful lot when two other giants, the Supremes and the Temptations, were also on the bill. The Supremes may have had bigger hits and the Temptations could sure slay them with dance steps. The Miracles weren't fancy dancers, or huge hitmakers. They worked their magic with nothing more than great songs and solid performances.
The early turning point in Smokey Robinson's career came fortuitously, when he met another Detroit native, Berry Gordy, at an audition in New York City in 1957. Gordy suggested when they returned to Detroit that they might work together. That meeting would change both of their lives forever.
More than a decade his senior, Gordy and Robinson were close from the start. Berry tutored Smokey in songwriting, taking him under his wing, and grooming him as a well rounded musical talent. “Every song should have an idea, tell a story, mean something,” he told him (Charlie Gillett, “The Miracle of Smokey Robinson,” Record Mirror; September 25, 1971). He employed Gordy's advice. Songs had to mean something. In time, Robinson's songs would mean quite a lot, financially as well as musically. Gordy, looking for acts to sign to his new management company, contracted Smokey's vocal group the Miracles. Along with Eddie Holland, they formed the nucleus of Gordy's upstart venture.
Gordy licensed the first Miracles record, “Got a Job,” to End Records (owned by a man named George Goldner in New York) and the second, “Bad Girl,” to Chess (owned by Leonard Chess in Chicago). But Gordy hadn't been remunerated very generously for his work, and that's when he decided to make a move, establish his own label. Eventually they'd call it Tamla. If Gordy had been properly compensated for the work he did for End and Chess, he might never have been driven to start his own company.
In 1960, Gordy signed the Miracles to Tamla and he soon began grooming Smokey as his second in command. The grooming paid off. Robinson served as vice president until the company's sale to MCA in 1988. Early on, Gordy initially allowed Robinson to oversee the work of his own band, the Miracles, as songwriter, arranger, and producer. But once he proved himself in that project, he allowed him to develop the talents of Mary Wells and the Supremes. Wells hit it big first, and so Robinson focused his efforts on her. One measure of Robinson's superb work is the fact that once Wells left Motown in 1964, she never again had the same success.
Many more acts benefited from Robinson's golden touch, and his tale is one of pop's great success stories. He wrote and produced for numerous 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 parties enjoyed a further phase of continued success. Robinson's biggest solo hits, “Cruisin’ ” and “Being with You,” came in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
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 foreshadowed another melancholy classic, “The Tears of a Clown,” which in 1970 became the Miracles’ first number one pop hit. Excluding compilations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles released 15 albums for Motown. On his own Robinson recorded another 16 albums for Tamla and Motown. But he was responsible for so much more than music at Motown. He was one of the chief architects of the label's campaign to capture the “Sound of Young America,” which is exactly what they did.
He was born William Robinson Jr. in Detroit in 1940. An uncle had nicknamed him “Smokey” in reference to his skin tone. He had light-brown skin and blue eyes; his uncle didn't ever want him to forget he was black. They grew up in a working-class home in Detroit, comfortable enough to get by.
Junior's mom sang and played piano in church, but not professionally. There was a piano in the house that Smokey sat at frequently, but he didn't take lessons or learn to read music. Some of the first songs Smokey recalls hearing were his mother's church hymns, which he sang aloud around the house, much to the chagrin of his sisters.
At 10, life at home changed dramatically for Robinson. His mom died, and considering his father, a municipal truck driver nicknamed “Five,” was away from home for extended periods, he became the legal ward of his older sister Geraldine. Fortunately for Smokey, Gerry was a music enthusiast, and his life was filled, if not with the nurturing of his natural parents, at least with the sounds of Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
“Long before I heard rock and roll,” Smokey remembers, “Sarah was a part of my household. Man, I worshipped her sound and I emulated her lush licks and tasty turns. Her range thrilled me. I loved the way she cried with her voice. I was awestruck by her subtlety and sensitivity” (David Ritz, liner notes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection, Motown, 1994, p. 9).
As a student at Northern High, Smokey and a couple of his best friends were studying to be electrical engineers. On the side, they had formed a doo-wop group; they sang on the street corners for the neighborhood. Smokey was gifted and ambitious, and his skills as a songwriter had already surfaced.
