On this day in Black History Month, we celebrate the birth of one of music’s brightest stars. Motown living legend Smokey Robinson was born today [February 19] in 1940. Robinson is one of the most accomplished living musicians. He is renowned by some as America’s “greatest living poet.” His career spans over four decades and his accolades include the GRAMMY Living Legend Award, NARAS lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate from Howard University, Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. Robinson has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
William Robinson, Jr. was born in the North End section of Detroit, Michigan. Coincidentally, Robinson grew up several houses down from fellow Motown legend Diana Ross, according to Smokey, he has known Ross since she was about eight years old. He was raised by his elder sister and her husband after his mother passed away from a brain hemorrhage. As a child his uncle Claude gave him the nickname “Smokey Joe” and it stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Robinson attended Northern High School and while in school started a doo-wop group first called the Five Chimes with his childhood friend Ronald White and a classmate named Pete Moore in 1955. Two years later they changed their name to the Matadors and added cousins Bobby and Claudette Rogers to the group. In 1958 Marv Tarplin joined the group as the guitarist and they made their finally name change to The Miracles.
In August of 1957 the Miracles met songwriter Berry Gordy after a failed audition for Brunswick Records. Robinson showed Gordy a notebook of 100 songs that he had written in high school; that coupled with his singing ability impressed Gordy so much that he helped the group put out there first radio single “Got a Job.”
Gordy formed Tamla Records which he later named Motown Records and signed Robinson and his group as the first artists. In the late 1960s the group recorded their first hit single Shop Around which was Motown’s first million selling hit record. Between 1960 and 1970, Robinson would go on to produce 26 top forty hits with the Miracles as lead singer and chief songwriter.
In 1965 the Miracles changed their name to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and released the hit album Going to a Go-Go which included four top 20 hits and was the only Miracles album to break the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart peaking at #8 for 40 weeks.
From 1962 and 1966, Robinson became an instrumental songwriter and producer for Motown penning hits for Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, and Marvin Gaye. In 1969, Robinson planned to retie from touring with the group and focus on raising his children and his duties as vice-president of Motown.
After a year of retirement, Robinson began his solo music career with the release of his album Smokey in 1973. Unfortunately Robinson had trouble competing with former collaborators Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Eddie Kendrick. Robinson’s solo career’s lack of success is mostly due to his duties as vice president of Motown.
In 1981 Robinson was back topping charts with his #2 hit “Being With You.” In 1988 Robinson won his first Grammy for Just to See Her which was a single from his 1987 album One Heartbeat. This album became one of Robinson’s most popular selling 900,000 copies in the US alone.
That same year Motown sold to MCA and Robinson relinquished his role as vice president. Over the next few years Robinson released many albums and won various awards for his work during his long and powerful career. In August of 2014 he released Smokey & Friends which reached #12 on the Billboard 200 which was his highest since “One Heartbeat”. In 2015, Robinson received the BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
Smokey Robinson is celebrated as one of the most influential figures in music. His work as a songwriter and singer helped to shape a sound of a generation and his work behind the scenes helped to shape a musical culture that helped inspire Hip Hop and pave a way for it. Without his work, music today would not be the same.