Smokey Robinson’s over five decades impact on American music is filled with firsts. It’s fitting then that for his contributions; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and awarded the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his lifetime contributions to popular music.
William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. of African-American and French ancestry was the founder and front man of the Motown vocal group, The Miracles, for which he was also chief songwriter and producer. In the late 1960, the group recorded their first hit single, “Shop Around”, which became Motown’s first million-selling hit record. It was also Motown’s first #1 hit on the R&B singles chart.
Robinson founded The Miracles while still in high school and in August 1957, Robinson and The Miracles met songwriter Berry Gordy after a failed audition for Brunswick Records. Gordy who will form the Motown Record dynasty was impressed with Robinson’s vocals and even more impressed with Robinson’s ambitious songwriting.
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In the years following “Shop Around“, Robinson continued to pen hits for the group including “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “More Love,” “Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder), and “I Second That Emotion.”
The Miracles dominated the R&B scene throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s with Robinson becoming Vice President of Motown Records from 1961 to 1988 serving as in-house producer, talent scout and songwriter.
The genius that he was, Robinson wrote and produced hits for other Motown greats including Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway, Marvin Gaye and others. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “My Guy” are just a few of his songwriting feats during those years.
Robinson stayed with The Miracles until 1972. His last performance with the group was in July 1972 in Washington, D.C. Robinson and The Miracles released fifteen albums for Motown. Together they scored 27 pop-soul hits at Motown between 1960 and 1971.
As a solo act, Robinson released the Smokey album, in 1973. It didn’t fare so well. In 1974, he released his second album, Pure Smokey, which failed to produce hits. The following year, Robinson answered his critics with A Quiet Storm, released in 1975. The album launched three singles – the number-one R&B hit “Baby That’s Backatcha”, “The Agony & The Ecstasy” and “Quiet Storm.”
With work as Motown’s vice president taking a huge chunk of his time, Robinson’s solo career suffered as his music took the backseat. His next album, Warm Thoughts, however produced another top 40 hit.
In 1981, Robinson topped the charts again with another sensual ballad, “Being with You.” He released his next several Motown albums, Yes It’s You Lady, which produced the hits, “Tell Me Tomorrow”, “Touch the Sky” and “Essar”. In 1983, Robinson teamed up with fellow Motown label mate Rick James recording the R&B ballad, “Ebony Eyes”.
In 1987, Robinson made a comeback with the album, One Heartbeat and the singles, “Just to See Her” and “One Heartbeat.“
“Just to See Her” won Robinson his first Grammy Award in 1988. The album became one of his most successful ever, selling over 900,000 copies in the United States alone.
After Motown was sold off to MCA in 1988, Robinson relinquished his position as vice president. Following the release of the album, Love Smokey, in 1990, Robinson left Motown for a deal with SBK Records in 1991. However, the album, Double Good Everything failed to chart.
The American singer, songwriter, record producer, and former record executive has also received the Grammy Living Legend Award, NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate (Howard University), Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States.
Robinson is the only man in musical history to simultaneously be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and honored by NARAS as a “Living Legend.”
The Detroit, Michigan native who has accumulated more than 4,000 songs was born on February 19, 1940 in humble circumstances. He got the nickname “Smokey Joe” from his Uncle Claude, which quickly stuck.
Robinson married Claudette Rogers in 1959. The union lasted 27 years yielding two children, Berry and Tamla. The couple divorced in 1986. He remarried Frances Glandney in 2002. Robinson also has Trey Robinson.