Detroit at the time was a jumping metropolis. The automobile manufacturing revolution had hit a peak, pumping out ever longer-finned luxury vehicles and employing the city's population. Coming of age in such a healthy economy allowed the working-class teens in the city to grow up flush with optimism and aspirations. A handful of these teens would later go on to form the core of Motown Records. In fact, Diana Ross lived in Smokey's neighborhood. Many others were talented, but never got the opportunity to do the same.
Changes in society continued to take place in 1954 and with the Brown v. the Board of Education case. It abolished the segregation of American schools and helped to upgrade the conditions of many inner-city schools. This played a major role in the success of Motown Records because the majority of Berry Gordy's acts came out of the Detroit Public School system, which had one of the nation's top musical programs at the time.
The optimism of Detroit led to the flourishing of music. Gospel, blues, country, pop, jazz, and R&B strains filled the streets of the city, and everyone either loved music or wanted to make it. Smokey and his friends, like many teenagers, chose the latter.
Smokey formed the group, the Five Chimes, with his best friend Ronnie White, and Northern classmates Pete Moore, Clarence Dawson, and James Grice. Two years later, that group was renamed the Matadors and included siblings Bobby and Emerson Rogers in place of Dawson and Grice. When Emerson announced to the band that he was headed into the army, the other members of the band asked his sister Claudette to take his place. At the time, Claudette felt that the band simply wanted to retain the Rogers’ basement as their customary rehearsal space.
But Smokey, at 15, had other ideas. He'd been dating Claudette and wanted to keep her close by. With a lady now in the group, the band chose a name that better fit their male/female concept. They called themselves the Miracles.
The Miracles’ sound embraced the melodic opulence of doo wop and infused it with the physicality of R&B. Smokey, then listening to archetypal gospel/R&B groups like the Moonglows and Billy Ward and the Dominoes with Clyde McPhatter on lead, absorbed that influence, inspired by McPhatter's high, often feminine-sounding voice. When he saw Ward's band perform in Detroit around that time, he couldn't believe the effect McPhatter's falsetto had on the girls in the audience. From that point on, he never worried about allowing his natural voice—also high and feminine—to shy away from the spotlight.
In the summer of 1957, Miracle Ronnie White had heard that Jackie Wilson's manager was looking for talent to sign. The Miracles woodshedded for their audition. At the time, Wilson was one of Smokey's favorite R&B singers, and he wanted badly to align with his management company. He felt that the combination of Claudette's soprano, Smokey's alto, Bobby's tenor, Ronnie's baritone, and Pete's bass held great potential. They just needed the right material.
But the audition didn't go as well as planned. Wilson's boss saw the Miracles as little more than a rehashing of the Platters and he suggested a few possible configurations they should consider adopting to be more unique. But they weren't about to change what they'd worked hard to establish. So, dejected, they turned to leave. On their way out the door, Berry Gordy stopped Robinson for a chat. Little did each know at that moment that both of their lives were about to change forever.
At the time, Berry Gordy, also from Detroit, was a former boxer like Wilson, and a tough, street-savvy personality. Over the years, Gordy had attempted the retail business selling jazz records, gotten married, had three children, and was subsequently divorced. He had been working for Jackie Wilson as a freelance songwriter and had come up with a couple of Wilson's very first hits, including “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops.” He had also produced records by Marv Johnson and Eddie Holland for the United Artists label. Frustrated with royalty checks that were too low and too slow in coming, he decided to go out on his own where he could make real money. Wilson was already signed to Brunswick and Johnson to UA, so he decided he'd set up his own label. Gordy had heard the Miracles audition and wanted to talk about perhaps signing them to his new management venture.
The Miracles, with Robinson their unchallenged leader and visionary, were an organized and disciplined group from the very beginning. They rehearsed regularly and took their career in music seriously. Ronnie White spearheaded the band's sober and muted sartorial image. As a jazz fan and “cool cat,” he favored the tailored suits and elegant, down-to-earth presentation. Claudette, a business school student, served as the group's accountant and secretary. The boys, like brothers, protected Claudette like a sister. The band functioned as the family Robinson missed while growing up.
