Smokey Robinson

 Smokey Robinson

 Smokey Robinson – circa 1964

 “This is no fiction, this is no act / This is real, it’s a fact” – ‘More Love’ (William ‘Smokey’ Robinson)

Record company executives sometimes get a bad reputation.  All too often, they are portrayed as money grubbing capitalists crushing the artistic sensibilities of those recording for them.  Alternately, they can be seen as wild-eyed visionaries that are low on business acumen.  When a singer or musician becomes a record company executive, it often seems like a rich man’s folly, an expensive hobby for a rock star.  Smokey Robinson fits with none of those descriptions.  The U.S. singer becomes an executive at Motown Records but maintains a parallel career as one of the label’s more successful recording artists.  He seems to be a canny balance of businessman and creative spark.

The story of Smokey Robinson and the story of Motown Records are intertwined, but Robinson exists before the record label, so let’s start with him.

Smokey Robinson is born William Robinson, Jr. on 19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.  He is of multiracial, black and Caucasian descent.  His father, William Robinson, Sr. is a truck driver.  Little is known of the boy’s Caucasian mother, though he refers to her record collection having been influential to him.  She listened to such acts as swing era balladeer Billy Eckstine, bluesmen Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.  Apparently, William Jr.’s parents divorced when he was quite young, though it seems to have been an amicable parting.  He recalls that his divorced parents “promoted each other to me.”

“We had a lot of musical people there in our neighbourhood,” Smokey Robinson remembers.  “There was a group singing on every street corner.”  When he is 7, Smokey meets the future Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin for the first time…as a 3 year old girl, playing a piano.

William Robinson, Jr. is nicknamed ‘Smokey Joe’ by his Uncle Claude due to the boy’s love of westerns.  ‘Smokey’ is a common nickname for cowboys and saddle tramps.  In the African-American community, ‘Smokey’ is also a nickname for a light-skinned black person, a reminder of their racial identity.  This has often been thought to be the origin of the light-skinned Smokey Robinson’s tag, but it is apparently incorrect and the Wild West origin is the truth.

Smokey Robinson’s mother dies of a brain haemorrhage when Smokey is 10.  Because the boy’s father is away so much due to his cross-country truck-driving commitments, Smokey is raised by his elder sister, Geraldine Burston, and her husband.

In 1954 Smokey Robinson first meets Diana Ross, who is destined to be another Motown Records recording artist.  The 8 year old girl is one of his neighbours.

In the same year, 1954, Smokey Robinson also meets Claudette Rogers.  “I was 14 when I met her,” he explains.  The two youngsters become sweethearts.

While attending Northern High School in Detroit, Smokey Robinson forms his first vocal group, The Five Chimes, in 1955.  The other four boys involved in the act are Ronnie White, Warren ‘Pete’ Moore, James Grice and Clarence Dawson.  In 1956, Emerson ‘Sonny’ Rogers (the brother of Smokey’s girlfriend, Claudette Rogers) and Bobby Rogers (their cousin) replace James Grice and Clarence Dawson and the group adopts the new name, The Matadors.  In 1957 Smokey Robinson graduates from high school.

“I grew up in a house where there were like eleven of us in there and my older sister raised me, so I always had a job [to help make ends meet financially],” Smokey Robinson explains.  “In between graduating high school and starting college, I had a job working for Western Union [delivering telegrams].  The group that I was singing in, we were The Miracles, but at that time we called ourselves The Matadors, and we had an audition with the people who handled [rhythm and blues singer] Jackie Wilson.  He was one of my idols at the time.  Berry Gordy wrote [some of] the hit singles for Jackie Wilson, so he happened to be there.  That’s how [Berry Gordy and I] hooked up and met.  [Our association] started when I was 17.”

The transition from The Matadors to The Miracles takes place in 1957 at the time of another membership reshuffle.  Emerson Rogers leaves to join the U.S. armed forces, replaced by Smokey’s girlfriend (and Emerson’s sister) Claudette Rogers.  In 1958, an extra member, Marv Tarplin, is added as their ‘musical director.’  Thus The Miracles are constituted as: Smokey Robinson (lead vocalist), Claudette Rogers (first tenor vocalist), Bobby Rogers (second tenor vocalist), Ronnie White (baritone vocalist), Pete Moore (bass vocalist) and Marv Tarplin (guitar).

