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Smokey Robinson – The King of Motown
William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. earned the title “King of Motown” for making countless hits and consistent contributions to the label he helped start.
Robinson was born on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in the same North End location. His nickname was originally “Smokey Joe”, given to him by his uncle due to Robinson’s love of cowboy movies, and this was later shortened to “Smokey” when he was a teenager.
Smokey Robinson established and made a name for himself as an American R&B and soul singer, songwriter, record producer and record executive. He was one of the men behind Motown Records who gave success to the company in collaboration with the founder of the company Berry Gordy.
The Miracles as a group was formed in the latter part of 1958, but its members were seasoned artists, working for many years under different names. In 1955, Robinson founded the Five Chimes with Ronald White, his best friend, Peter Moore, Clarence Dawson and James Grice, his former high school friends. The group’s name was changed to the Matadors in 1957 with Emerson and Bobby Rogers (his cousins) replacing Dawson and Grice. Eventually in 1958, Emerson was replaced by his sister Claudette Rogers and Marv Tarplin joined the group as guitarist.
The newly formed Matadors began a tour in Detroit with Robinson as lead singer. In 1958, his work with Berry Gordy began when the two wrote the song “Got a Job”. Later they decided to change the name of the group to Miraculi and with this name they recorded for End Records and Chess Records. Shortly thereafter, Robinson suggested to Gordy that the latter should start his own label.
Thus began Tamla Records in 1959 founded by Gordy and later reincorporated as Motown. With Robinson and Gordy working together, The Miracles got off to a good start when they signed up. They complemented each other’s talents and Robinson’s power of success made Gordy a more effective mentor.
On the business side, Gordy selected Robinson as vice president of Motown records. The two continued to serve in their positions until Gordy left Motown. The Miracles had their first big hit in 1960 with the song “Shop Around”. It was also Motown’s first number one hit on the R&B chart and their first million-selling hit single. A stop for the label and for Smokey Robinson himself.
Robinson also wrote and produced music for other artists, most of them under Motown. He wrote “My Guy” for Mary Wells in 1964, which was a huge worldwide hit that year. For The Temptations, he not only wrote but also produced hit songs including “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Twice I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” between 1962 to 1966. composed “Still Water (Love)” by the Four Tops, “Don’t Miss with Bill” and “My Baby Must Be A Magician” by The Marvelettes, “When I’m Gone” by Brenda Holloway, “Ain’t That Peculiar ” and “I’ll Be Doggone” by Marvin Gaye, and “First I Look at the Purse” by the Contours.
Smokey Robinson was greatly admired by other singers of the stature of John Lennon of the Beatles, who admitted that Smokey’s music also influenced his own. In fact, The Beatles recorded Robinson and The Miracles “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” Bob Dylan gave him the title “America’s Greatest Living Poet.” With more than 4,000 songs that have become huge hits due to his talent, he has been honored as “America’s Poet Laureate of Love.”
Motown had also made such an impact on Smokey’s personal life that he named his son Berry, the founder of the company, and his daughter Tamla, after the label for which they first recorded as a group. His wife was Claudette Rogers, his co-member in the Matadors who replaced his brother Emerson Rogers.
In 1969, Robinson had given his family such a priority that he considered leaving the Miracles. It was also during this time that the group’s popularity fell, and when the band stopped recording Robinson thought it was finally time to leave. The turn of events however gave him some hope when his 1969 recording “Baby Baby Don’t Cry” was well received, placing in the National Billboard Pop Top 10. The future became even more promising when his 1970 release of “The Tears.” Of A Clown” was a hit in the US and UK charts.
This changed Robinson’s mind to leave the band shortly, but in 1972 he finally made the decision to walk away from The Miracles and go it alone. His solo career did not start well, and his work as vice president of Motown took up most of his time. However, the release of his first solo LP in 1973 entitled “Smokey” achieved partial success, and contained the song “Sweet Harmony” which he dedicated to The Miracles.
It was the start of a solo career that continued with his 1975 “Baby That’s Backatcha” in the R&B genre. His other solo hits include “Cruisin'” (1979), “Being With You” (1981) , “Tell Me Tomorrow” (1982) and “Ebony Eyes” (1983), a duet with Rick James. What almost never came to be was eventually a resounding success.
In the mid-1980s, Robinson became addicted to cocaine and divorced Claudette in 1986. His work suffered and it was his friend Leon Kennedy who helped him out of his miserable situation . He finally recovered from his “failure”, giving his career another good tune.
He won a Grammy Award for “Just to See Her” in 1988 and published his autobiography “Smokey” in 1988, and in the same year was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”.
Robinson’s days with Motown as vice president ended with the sale of the label to MCA in 1988, so he left the company in 1990. He won a “Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement” in 1991, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. .
Since 2000, Robinson has had some periodic shows and other activities. He served as a guest judge on American Idol in 2003 and in 2004, his SFGL Foods Company marketed “Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Soul Is in the Bowl’ Gumbo.” He also spends time as a spokesperson for the “Great American Smokeout.”
Some of his most recent performances include his appearance at the Apollo Theater to record a TV special. In March 2009, he was seen again on American Idol Season 8 as a mentor and coach of the top 10 candidates, and on May 9, 2009, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Berkley College of Music .
Truly an R&B great, Smokey Robinson has seen it all, and his career is a story that most guys would consider nothing less than heroic, even though it was based on the 1960s and 70s phenomenon that was Tamla Motown – eventually to become just. Motown.
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