As promised, Robinson and Gordy met separately to look over Robinson's songwriting sketchbook. They discussed the pros and cons of Smokey's existing songs; he had amassed hundreds of rough tracks, lyrics, and melodies. They were naive, with subject matter limited to teens—being in love, hating school, and not wanting to go into the army. But Gordy saw through the naiveté to the possibilities beyond. To help Robinson progress past the rather limited purview of his teenage topics, Gordy shared his insight. Smokey put aside his exercise book and started again. He was prepared to embark on a new approach to his work.
In February 1958, coinciding with Smokey's 18th birthday, the Miracles released their first single, “Got a Job,” which Gordy had arranged to be issued through the End Records label. The song, an answer to the Silhouettes’ hit “Get a Job,” resonated with ambition not only literally, but figuratively. The Miracles needed success to continue and the song made enough impact to help them do just that.
The band's second hit, “Bad Girl,” another Gordy/Robinson collaboration, made an even bigger impact, hitting the national charts. This one Gordy licensed to the Chicago's Chess label.
But on Gordy's end, the financial arrangement—leasing his acts to other labels—didn't pay off well enough. The shortfall led him, some say at Robinson's urging, to set up his own recording company and label. He did, and called it first Tammie, then Tamla Records. Now he'd be able to sign and nurture his own talent and keep it in house. The Miracles were essentially his first group and they'd serve as the prototype for all other Motown groups to follow.
In November 1959, Smokey married Claudette, a marriage that would last 27 years, and the band began touring. At first, their show was a mess. A date at the Apollo ended up disastrous, when the band failed to bring the house band music charts. The Miracles’ dance steps were frantic and disorganized and their vocal harmonies were shaky. The Apollo's manager half-joked he wanted his money back.
Back in Detroit, Robinson met a musician, Marv Tarplin, an extraordinary guitarist who had been playing with the Primettes, an early incarnation of the Supremes. Tarplin introduced the girls to Smokey, who then brought them to Gordy. Tarplin stayed with Smokey and over time became his most important musical accompanist.
With Tamla now in place, Gordy and Robinson came up with “Shop Around” in 1960. The song had already been cut once and was circulating around Detroit radio stations. But Gordy recut the song, pushing the tempo and simplifying the rhythm tracks. The second version, with Gordy himself on piano and credited to the Miracles (featuring Bill “Smokey” Robinson), hit the national charts, and radio jumped on it. In early 1961, “Shop Around,” a bluesier rendition than what the Miracles had recorded previously, topped the R&B chart for eight weeks and sold a million copies. Gordy, intent on making black music for white kids—rock and roll proved white audiences were hungry record buyers—had hit his first jackpot.
Meanwhile at Tamla, Robinson began overseeing the activities of other acts Gordy had signed. Mary Wells and the Marvelettes, two of his charges, began making inroads on the airwaves. The Marvelettes, a five-member girl group from outside of Detroit produced by Brian Holland had a huge hit in 1961 with “Please Mr. Postman,” while Detroit's Wells had a hit song at 17 with “Bye Bye Baby,” a song she initially offered Jackie Wilson. That song became the company's first Top 50 tune in 1961.
Robinson guided the careers, especially Wells (the Marvelettes had lineup shifts and other personnel problems). He wrote excellent material for her, and the combination of those songs with Wells's natural vocal delivery resulted in some of the label's most creative early work. The pinnacle of their collaborations, though, came a few years later in 1964, when Wells sang “My Guy,” a number one pop hit and a worldwide smash. One measure of Robinson's success as a producer is the fact that once Wells left the label, she could not duplicate, or even approximate, the large-scale hit-making she enjoyed with him at Motown.
In addition to overseeing his acts, Robinson became further involved in the rest of the label's lengthy list of responsibilities. He assisted in the business of promotion and he auditioned many of the label's hopefuls who by now were flocking to the successful young company. The Supremes were assigned to Robinson, as were the Temptations, and all of a sudden, he had a full slate of acts to complement his own writing and recording with the Miracles.