Berry Gordy, the professional songwriter (and former automobile assembly-line worker), has ambitions to set himself up as an independent record producer.  He begins making records with a vocalist named Marv Johnson and then adds another client, singer Barrett Strong.

At first, Berry Gordy’s interest in The Miracles is based on their female member, Claudette Rogers.  However, he quickly comes to appreciate the talents of her boyfriend, Smokey Robinson.

How to define the music of Smokey Robinson?  The obvious starting point is rhythm and blues.  A more danceable progression from the electric blues of the 1930s-1950s practiced by the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, rhythm and blues often seems little more than a catch-all phrase for music originating in the African-American community.  Yet, if the artists named from the record collection owned by Smokey Robinson’s mother are recalled, hints to Robinson’s own individual style may be found.  His mother listened not only to blues artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but the balladeer Billy Eckstine and the jazz-styled phrasings of Sarah Vaughan.  Such ‘softer’ influences are plainly apparent in Smokey Robinson’s music.

The Miracles are a vocal group and are really only a step up from doo wop.  This is a genre that takes its name – doo wop – from the typical sort of nonsense syllables employed by singers whose vocalisations stand in for instruments.  When Smokey Robinson spoke of “a group singing on every street corner”, it was the doo wop acts to which he referred.  Doo wop is performed a cappella, or with minimal instruments, allowing the vocalists to provide the lead singer with harmonies and counterpoints purely with their warbling.

As a singer, Smokey Robinson is characterised by his light, fragile voice.  Sam Cooke pioneered a high voice as a masculine expression of a lover’s sentiments during his career (1957-1964).  Smokey Robinson comes along in the midst of that era.  Yet Sam Cooke drew from gospel singers, those brought up in church to raise their voices in praise of God.  Without suggesting that Smokey is in any way irreligious, his background is not so church-oriented.  His father was a truck driver, not a preacher.  Again, Smokey’s style is based more on the likes of Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.

Apparently, when performing live, Smokey Robinson’s voice, a ‘fragile falsetto’, can – on a bad night – sound ‘frayed.’  The recording studio is a kinder environment for the singer and one to which he proves ideally suited.  Although The Miracles offer up ‘hard driving dance records’, capitalising on their rhythm and blues abilities, ‘Robinson’s high, warm tenor is perfect for…romantic ballads.’  That feathery vocal touch is particularly suited to lovelorn odes.  Few artists in the history of rock have ‘suffered’ as beautifully as Smokey Robinson.

One of Smokey Robinson’s greatest strengths is his skill as a songwriter.  He writes or co-writes the majority of his own hits.  Marv Tarplin, The Miracles’ guitarist and ‘musical director’, is his most frequent collaborator.  Tarplin uses an odd, twanging guitar style that seems better suited to country music than rhythm and blues.  Yet, given his co-songwriter was nicknamed ‘Smokey Joe’ for his love of cowboy dramas, that is perhaps a fitting match.  County music is also prone to the sort of lachrymose ballads that become Smokey Robinson’s stock-in-trade.  It appears that when he collaborates, Robinson still is the prime lyricist, allowing others to sometimes help with melodies.  It is this facile way with words that eventually sees Robinson described as ‘America’s greatest living poet.’  That this accolade is bestowed by Bob Dylan, the folk-rock icon lionised for his incisive wordplay, only makes it more impressive.

Given his comfort with the recording studio, it is perhaps not surprising that Smokey Robinson also matures into an extremely capable record producer, overseeing recording sessions.

The Miracles’ first single is released on 19 February 1958 on the End label.  ‘Got A Job’ is an ‘answer song’ to The Silhouettes’ 1958 chart-topper ‘Get A Job’.  The Silhouettes are one of the best known doo wop acts.  The Miracles’ ‘Got A Job’ is the work of three songwriters: William ‘Smokey’ Robinson, his mentor and partner Berry Gordy, and Tyrone Carlo.  Suffice to say, ‘it does not have the same success as its predecessor’ by The Silhouettes.

