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William "Smokey" Robinson, Jr. (born February 19, 1940) is an American R&B singer-songwriter, record producer, and former record executive. Robinson was the founder and front man of the popular Motown vocal group The Miracles, for which he also served as the group's chief songwriter and producer. Robinson led the group from its 1955 origins as The Five Chimes until 1972 when he announced a retirement from the stage to focus on his role as Motown's vice president.
However, Robinson returned to the music industry as a solo artist the following year, later having solo hits such as "Baby That's Backatcha", "A Quiet Storm", "The Agony and the Ecstasy", "Cruisin'", "Being With You" and "Just to See Her". Following the sale of Motown Records in 1988, Robinson left Motown in 1990. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Robinson was born into a poor family in the North End area of Detroit. He was raised by his elder sister and her husband, after his mother died of a brain haemorrhage. He attended Northern High School, where he was above-average academically, and keenly involved in sport though his main interest was music and he formed a doo-wop group named the Five Chimes. At one point, he and Diana Ross were next-door neighbors; he said he has known Ross since she was eight.
Robinson said his interest in music started after hearing the groups Nolan Strong & The Diablos and Billy Ward and His Dominoes on the radio as a child. Robinson later listed Strong, a Detroit native, as a strong vocal influence during an interview with Goldmine as he and Strong shared similar vocals. In 1955, he formed the first lineup of what became The Miracles with childhood friend Ronald White and classmate Pete Moore. Two years later, in 1957, they were renamed The Matadors and included Bobby Rogers. Another member, Emerson Rogers, was replaced by Bobby's cousin Claudette Rogers. The group's guitarist, Marv Tarplin, joined them sometime in 1958. The Matadors began touring Detroit venues around this time. They later changed their name to the Miracles, taking inspiration from the name, "Miracletones".
Main article: The MiraclesIn August 1957, Robinson and The Miracles met songwriter Berry Gordy after a failed audition for Brunswick Records. Gordy was impressed with Robinson's vocals and even more impressed with Robinson's ambitious songwriting. With his help, the Miracles released their first single, "Got a Job", an answer song to the Silhouettes' hit single "Get a Job" on End Records. During this time, Robinson attended college and started classes in January 1959, studying electrical engineering. Robinson dropped out after only two months following the Miracles' release of their first record.
After a number of failures and difficulties with money, Robinson suggested to Gordy that he start his own label. Gordy formed Tamla Records which was later reincorporated as Motown. The Miracles became one of the first acts signed to the label. In late 1960, the group recorded their first hit single, "Shop Around", which became Motown's first million-selling single. Between 1960 and 1970, Robinson would produce 26 top forty hits with the Miracles as lead singer, chief songwriter and producer, including several top ten hits such as "You've Really Got a Hold on Me", "Mickey's Monkey", "I Second That Emotion", "Baby Baby Don't Cry" and the group's only number-one hit during their Robinson years, "Tears of a Clown". Other notable hits such as "Ooo Baby Baby", "Going to a Go-Go", "The Tracks of My Tears", "(Come Round Here) I'm The One You Need", "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" and "More Love" peaked in the top twenty. In 1965, the Miracles was the first Motown group to adapt a name change when they were listed as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles on the cover of their 1965 album Going to a Go-Go. Their name change would be confirmed on singles after 1966.
Between 1962 and 1966, Robinson was also one of the in-demand songwriters and producers for Motown, penning several hit singles such as "Two Lovers", "The One Who Really Loves You", "You Beat Me to the Punch" and "My Guy" for Mary Wells, "The Way You Do The Things You Do", "My Girl", "Since I Lost My Baby" and "Get Ready" for The Temptations, "When I'm Gone" and "Operator" for Brenda Holloway, "Don't Mess With Bill", "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" and "My Baby Must Be a Magician" for The Marvelettes and "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar" for Marvin Gaye. His top rank as songwriter and producer dropped after the arrivals of Holland–Dozier–Holland and the team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and other Motown artists such as Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He later contributed lyrics and musical composition for the works of The Contours' "First I Look at the Purse", the Four Tops' "Still Water" and The Supremes' "Floy Joy".
By 1969, Robinson had voiced his opinion on wanting to retire from the road to concentrate on raising his two children with his wife Claudette, and also focus on his duties as Motown's vice president. He earned the job by the mid-1960s after Esther Gordy Edwards had left the position and began mentoring Motown acts on Motown's Motortown Revues. However, the late success of the group's track, "Tears of a Clown", caused Robinson to stay with the group until 1972. Robinson's last performance with the group was in July 1972 in Washington, D.C.
After a year of retirement, Robinson announced his comeback with the release of the eponymous Smokey album, in 1973. The album included the Miracles tribute song, "Sweet Harmony" and the hit ballad "Baby Come Close". On his 1976 album Thirty Three & 1/3, former Beatle George Harrison featured the track "Pure Smokey" as a tribute to his idol. Harrison and fellow Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also fans of Robinson's songwriting. In 1974, Robinson's second album, Pure Smokey was released but failed to produce hits. Robinson struggled to compete with his former collaborators Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and former Temptations member Eddie Kendricks as all three had multiple hit singles during this period.
Robinson answered his critics the following year 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". However, Robinson's solo career continued to struggle as Robinson mainly focused as Motown's vice president, rather than work on his own career. As a result, several albums including Smokey's Family Robinson, Deep in My Soul, Love Breezeand Smokin, suffered from dismal promotion and even more dismal reviews from critics. Robinson had by then relied on other writers and producers to help with his albums.