Boosted by the success, Gordy and Robinson, by now close friends, set out on the label's first Motortown Revue, although it didn't have that name at the time. It featured the Miracles headlining with other roster acts like Marv Johnson, Mary Wells, and the Marvelettes. This time, when the Miracles returned to the Apollo as headliners, the storyline read quite differently. All of Harlem was blaring the Miracles at the time, so the show was a huge triumph.
Robinson savored the memory. “The evening, at the Theresa Hotel, cars drove by, horns honking, fans waving up at our room, our music blaring from their radios. Seemed like the world was ours” (Ritz, p. 20).
But the tour suffered some setbacks. Smokey came down with America's first certified case of the Asian flu, which took him off the road, leaving the lead singing to Claudette. Smokey remembers it this way.
I had a complex about my voice, a real thing about it for several years. People would confuse me with Claudette, people would go, “Oh, I thought you were a girl.” I remember, one of our first hits, probably “Shop Around,” I got sick and couldn't go on stage, so Claudette sang for me. And in the middle of the songs, guys would be yellin’ out, “Sing it, Smokey!” All of this combined to give me a real complex about my voice. (Dave Marsh, “From the Beginning,” Creem, 1972)
Meanwhile, Pete was drafted into the army, so the Miracles were reduced to Claudette, Ronnie, Bobby and Marv. To make matters worse, a car accident while on the tour killed the group's driver, Eddie McFarland, and led to Claudette miscarrying her baby. It would be the first in a series of tragic miscarriages the Robinsons suffered.
As a songwriter, Robinson derived plenty of emotional material from his own experience, including the premature birth and death of twins soon after Claudette's first miscarriage. The devastation was palpable, and Smokey turned that tragic experience into a lifetime pledge, “More Love.” This would become one of Robinson's hallmarks as a writer. He'd take his own experiences and turn them into empathetic musical numbers. The way he related to his listeners had everything to do with being able to communicate the way he was feeling. His lyrics were simple, casual, and conversational, but his words were precisely chosen, and they could cut deep into a heart.
Clearly, Smokey had a way of looking at things that became uniquely his own. He'd turn clichés upside down or repurpose phrases, twist something familiar into something new, like “My Business, Your Pleasure” and “I Second That Emotion.” This allowed virtually all of his lyrics to sound comfortable, relatable, and universal. But it also made his work feel fresh. He could wring his metaphors (“I'm Stuck on You”) for every ounce of poetic potential they possessed. He also had a fertile enough imagination to profess love, regret the loss of love, and rue the day love came in myriad ways without sounding too sappy. These were his gifts, and he presented them to every fan of popular music in the 1960s.
In 1963, he succeeded in establishing his voice as a writer, and the work flowed, for the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, and anyone else he'd been assigned to compose for. Because he was faced with writing from morning until night to fill the label's demand for material, he often brought the Miracles into assist, and they ended up with valuable publishing credits. Today, that simple act, brought on out of necessity, feels more like one of kindness. Smokey said much later that he wanted the Miracles to have more publishing income; the Miracles have admitted that Smokey could have easily finished those songs on his own. Such was the generous soul of Smokey Robinson.
The band graduated from the Chitlin’ Circuit of the South to the mainstream American touring circuit. The Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes now joined the Motown roster, and the company positioned itself, quite successfully, as the Sound of Young America.
In 1964, Smokey's hits via the Temptations became some of the biggest of his young career, and some of the most enduring tracks in all of the 1960s: “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” and the incredible “It's Growing.”
Roughly at the same time, the Miracles’ hit parade began marching. “That's What Love Is Made Of,” the stunning “Ooo Baby Baby,” and, of course, Motown's most memorable cut, the one that Gordy, ever stingy with his compliments, called a “perfect” pop song, “Tracks of My Tears.”
In 1965, a few major changes came about. First, Claudette stopped performing with the group, though she continued to record. Second, under Gordy's directive, the Miracles changed their name to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. He'd also pull the same name change ploy, if somewhat more controversially, for the Supremes with Diana Ross. He assumed that naming a leader of these groups, a front person with a more recognizable identity than the other members, would boost sales. He was right.