The Miracles record a few more songs in 1958 that have little success.  They include ‘Your Love (Is All I Need)’ for Fury Records and ‘I Need Some Money’ for End Records.

Berry Gordy ‘leases a few Miracles sides to Chess Records in 1959.’  These are ‘I Need A Change’ and ‘It’, but the best of them is ‘Bad Girl’ (US no. 93).

Smokey Robinson marries Claudette Rogers on 7 November 1959.  “I married her when I turned 19,” points out the singer.

In 1960, Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’ is released on Anna, a label owned by Berry Gordy’s sister, Gwen Gordy.  Berry Gordy decides to form his own label.  He dubs the enterprise Tammie, but it quickly changes to Tamla.  A reissue of ‘Money’ by Barrett Strong is the first product from Tamla.  A further modification of the label’s name to Tamla-Motown follows.  The ‘Motown’ designation is a contraction of ‘motor town.’  This is a reference to the label’s base in Detroit, a location famed for its motor car construction industry, so Detroit is a ‘motor town.’  Gradually, Tamla-Motown is swallowed up by the simpler Motown name.

Motown is notable as the first record label not only featuring black recording artists, but owned by a black man (Berry Gordy).  Motown’s slogan is ‘The Sound of Young America’, not ‘The Sound of Black America.’  Without diluting its racial identity, Motown is built on the foundation of commercial appeal.  Whether the kids buying the records are black or white, their money is the same colour.  As Smokey Robinson puts it, “We did not set out to make black music.  We set out to make quality music that everyone could enjoy and listen to.”

The Miracles’ first single for Motown is ‘Way Over There’ (US no. 94) in 1960.  However, their big breakthrough comes later in 1960 with ‘Shop Around’ (US no. 2), a song co-written by Berry Gordy and Smokey Robison.  With its shuffling rhythm, ‘Shop Around’ still sounds vaguely like its doo wop ancestors.  “Before you ask some girl for her hand, now / Keep your freedom for as long as you can, now / My momma told me: / ‘You’d better shop around’,” warns the lyric.  ‘You Can Depend On Me’ is also issued as a single by The Miracles in 1960.

‘Shop Around’ is included on the group’s debut album, ‘Hi, We’re The Miracles’ (1961), in June.  This album is produced by Berry Gordy, as is the quick follow-up in November, ‘Cookin’ With The Miracles’ (1961).

The 1961 singles by The Miracles are ‘Ain’t It Baby’ (US no. 49), ‘Mighty Good Lovin’’ (US no. 51) and ‘Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues’ (US no. 52).

Entering into 1962, the ‘machinery’ of Motown really gears up.  The Miracles are joined in the pop charts over the rest of the decade by such other Motown acts as The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross And The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder.

To cope with the company’s prodigious (and largely successful) output, Berry Gordy adopts methods similar to Detroit’s automobile production line.  Singers are fitted with songs by regular Motown songwriters, put in the studio with Motown’s regular musicians (e.g. Joe Messina (guitar), Robert White (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson, Sr. (bass) and Benny Benjamin (drums)) and the sessions are guided by Motown’s regular producers.

Smokey Robinson branches into production in 1962 with, not only The Miracles, but a whole slew of other acts.  Robinson’s songwriting talent is also called upon to produce material for these acts.  In the 1960s Smokey Robinson’s Motown client list includes Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, Brenda Holloway, The Contours, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross And The Supremes.  Perhaps the best known songs written and produced by Smokey Robinson for other acts are Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’ in 1964 and, its opposite number, a song that’s completely different and original, yet just as successful, The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’ in 1965.  Both of these songs top the U.S. singles chart.

In January 1962 The Miracles release the single ‘What’s So Good About Goodbye?’ (US no. 35).  It’s a typical piece of teen pop heartache, but it also displays a witty lyric from the song’s composer, Smokey Robinson: “Well, if leavin’ causes grievin’ and depart can break your heart / Tell me…What’s so good about goodbye?…And another thing I would like to clarify / Is how can farewell be fair?”  Smokey also pens the next single, ‘I’ll Try Something New’ (US no. 39) in May 1962.  This testimony to romantic determination actually becomes a bigger hit when it is covered as a duet between Diana Ross And The Supremes and The Temptations in 1969 (US no. 25).  The song also lends its name to the Miracles’ third album, ‘I’ll Try Something New’ (1962).  Issued in July and containing both of The Miracles’ 1962 hits, this album is co-produced by Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.  Ronnie White of The Miracles gets to produce the seasonal album ‘Christmas With The Miracles’ (1962) issued in October, but a better present is the December 1962 single, ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ (US no. 8).  In this mournful slow waltz written by Robinson, The Miracles moan, “I don’t like you / But I love you / Seems that I’m always thinking of you / Though oh oh you treat me badly / I love you madly / You’ve really got a hold on me.”

‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ is included on ‘The Fabulous Miracles’ (1963) (US no. 118) in February, co-produced by Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.  After the single ‘A Love She Can Count On’ (US no. 31) in April, ‘Recorded Live On Stage’ (1963) (US no. 139) in May is a concert souvenir.  ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ (US no. 8) is a jiving dance anthem.  Unusually, it is written and produced by the team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland (HDH), the trio who, more familiarly, shepherd the careers of The Four Tops and The Supremes.  HDH and Robinson share production credit on the album, ‘The Miracles Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey’ (1963) (US no. 113), in November which, aside from the title track, has The Miracles covering the dance hits of others.  Their only album for the next year, ‘I Like It Like That’ (1964) is just a revised version of the previous release.  The Miracles’ 1964 singles are ‘I Like It Like That’ (US no. 27), ‘That’s What Love Is Made Of’ (US no. 35) and ‘Come On Do The Jerk’ (US no. 50).

It may be legitimately asked why Smokey Robinson’s original songs were being ‘wasted’ on other artists when The Miracles were borrowing from HDH and churning out cover versions.  To answer that requires a wider understanding of the record industry in general and Motown in particular.  At the start of the 1960s, the focus of the industry is singles.  Albums are, generally, a couple of hits, some also-rans, some cover versions, and fillers.  A long playing (LP) record is just a cash-in on the hit single.  So Motown spreads Robinson’s songs out over a number of artists to maximise the corporate profit instead of concentrating it on one album by the author alone.  By the end of the decade, the emphasis in the industry is reversed and a hit single is just an advertisement for the full-length LP.  An album becomes the main creative unit of expression of an artist’s work.  Motown are perhaps slower than the rest of the industry in recognising this change in balance; a rare instance of Berry Gordy’s instincts leading him astray.

1965 brings some reassessment for The Miracles.  Claudette Robinson bows out of the group, leaving them a five piece.  Ostensibly, she retires to raise a family, but she and Smokey do not become parents until 1968.  Actually, it is more like Claudette gives up life on the road, since she continues to supply backing vocals in the studio for The Miracles up to 1972.

The sublime ‘Ooo Baby Baby’ (US no. 16) in April 1965 is co-written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracle Warren ‘Pete’ Moore.  Suffused with languorous aching, Smokey’s ethereal vocal admits, “I did you wrong / My heart went out to play / But in the game I lost you / What a price to pay / Ooo baby baby.”  Yet he also provides balance with the lines, “Mistakes, I know I’ve made a few / But I’m only human / You’ve made mistakes too.”  The best Smokey Robinson single is The Miracles’ July effort, ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ (US no. 16, UK no. 9).  The song is co-written by Robinson, Warren Moore and Marv Tarplin, the latter providing a wistful guitar figure.  The arrangement is as neat as a pin and Smokey conveys his pain with great style: “So take a good look at my face / You’ll see my smile looks out of place / If you look closer it’s easy to trace / The tracks of my tears.”  This song is rightfully described as ‘one of the most emotionally demanding Motown singles of the 1960s’, ‘one of the finest sounds of 1960s popular music’ and ‘one of the all-time great singles.’  After another single, ‘My Girl Has Gone’ (US no. 14), in October, comes Smokey Robinson’s best album, ‘Going To A Go-Go’ (1965) (US no. 8) in November.  Frank Wilson shares production duties with Robinson on this album.  This album is Smokey Robinson’s finest moment due to the power of its contents including ‘Ooo Baby Baby’, ‘My Girl Has Gone’ and the landmark ‘Tracks Of My Tears’.  Such is the level of quality that even ‘obscurities’ from this set, such as ‘Choosey Beggar’, are considered ‘top-notch.’  The title track, ‘Going To A Go-Go’ (US no. 11, UK no. 44), becomes, in January, The Miracles’ first hit for 1966.  “There’s a brand new place I’ve found / Where people go from miles around,” sings Smokey in ‘Going To A Go-Go’, a groovy dance number, with surprisingly tribal drum sounds, that is composed collectively by The Miracles (with the exception of Ronnie White).  (Note: A ‘go-go’ is an early form of discotheque and the source of ‘go-go dancers’ associated with many 1960s dance hits.)