Following these albums, Robinson got out of a writer's block after his close collaborator Marv Tarplin, who joined him on the road in 1973 after Robinson left the Miracles, presented him a musical composition he had composed on his guitar. Robinson later wrote the lyrics that became his first top ten pop single, "Cruisin'". The song peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and became his first solo number one hit ever in New Zealand. Robinson would follow a similar approach with his next album, Warm Thoughts, which produced another top 40 hit, "Let Me Be the Clock", though it didn't repeat the success of "Cruisin'". In 1981, Robinson achieved a massive hit with another ballad, "Being with You", which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number-one in the UK, becoming his most successful single to date. The parent album sparked a partnership with George Tobin and with Tobin, Robinson released his next several Motown albums, Yes It's You Lady, which produced the hit, "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, following a period of personal and professional issues, Robinson made a comeback with the album, One Heartbeat and the singles, "Just to See Her" and "One Heartbeat", which both peaked at the top ten, with "Just to See Her" winning Robinson his first Grammy Award in 1988. The album became Robinson's most successful to date, selling half a million copies. In the same year Robinson released One Heartbeat, he was inducted as a solo artist to theRock and Roll Hall of Fame, later igniting controversy as the committee had only inducted Robinson but not members of his group, the Miracles, which Robinson himself was personally offended by. In 2012, however, the committee ratified that mistake announcing that the group would be inducted on their own merit. Though Robinson was not listed as an inductee, the musician is due to induct his former group at the ceremony in April 2012. The same year he was inducted, the UK group, ABC released a tribute song, "When Smokey Sings".
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. Robinson remained virtually quiet during the nineties making a brief comeback in 1999 when he re-signed with Motown and issued the album, Intimate, which included the song "Easy to Love". In 2003, he once again split ties with Motown, releasing the gospel album, Food for the Soul on Liquid 8 Records in 2004. Two years later, Robinson released the standards album, Timeless Love, in 2006 on Universal Records. In 2009, he issued the album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun on his own label, Robso Records. Time Flies has been the last album Robinson has released.
Robinson married his fellow Miracles member Claudette Rogers in 1959. The couple had two children, daughter Tamla Robinson (b. 1969) and son Berry Robinson (b. 1968), named after Motown's first label and Berry Gordy respectively. Robinson has another son, Trey (b. 1984), with another woman, during his marriage to Claudette. After Robinson admitted this, he filed for legal separation and, later, divorce, which was granted in 1986. The Robinsons had separated once before, in 1974, and Robinson conducted an extramarital affair that became the concept of the song, "The Agony & The Ecstasy", later featured on A Quiet Storm.
Until the late sixties, Robinson was teetotal, drug-free, a vegetarian and a self-described "health nut". However, by the time he was in his late twenties, Robinson began using marijuana. By the seventies, he was also dabbling incocaine; however, Robinson said he only used it for recreation. By the early eighties, however, he had begun developing a cocaine addiction. Following the deaths of his father and close label mate Marvin Gaye, the demise of his marriage and his own career troubles, Robinson developed an addiction to crack.
Robinson got clean in 1986 after visiting a church under the advice of longtime friend Leon Kennedy. Robinson has said that since the church visit, he has been clean and sober. In 1989, Robinson wrote the memoirs, Inside My Life, in which he opened up about his drug use. In 2004, Robinson married his second wife, Frances Robinson. The couple currently lives in Los Angeles. That same year, his company, SFGL Foods, launched a gumbo brand called "Smokey Robinson's The Soul is in the Bowl Gumbo", which was produced after the release of Robinson's gospel album, "Food for the Spirit".
Robinson later told reporters when he was a child, his uncle christened him "Smokey Joe", which Robinson assumed was a "cowboy name for me" until he was later told that smokey was a pejorative term for dark-skinned Blacks. Robinson, who is mainly of African American descent and is light-skinned, remembers his uncle saying to him, "I'm doing this so you won't ever forget that you're black." Smokey later disavowed that his Uncle had said that he was "Smokey" to remind him that he was Black in an interview for the Sentinel at the El Portal Theater to promote his poetry show, "Words" in the year 2012. In his Entertainment Weekly article in the year 2000, writer Tom Sinclair does not indicate where he got the quote. Robinson grew up as a fan of Western films.
Awards and accoladesEdit
In 1987, Robinson was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later, in 1989, he was inducted to the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. In 1993, Robinson was awarded a medal at the National Medal of Arts. Two years before, he won the Heritage Award at the Soul Train Music Awards. At its 138th Commencement Convocation in May 2006,Howard University conferred on Robinson the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa. In December 2006 Robinson was one of five Kennedy Center honorees, along with Dolly Parton, Zubin Mehta, Steven Spielberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
On March 20, 2009, The Miracles were finally honored as a group with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Smokey was present with original Miracles members Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, (Bobby's cousin) Claudette Rogers, and Gloria White, accepting for her husband, the late Ronnie White, whose daughter Pamela and granddaughter Maya were there representing him as well. Smokey's replacement, 1970s Miracles lead singer, Billy Griffin was also honored. Controversially, original Miracle Marv Tarplin was not honored, against the wishes of his fellow Miracles, and the group's fans, who felt that he should have also been there to share the honor. However, later, Tarplin did receive his star. He was also finally inducted with the rest of the original Miracles,Bobby Rogers,Pete Moore, Ronnie White,and Claudette Robinson, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 20, 2012, some 26 years after Robinson's controversial solo induction in 1987.
On May 9, 2009, Smokey Robinson received an honorary doctorate degree and gave a commencement speech at Berklee College of Music's commencement ceremony.