Their 1965 Going to a Go-Go album, featuring “Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooo Baby Baby,” would solidify their standing as something more than a singles act. Though its title track kick-started a brief fad for go-go music—flashy, up-tempo dance music—it's one of the best records the Miracles ever made, and the first six songs rank among the best on any original Motown LP of the 1960s. Even the deeper tracks on the album shine, with “All That's Good,” “Choosey Beggar,” and “Let Me Have Some,” enhance the album as a whole.
Motown's constant pressure to put their acts on national television, appearances secured mainly by Shelly Berger, paid off that year with the Miracles starring on the Ed Sullivan Show. It would be the first of many national television appearances, not only for the Miracles, but for many other Motown acts. As an aside, the first time the enigmatic Sullivan introduced the band he referred to them as “Smokey and the Little Smokeys.”
And like the Temptations, the Miracles were booking numerous dates on the supper and nightclub circuit, a sure step up from the rather seedy Chitlin’ Circuit they traveled in the South. At these upscale clubs they played to more well-heeled, mostly white audiences—Gordy's dream demographic. When they hit television and the Copacabana gigs rolled in, the Miracles had taken a clear step forward as superstars.
During this same period, Smokey had been writing for Marvin Gaye, and the partnership had turned out some excellent singles, including “I'll Be Doggone” and “Ain't That Peculiar.” In 1965, the Temptations, largely indebted to Smokey for their early breakthrough hits, released The Temptations Sing Smokey, the ultimate tribute. It was then that Bob Dylan praised Robinson as “America's best living poet.” As if to justify that praise, Smokey turned out “I Second That Emotion” and “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” two complex ballads that proved he wasn't simply content to rest on his laurels.
A confluence of factors halted Robinson and the Miracles’ momentum. The music climate began changing once again: the psychedelic, blues-rock, and singer-songwriter movements, with acts like the Beach Boys, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, were swiftly taking hold, stealing the wind momentarily from Motown's soul sound. The hits had been flowing so freely for Smokey's group the lack of progress was surprising. Of course, Smokey himself continued writing hits, for Gaye and the Temptations, especially. But the Miracles’ dry spell lasted over a year.
They came out of it in a big way, rather unexpectedly. One song the band had kicking around for a few years was called “Tears of a Clown.” Stevie Wonder presented the song, sans lyrics, to Smokey back at a Motown Christmas party. He liked the tune, iced it with some terrific lyrics, then stowed it away for a rainy day.
In 1970, that rain finally came. Inexplicably, in September of that year it turned into the smash, the likes of which they never expected. Both sides of the Atlantic were crazy about the tune and it became the Miracles’ biggest selling single, moving over 3 million units. To enhance the Miracles’ rebirth even further, “Tracks of My Tears,” a song that had been at the top of the U.S. charts back in the summer of 1965, resurfaced in Britain, where it initially made little impact. This time it hit number one on the U.K. pop charts. “Tracks,” incidentally, came from rhythm groove guitarist Marv Tarplin, one of Smokey's go-to instrumental collaborators, came up with after hearing Harry Belafonte's tropical “The Banana Boat Song” at slower than usual RPM.
“Back in those days we had 24-hour access to the Motown studio,” Smokey said. “So we went in as soon as we possibly could after writing. This one was a real rascal, because we wanted to make sure the lyrics were real meaningful” (Adam White, Going to a Go-Go, liner notes, Motown 1965/2002, p. 4).
“Tracks” became one of the Miracles’ most affecting tunes. Miracle Pete Moore often remembered seeing audience members crying while he and the group harmonized. “It had some kind of underlying emotional feel to it, which really tapped into the depths of people's emotions” (White, p. 6).
It helped that the album, Going to a Go-Go, featured the raucous title track immediately following “Tracks” on side one. Spearheaded by another Tarplin guitar riff and bolstered by a huge Funk Brothers dance groove, the song would be a concert monster for the group, and one of their best ever dance tracks. Holland-Dozier-Holland had established the Miracles’ so-called go-go sound a few years earlier with “Mickey's Monkey,” but Going to a Go-Go and its follow-up, Away We Go-Go, shored up that reputation.
Things began sizzling once again.