‘Whole Lot Of Shakin’ In My Heart’ (US no. 46) in June 1966 is followed by the more successful ‘(Come ‘Round Here) I’m The One You Need’ (US no. 17, UK no. 45).  The latter is another HDH production and its tense, dramatic style makes it sound more like their regular clients, The Four Tops.  ‘Away We A Go-Go’ (1966) (US no. 41) in November is an album that, judging by the title, is still milking the popularity of the previous album.  A mixed bag of producers – Smokey Robinson, Frank Wilson, HDH, Ivory Joe Hunter – reflects the disc’s comparatively piecemeal approach.  On this album, The Miracles even toy with cover versions of classy adult pop songs composed by the famed team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

In 1967 the name of the act is changed from The Miracles to Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.  This indicates their leader’s growing dominance.  Times are changing at Motown and, increasingly, the company encourages deeper, more meaningful, product from its artists rather than simple, carefree pop.  On the surface, Smokey Robinson is one of the more conservative creators in their stable.  But his happy, responsible, family man image is not totally accurate.  In the late 1960s he begins indulging in marijuana.  He also has a number of extramarital liaisons.  Smokey’s wife, Claudette, is, if not exactly accepting of the situation, at least willing to turn a blind eye.  Her tolerance seems to be defined by no children resulting from her spouse’s philandering.  “She knew that I loved her,” Smokey claims.

Three more classic singles mark 1967 for Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.  March’s ‘The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage’ (US no. 20), co-written by Robinson and guitarist Marv Tarplin, contains some of Smokey’s most sophisticated wordplay.  Not content with moon-June-spoon rhymes, he sets himself a more challenging goal.  “Just a minute ago, your love was here,” he sings over ticking accompaniment, “All of a sudden it seemed to disappear / Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage / The love I saw in you was just a mirage.”  Showing off, in the second and third verses Robinson rhymes ‘mirage’ with ‘sabotage’ and (a bit less convincingly) ‘dodged’.  ‘More Love’ (US no. 23) in June is written by Smokey alone.  From a simple piano introduction, the song swells to become orchestral and majestic, offering “More love and more joy / Than age or time could ever destroy.”  The album ‘Make It Happen’ (1967) (US no. 28) in August has production contributions from Robinson, HDH and Henry Cosby.  As well as ‘The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage’ and ‘More Love’, this set includes another significant entry in Smokey Robinson’s catalogue…but one that goes unrecognised until 1970.  More on that one in due course…

‘I Second That Emotion’ (US no. 4, UK no. 27), co-written by Smokey Robinson and Al Cleveland, is released as a single in November 1967.  It has a brassy sound with a twanging guitar and the witty lyric: “If you feel like loving me / If you got the notion / I second that emotion.”

‘If You Can Want’ (US no. 11, UK no. 50), in March, is the pick of the 1968 singles from Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.  A tribute to resolute patience, with horns for punctuation, this song advises that, “Just like push can turn to shove / Like can turn to love / And it’s my philosophy / That if you can want – you can need / And if you can need – you can care / If you can care – you can love / Whenever you want me, I’ll be there.”  This is another Smokey Robinson solo composition.  ‘Yester Love’ (US no. 31), in June, and ‘Special Occasion’ (US no. 26), in August, lead to the album, also titled ‘Special Occasion’ (1968) (US no. 42), released in August too.  Robinson co-produces this album with another of Motown’s major record production powers, Norman Whitfield.

Smokey and Claudette Robinson become parents with the birth of their son, Berry (born 1968).  They also have a daughter, Tamla (born 1969).  Smokey Robinson’s commitment to Berry Gordy’s Tamla-Motown records is demonstrated in the names he gives his children.

