Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into the life and career of Smokey Robinson.
By Kathia Dawson, Staff Writer
Motown icon Smokey Robinson was born William Robinson Jr. on February 19th, 1940. He was raised by his oldest sister and her husband in the north end of Detroit after the passing of his mother when he was an infant. Smokey excelled at academics and sports at a young age, but his true calling was always music. In high school he formed his first band, the Five Chimes.
Amazingly, Robinson and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin lived several houses from each other on Belmont Street. The two knew each other when Franklin was about five and Robinson was eight. Their life long friendship was the by product of occasions when Robinson would hang out with her brother Cecil at Franklin’s house. In fact, Smokey's childhood neighborhood was an emporium of future music legends including Diana Ross and the Temptations.
He married fellow Miracles member Claudette Rogers in 1959. Claudette and Smokey had two children: Berry (for Motown founder Berry Gordy) and Tamla, named after the original Motown label, Tamla Records.
Smokey married his current wife, Frances Robinson Gladney, in 2002.
HOW DID HE GET HIS ‘SMOKEY’ NICKNAME?
Smokey’s favorite uncle, Uncle Claude, would frequently take him to see cowboy movies when he was a little boy and gave him a cowboy name of his own: "Smokey Joe."
In an interview with the LA Sentinel, he recounted: “from the time I was three years old, if people asked me what my name was I didn’t tell them my name was William, I told them my name was Smokey Joe. That’s what everyone called me until I was about 12 and then I dropped the Joe part.”
RISE TO FAME
Robinson formed the Five Chimes with school friends in 1955, later taking on the name The Matadors.
The Matadors were bandmates and classmates Ronald White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and Claudette Rogers. It was shortly after Claudette joined that the group renamed themselves ‘The Miracles.’ In 1957, the band met Berry Gordy, the future CEO of Motown Records. Gordy co-wrote their first single, “Got a Job”, which was released in 1958. They began touring not long afterwards. Smokey had an ear for talent. During this period he introduced Gordy to the Primettes, who would become better known as the Supremes.
Eventually, The Miracles evolved into Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Being the first Motown act to successfully chart consistently, and doing so under Black leadership, was both aspirational and inspirational. “The Motown Sound” would prove to be very powerful in the music industry and American race relations in the 1960s. With Smokey as a major contributor, Berry Gordy was able to demonstrate the viability and commercial significance of R&B and Soul music; positive Black images in pop culture globally; and the importance of artistry being shared through different lenses and voices. Smokey was not only a key singer-songwriter in the creation of the Motown Sound, but the footnotes of history show him as one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century.
In 1972, Robinson left The Miracles and spent a year in retirement helping Claudette Rogers raise their two children while also focusing on his role as Vice President of Motown. The next year, Robinson released his first solo album titled Smokey, in 1973. His second album, Pure Smokey, followed in 1974. Since then he's released more than twenty solo albums.
INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES
Robinson was influenced by jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. His mother had introduced him to gospel music like Five Blind Boys along with Muddy Waters and Little Water.
HIS UNMATCHED INFLUENCE ON MUSIC
Smokey Robinson has influenced many popular artists since his walk through the musical hall of fame. Notably, the Beatles performed a cover version of “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” for their sophomore album.
The go-to songwriter for many of Motown’s early hits, his credits include songs for Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, and Marvin Gaye. His poetic mastery is revered to this day. Robinson’s graceful lyrics led Bob Dylan to call him “America's greatest living poet.”
Berry Gordy, Smokey’s mentor, harnessed his prodigious but unformed composing talents. Robinson, assisted by the Miracles, became Gordy’s inspiration for the creation of Motown Records.
It was Robinson who introduced Gordy to the Primettes, who would later go on to become the world wide sensation, The Supremes.
A respected figure in the industry, Smokey Robinson has recorded and performed alongside icons such as Aretha Franklin, Rick James, Teena Marie, Elton John, and Anderson.Paak. His songs have been sampled by members of the Hip Hop community, including A$AP Rocky, and Wiz Khalifa
- Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987
- Awarded the 2002 National Medal of Arts
- Kennedy Center Honor in 2006, and in 2016
- The Miracles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2012
- Awarded the 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his contributions to popular music
- 2023 Musicares Person Of The Year
- “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1962)
- “My Guy” written by Smokey and performed by Mary Wells (1964)
- “My Girl” The Temptations co-written by Smokey Robinson (1964)
- “The Track of my Tears” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1965)
- “Ooo Baby Baby” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)
- “The Tears of a Clown” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1970)
In February 2022, Smokey Robinson performed at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder and country star Chris Stapleton.
This joint performance capped off a big weekend that saw Robinson honored as the 2023 Musicares Person of the Year along with Motown legend Berry Gordy.
Smokey also announced the imminent release of Gasms, his first album of all new material since 2009. The album is expected to arrive on April 28th, 2023. The lead single, “If We Don't Have Each Other,” was shared.
“I chose this song as the first single of my new album because it’s different musically and has a slide dance feeling to it…. Which is different from what I’ve ever done before,” Robinson said to Rolling Stone in an interview.
His new single is likened to Bruno Mars and Silk Sonic’s groove.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.