Based on that serendipitous re-emergence, the Miracles greeted the 1970s with attractive prospects. But rather than feel hopeful, Smokey felt empty. By this time, he had accomplished so much, been to so many places, enjoyed his career so fully, that he felt like there wasn't anything left to accomplish as a Miracle. In 1970, he sat down with the boys at Ronnie White's house in Detroit and told everyone how he'd been feeling. He told them he loved them, that they were his brothers. But even brothers had to go their separate ways eventually.
“It seemed like we'd done it all,” he said. “We'd been around the world and back. I was proud of the success. But man, I was tired of touring. I wanted to stay home with the kids” (Ritz, p. 38).
It would still be a few years, and a handful of reasonably successful, but not smash hit singles, before he left the lineup. But the announcement startled the other Miracles and altered their mindset. They began searching for a replacement.
Business concerns at Motown stretched Smokey considerably at the turn of the decade. His responsibilities as a bandleader and important staff songwriter were time-consuming enough. But as a vice president of Motown, his role as an executive grew just as the company had grown. At this time, Berry Gordy was in the final stages of relocating his entire organization to Los Angeles from its native Detroit. Gradually, Gordy had given up control of sessions in the studio and he began focusing on the business end as well. But the move to Los Angeles, in essence an admission that the Golden Age of the label was over, signified a shift toward a “strictly business” approach.
Gordy had been living in Los Angeles for a while before insisting the company move out there with him. He had his eye on making films as well, so Hollywood made sense as a destination. He spent a lot time trying to convince his fellow Detroiters to move out west to be with him—saying he'd soon be moving the company—but most of the Motown folks chose not to go. In the end, however, the boss had the final say.
In 1971, he brought Motown to Los Angeles, and in 1972, Smokey Robinson, reluctant to leave his home and uproot his family, fulfilled his commitment to Gordy and upheld his promise to the Miracles. He left the group and moved to Los Angeles to join the company. All along, Gordy and Tamla, the label, had really been his first allegiance. Gordy had been his best friend, and Robinson had spent at least half of his time, perhaps more, building the brand, as they say, helping Gordy establish his musical empire. Now, eager to get off the road and be with his family, he proved his loyalty by relocating.
Going to a Solo, 1975–1984
Moving to Los Angeles left the Miracles to their own devices, and also allowed Smokey to embark on a solo career, something he had thought about for a few years.
After struggling mightily to have a child, Smokey and Claudette had two in the early 1960s, Berry and Tamla, both names with obvious origins. Claudette had spent her time with the kids, performing sporadically with the group and having a hand in the band's accounting. With Smokey's solo arrangement, he planned to spend more time with them all at home, his new home, that is, in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, in an effort to maintain their own career, the Miracles didn't take long to name a replacement for Robinson. A tall, dashing, and talented singer named Billy Griffin, the winner of a long series of national auditions, would take his place. To help smooth the transition, Robinson and the Miracles undertook a farewell tour, with Griffin in tow. They officially announced Griffin as the newest Miracle on July 12, 1972, at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington, D.C.
Without Smokey in the lineup, the Miracles hit the charts two more times, first with “Do It Baby,” which reached number 13 in 1974, and then again with the smash “Love Machine (Part 1),” a chart-topping hit in 1976, co-written, incidentally, by Billy Griffin and Miracle Pete Moore. But in 1975, the Miracles left Motown for MCA, and they never had another hit. Not that the group or the group's new label were fully to blame for that. Beginning about this time, the propulsive beats of disco had consumed the country, and, frankly, the world. “Love Machine (Part 1),” a high-energy rhythm track that hinted at jumping on the disco trend, served as evidence that the Miracles knew this was happening. But ultimately, younger and fresher groups were invited into the new dance movement, and the smoother grooves of the Motown Sound sank below the horizon.
After leaving the Miracles, Smokey took a few years to regroup, move his family to Los Angeles, and take care of business and family responsibilities. In 1973 or so, he picked up where he left off as a songwriter, only a little quieter. Oddly, while the country moved toward the tempestuous rhythms of disco, Motown smoothed out the edges of their studio creations, and became considerably mellower. Perhaps this was because the higher-ups at the company, including Gordy and Robinson, were mellowing as they grew older. But their sound by and large reflected a general shift at Motown toward urban contemporary soul.