‘Smokey Robinson And The Miracles Live!’ (1969) (US no. 71) in January is the first of four albums in a row produced by Smokey Robinson alone.  January is also the month in which the act’s best single of the year is issued.  ‘Baby, Baby Don’t Cry’ (US no. 8) is co-written by Robinson, Al Cleveland and Terry Johnson.  Light as a feather, the song offers words of consolation to the victim of a romantic break-up: “Baby, baby don’t cry, here’s why / Love is here, standing by.”  After ‘Doggone Right’ (US no. 32) backed with ‘Here I Go Again’ (US no. 37) in June, comes ‘Abraham, Martin And John’ (US no. 33) in July.  Written by Dick Holler as a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy (and Bobby Kennedy), ‘Abraham, Martin And John’ was originally recorded in 1968 by Dion, the teen pop star turned folkie.  Fellow Motown act, Marvin Gaye, also takes a swing at the same song in 1970.  The album, ‘Time Out For Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ (1969) (US no. 25) in July pairs that song with such fare as ‘Baby, Baby Don’t Cry’, Smokey’s own version of ‘My Girl’ – the song he gave away to The Temptations, ‘The Composer’ (a Robinson-penned song that was a hit for Diana Ross And The Supremes in May), and a cover of ‘For Once In My Life’, previously recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1968.  Similarly, ‘Four In Blue’ (1969) (US no. 78) is heavy on covers, including British 1960s pop sensations The Beatles’ 1968 hit, ‘Hey Jude’.  ‘Four In Blue’ is released in November 1969.  The title of the album is derived from the cover photo of Smokey and his three companions in blue suits [Marv Tarplin as a non-vocalist is absent].

Cover versions are paramount on ‘What Love Has…Joined Together’ (1970) (US no. 97) in April.  This is a ‘concept album’ of six extended cover versions including ‘My Cherie Amour’, a hit for Stevie Wonder in 1969.  The single ‘Who’s Gonna Take The Blame’ (US no. 46) comes out in June 1970.  ‘A Pocket Full Of Miracles’ (1970) (US no. 56) in September is co-produced by Smokey Robinson and a young married couple, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.  Then, in an unusual move, a track from the 1967 album ‘Make It Happen’ is dusted off as a single in October.  Even more surprisingly, it becomes one of the biggest hits for Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.  ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) is co-written by Robinson, Henry Cosby and Stevie Wonder.  It is built on a sound reminiscent of a carnival gone wrong and corners tightly through a twisting arrangement. The lyrics refer in passing to ‘Pagliacci’, the 1892 opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo and its Pierrot protagonist: “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid / Smiling in the public eye / But in my lonely room I cry / The tears of a clown.”  In the wake of the song’s success, the album ‘Make It Happen’ is reissued as ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ (1970).  The year closes with the Christmas album ‘The Season For Miracles’ (1970).

“I don’t blame you at all / ‘Cos you played it cool,“ advises Smokey Robinson in ‘I Don’t Blame You At All’ (US no. 18, UK no. 11), “You don’t owe me a thing / ‘Cos I played the fool.”  This sharply arranged Smokey Robinson composition is issued in March 1971.  The album, ‘One Dozen Roses’ (1971) (US no. 92), in August, includes this song, ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ (again) and an attempt to reclaim ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’, a song Smokey gave away to The Marvelettes in 1967.

In 1971 Motown Records moves its headquarters from Detroit, Michigan, to Los Angeles, California, beginning a long, slow fall from the label’s creative heights of the 1960s.

In January 1972 Smokey Robinson announces he is quitting The Miracles.  As Vice-President of Motown Records he is ‘becoming increasingly desk-bound.’  A six month ‘farewell’ tour follows, winding up with a final show by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles in Washington, D.C., on 16 July 1972.  ‘Flying High Together’ (1972) (US no. 46), also in July, is the final album of new material credited to Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.

