Smokey Robinson's 50th year in showbiz celebration will kickoff tonight at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London with a party and concert attended by more than 100 celebs, including legendary actress and bra spokeswoman Jane Russell; Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman; Pretender Chrissie Hynde; and singers Petula Clark, Candi Staton, Deniece Williams, and Freda Payne. Oddly, no Motown notables were announced as attending, although an "extra special guest" was said to be introducing Robinson.
At the event, producer and former Liza Minnelli husband David Gest, and Motown singer/songwriter/producer/luminary Robinson, will announce a series of international concerts to take place next year celebrating the golden anniversary. Robinson, who has not performed in London since 1984, will perform with his band, launching the anniversary celebration.
Smokey Robinson is second only in importance to Berry Gordy in the development of Motown Records, the most important and successful American musical force of the '60s and early '70s. As a singer with the Miracles (42 pop chart hits) and then as a solo act (24 pop chart hits), Smokey has been the best interpreter of his own classic songs of love and loss. As a songwriter/producer he has been instrumental in the careers of Mary Wells, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, and The Supremes, helping to create a sound undeniably black in origin, but transcendently human in execution.
William "Smokey" Robinson was born in Detroit on February 19, 1940, and by age 6 he had written and performed his first song in a school play, Uncle Remus. He sang in the obligatory church choir and listened to all kinds of music, but he especially favored smooth jazz stylist Sarah Vaughan and vocal groups like Detroit's Nolan Strong and the Diablos. At Northern High School, Robinson and his friends (Pete Moore, Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers, and later, Claudette Rogers, who would become his wife) formed their own vocal group, called the Matadors, in 1954.
The Matadors auditioned for Jackie Wilson's manager in the summer of 1957, just after Robinson’s graduation from high school. They failed the audition, "miserably," as Smokey told author Gerri Hershey in her excellent survey of soul music, Nowhere To Run: "We were slinking out of there like dogs when this guy ... introduced himself as Berry Gordy, and he wanted to know where we got this little song we did, 'My Mamma Done Told Me.'"
Robinson had written it, and he had about a hundred others in a notebook. Gordy helped Robinson cultivate his honeyed falsetto and his songwriting. Robinson had a knack for rhyming, but Gordy emphasized continuity: think of songs as stories. He also suggested a name change to the Miracles. The Miracles' first single was Gordy's response to the Silhouettes' "Get a Job," presciently titled "Got a Job." Licensed to George Goldner's End Records, it was released on February 19, 1958, the 18th birthday of both Robinson and Bobby Rogers.