His first few albums, Smokey and Pure Smokey, both ballad-driven, polished, and more reflective than his boisterous Miracles sets, were well received but not big hits. In the early 1970s, funk had captivated mainstream urban music listeners, so this kind of product did not have immediate fans, outside of Smokey loyalists.
In 1975, Robinson recorded Quiet Storm. It also emerged, well, quietly, at first, creeping into the Top 25 on the album chart but no higher. But soon after, a radio programmer at Howard University, a woman named Cathy Hughes, coined her own romantic ballad radio program Quiet Storm, with Robinson's song of the same name as the program's theme. Inadvertently, she and the song triggered a brand-new radio format of the same name. Quiet Storm also features the “Wedding Song” which was written for Hazel and Jermaine Jackson's wedding and the “Happy” theme from the movie Lady Sings the Blues.
Other Robinson solo hit tunes include “Cruisin’ ” from 1979, “Being with You” (a U.K. number one hit in 1981), “Tell Me Tomorrow” (1982), and “Ebony Eyes,” a duet with labelmate Rick James (1983). “Cruisin’ ” came from that familiar source, Marv Tarplin. He gave it to Smokey in 1973, and it took him five years to put lyrics to it. He did so after hearing the Rascals’ hit “Groovin’ ” while driving down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It became his biggest hit since “Tears of a Clown.”
At the end of the 1970s, Robinson toyed with the idea of playing the disco game; he wrote new songs, or updated old ones, like the Temptations’ “Get Ready,” that were his version of disco. But as soon as he did, both he and the label realized their miscues and decided to return to more traditional form.
Not much has been written about the music Smokey made during the 1980s and it's no surprise. With few exceptions, the 1980s were more about Robinson's personal life than about how effective he remained as a songwriter and a performer.
The troubles started in 1983, when his marriage to Claudette, after nearly 25 years, hit the rocks. The death of “Five,” Smokey's father, affected him deeply. He'd turned to his dad over the years for advice and guidance, and without him around Smokey felt lost, even in his 40s. Not even a Miracles reunion, on the occasion of Motown's 25th anniversary, was enough to shake him out of his grief. To make matters worse, Smokey also felt that Claudette had not been present for him emotionally. But, a pretty young woman named Kandi was. While seeing Kandi on the side, she became pregnant with Smokey's child. Smokey insisted the doctors told her she'd be incapable of bearing children. But an illegitimate baby was on the way.
Claudette had known something was wrong. After being married to Smokey for two dozen years, even minor behavioral changes showed up in big ways and she saw clearly that her husband was distracted.
It was also a very sensitive time for the couple. Claudette wanted to celebrate their 25th anniversary with a renewal of their marriage vows. Friends the Robinsons knew were celebrating the same anniversary and suggested they have a double wedding.
Smokey tried to mentally reinvest himself into his marriage, but he couldn’t. Claudette felt the distance between them growing. Smokey did too. He'd begun using drugs more frequently. His mind-altering substance of choice had grown from marijuana joints to joints laced with cocaine. He'd hide away at home and get high, then rejoin his family. Everything with Smokey had become clandestine.
Their anniversary came and went without much recognition. When Claudette asked him again, this time more desperately, about renewing their vows, Smokey snapped. “I've had a baby with Kandi,” he admitted, after the baby, Trey, was born in 1984.
His admission set the marriage on a downward spiral. “Unlike the past, when she'd always weathered the storms I'd rained on her, now Claudette lost control. She cried; she screamed; she shook with anger; she told me that was it; it was all over” (Ebony, May 1989).
Robinson moved out, got an apartment, and began doing harder drugs more often. He sank lower than he thought he ever could. Gordy saw the pain he'd been going through and invited Smokey to his Bel Air mansion in Hollywood to clean up. He spent a few weeks at Gordy's place, in a guesthouse, all the while wondering how he could get high. Gordy, who had a drug-free policy at his home, made Smokey promise him he'd stay clean, and Smokey agreed, knowing full well he'd be getting high as soon as he was free to go. It didn't matter that Gordy had lined his quarters with literature assailing drug use. He was addicted and he needed drugs.