Although Smokey Robinson and The Miracles have parted ways, the plan is for them to continue to record, just as two separate acts.  Let’s look at The Miracles first:

In 1972 The Miracles – Ronnie White, Warren ‘Pete’ Moore, Bobby Rogers and Marv Tarplin – are joined by Billy Griffin as lead vocalist.  Marv Tarplin elects to leave in 1973, going to work with his former boss, Smokey Robinson.  Billy Griffin’s brother, Donald Griffin, fills the gap in the line-up.  The Miracles adopt a more funky, dance-oriented style for ‘Renaissance’ (1973) (US no. 174), ‘Do It Baby’ (1974) (US no. 41), ‘Don’t Cha Love It’ (1975) (US no. 96), ‘City Of Angels’ (1975) (US no. 33) and ‘The Power Of Music’ (1976) (US no. 178).  ‘Do It Baby’ (US no. 13) in 1974 and ‘Love Machine’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3) in 1976 are both hit singles for The Miracles.  The group is then dropped by Motown.  For Columbia, The Miracles record two more albums, ‘Love Crazy’ (1977) (US no. 117) and ‘The Miracles’ (1978).  After that, The Miracles exist only as a touring act, cashing in on their famous past and subject to many line-up changes.

In 1978 Billy Griffin, Donald Griffin and Warren ‘Pete’ Moore all exit, leaving Ronnie White and Bobby Rogers to take on Dave Finley and Carl Cotton to become a new four-piece Miracles.  Ten years later, in 1993 Carl Cotton leaves the group (he is murdered in 2003) and Sidney Justin signs up as lead vocalist.  This line-up persists until 1995 when Ronnie White passes away.  The remaining Miracles continue as a trio until 2001 when the addition of Tee Turner brings the act back up to a four-piece.  Sidney Justin steps down in 2005.  In 2006 Mark Scott joins Dave Finley, Tee Turner and Bobby Rogers, and Bobby lures his cousin, Claudette Rogers, out of ‘retirement’ to make The Miracles a quintet.  This line-up continues until 2011 (though Alphonse Franklin fills in for Mark Scott from June to December 2008), when The Miracles shut down, seemingly for good.

Now, let’s back up to when Smokey Robinson and The Miracles went their separate ways and look at Robinson’s solo activities.

Smokey Robinson reinvents himself as a purveyor of more sophisticated, adult contemporary sounds, distancing himself from his past as a pop star.  ‘Smokey’ (1973) (US no. 70) and ‘Pure Smokey’ (1974) (US no. 99) are the first products of this approach.

Smokey and Claudette Robinson separate for a while in 1974.  “When I first met a woman that I wanted to be with, like at that level [of a wife or partner], I moved out of the house,” Smokey explains.  “I was gone for about a year or so.  It was terrible for me so I asked if I could come back.  She [Claudette] said, ‘yes’.  She’s just a loving lady and she understood my plight I guess as a man.”  In the 1970s Smokey Robinson also ‘dabbles’ in cocaine.

‘A Quiet Storm’ (1975) (US no. 36) defines Smokey Robinson’s new musical style, a kind of gentle intensity.  The title track, ‘Quiet Storm’ (US no. 61), is co-written by Robinson and one of his older sisters, Rose Ella Jones a.k.a. Aunt Woody.  The late 1970s yield ‘Smokey’s Family Robinson’ (1976) (US no. 57); ‘Deep In My Soul’ (1977) (US no. 47) in January and the movie soundtrack ‘Big Time’ (1977) in June; ‘Love Breeze’ (1978) (US no. 75) in February and the live album ‘Smokin’’(1978) (US no. 165) in October.

‘Where There’s Smoke’ (1979) (US no. 17) spawns Smokey Robinson’s most successful single in years, ‘Cruisin’’ (US no. 4).  Co-written with Marv Tarplin, this is an anthem for car-driving Romeos motoring around town.  ‘Warm Thoughts’ (1980) (US no. 14) follows.  An outside producer, George Tobin, is brought in for ‘Being With You’ (1981) (US no. 10).  The creamy, love-struck title song, ‘Being With You’ (US no. 2, UK no. 1), proves that Robinson has not lost his knack for writing a hit song.  ‘Yes It’s You Lady’ (1982) (US no. 33), ‘Touch The Sky’ (1983) (US no. 50) and ‘Essar’ (1984) (US no. 141) constitute the singer’s early 1980s output.