“Stay as long as you want, Smoke,” Gordy urged. “But just promise me you'll stop.”
He couldn’t. There was too much pain. His father had died. His wife wanted a divorce. His new child didn't know his daddy. His girlfriend was worried that something terrible was happening, and his career was non-existent.
Not surprisingly, Smokey made some of the worst music of his career during this period. Essar, his album from 1984, marks the low point of Smokey Robinson's musical career. Co-producer and arranger Sonny Burke, a longtime Robinson recording partner, provides nearly all the tracks, dominating the sound with his synthesized keyboards. In fact, it's hard to recognize it as a Smokey recording at all. This may help to explain why Essar was his lowest charting studio album on the Pop LPs list (number 141) ever. It also flopped with R&B fans, peaking at number 35 and becoming his first album not to generate at least one Top 10 R&B hit.
In the late 1980s, Robinson shook free of his drug addictions and began to straighten out his personal life. He wrote his own memoir, Inside My Life, and began getting the recognition such monumentally important songwriters deserve. In 1987, Smokey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—in just the second year the institution made inductions—and the next year he was named a Grammy Living Legend as well as an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1991, Smokey left Motown, after a fruitful relationship of over 30 years. He signed with SBK Records, a major start-up that encountered immediate financial problems. Following his Motown departure, Robinson made a single record, without any notable success. Eight years passed in the 1990s—he toured and made special appearances at casinos and other popular hotel venues, but kept a relatively low profile. In 1999, he re-emerged, on Motown of all labels, with Intimate. Now a born-again Christian—he had been converted by a faith healer—the singer released his first gospel album, Food for the Spirit, in 2004.
The album features nine tracks, all written by Robinson, who sings them with passion and believability. In 2006, he recorded Timeless Love for the New Door label, a Universal Music imprint whose sole responsibility is to allow veteran artists to make new records. Timeless Love features Robinson singing some very old, as in pre-rock, standards, like Cole Porter's “I've Got You Under My Skin” and “Night and Day.”
Save for founder Berry Gordy, no single figure has been more closely allied with the Detroit-based recording empire known as Motown, nor done more to create the sound of that label, than William “Smokey” Robinson.
Today Robinson is one of the elder statesmen of popular music, a writer, producer, and performer who never betrayed his own reputation and, with few exceptions, never sacrificed his legacy with second-rate material, no matter what was happening on the music scene stylistically.
Bob Seger paid tribute to Smokey in Rolling Stone magazine's “Immortals” feature:
Everybody loved his songs, and he had a leg up on all the other singers, with that slightly raspy, very high voice. Smokey was smoky. He could rasp in falsetto, which is hard to do and perfect for sad ballads like “The Tears of a Clown” or “The Tracks of My Tears.” Smokey wrote his own stuff, so he had an originality or individualism that maybe the other Motown greats didn’t. He was a lyric man as well as a melody man, a musicians’ musician. (Bob Seger, “The Immortals,” Rolling Stone, April 15, 2004)
Over the course of his career, Smokey wrote more than 4,000 songs, including some of the most cherished and beloved of modern times. His list of accolades is almost as long as the list of his songs.
Much of today's soul music launched from the work of Motown and Robinson, from Boyz II Men, India.Arie, Floetry, R. Kelly, New Edition, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Levert, Brian McKnight, Ricky Fante, and John Legend. In fact, not only did he capture much of that archetypal soul sound with the Miracles and as a solo artist, he also helped shape it with the material he provided other Motown artists like the Temptations, the Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.
It is virtually impossible to embrace the history of soul without touching significantly on the impact and oeuvre of William “Smokey” Robinson.
Smokey (Motown, 1973)
Pure Smokey (Motown, 1974)
Quiet Storm (Motown, 1975/1991)
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Going to a Go-Go (Motown, 1965/2002)
The 35th Anniversary Collection (Motown, 1994)
Anthology (Motown, 1995)
George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.
Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. New York: Warner Books, 1994.
Ritz, David. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection, liner notes. Motown, 1994.
Robinson, Smokey and David Ritz, Inside My Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.