The death of fellow Motown veteran Marvin Gaye in 1984 and the passing of Smokey Robinson’s father combine to throw the staid Motown executive into turmoil.  He has a son, Trey (born 1984) with a woman named Candy.  It comes as a surprise because Candy thought she was incapable of conceiving.  It is a development that puts an end to Smokey Robinson’s marriage to Claudette Rogers.  “Yeah, I think that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he admits.  Although he had smoked some marijuana in the late 1960s and dabbled in cocaine in the 1970s, the 44 year old record company executive becomes an unlikely cocaine addict in 1984.  “I always thought that was something that could never happen to me,” Robinson says sorrowfully.

1986 brings three significant events: the album ‘Smoke Signals’ (1986) (US no. 104) is released; Smokey Robinson’s divorce from his wife, Claudette, is finalised; and he cleans up, abandoning drugs with the support of the church.

‘One Heartbeat’ (1987) (US no. 26) is co-produced by Peter Bunetta and Rick Chudacoff.  Although ‘Just To See Her’ (US no. 8, UK no. 52) and ‘One Heartbeat’ (US no. 10) are both pleasant and successful singles, they are written by professional songwriters for Smokey Robinson to simply perform as a singer.

‘Love Smokey’ (1990) (US no. 112) is Smokey Robinson’s last Motown album…at least for a while.  “I left Motown because of the regime of people who were there,” he says, taking into consideration the changing times.  ‘Double Good Everything’ (1991) comes out on SBK.  After a lengthy break, Robinson briefly returns to Motown for ‘Intimate’ (1999) (US no. 134), but ‘Our Very Best Christmas’ (1999) is issued by Universal.

In May 2002 Smokey Robinson marries Frances Gladney.

‘Food For The Spirit’ (2004) is an experiment in gospel music on Liquid 8 Records.  Smokey Robinson goes to New Door Records for ‘Timeless Love’ (2006) (US no. 109), a ‘collection of standards.’  ‘Time Flies When You’re Having Fun’ (2009) is released on the singer’s own independent Robso label.  ‘Smokey & Friends’ (2014) (US no. 12), released on the Verve label, sees Smokey Robinson revisit some of his past hits, turning them into duets he performs with the likes of Elton John, James Taylor and John Legend.

Being a record company executive as well as a creative artist was one of the defining characteristics of Smokey Robinson’s career.  In both fields of endeavour, his best work comes from the decade 1962 to 1971.  This was when Motown Records too was at the height of its powers.  “I don’t ever balk at being considered a Motown person,” Smokey said.  “[Motown boss] Berry Gordy…made the dreams of a lot of young people come true.”  Smokey Robinson was one of the beneficiaries of that opportunity, but he also lent his expertise to other Motown acts like The Temptations and Diana Ross And The Supremes.  In the process, he brought added lustre to his own legend.  ‘One could argue that Smokey Robinson was the man who first pushed [Motown], America’s most iconic soul label, towards greatness.’  ‘Writer of…hit songs, possessor of one of pop’s great voices…Smokey Robinson is a key figure of modern music.’

Sources:

  1. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 25 November 2013
  2. blackflix.com/articles/multiracial.html – famous people of black and Caucasian descent – as at 16 January 2014
  3. wikipedia.org as at 25 November 2013, 1 January 2015
  4. ‘The 700 Club’ (U.S. video program – Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)) – Smokey Robinson interview conducted by Sheila Walsh (25 April 1989)
  5. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 15 January 2014
  6. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 200
  7. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 180
  8. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Doo Wop’ by Barry Hansen, ‘Motown’ by Joe McEwen, Jim Miller (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 97, 100, 278, 279, 280, 282, 283, 290, 291, 292
  9. allmusic.com, ‘Smokey Robinson’ by Mark Deming as at 9 December 2013
  10. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 36, 52, 202
  11. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 76
  12. brainyquote.com as at 25 November 2013
  13. ‘Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – The Greatest Hits’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Motown Record Co., 1992) p. 2, 3
  14. ‘Diana Ross And The Supremes – The Greatest Hits Anthology’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Motown Record Co., 1986) p. 7
  15. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 62

Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs P/L

Last revised 2 January 2015

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