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.
Although the song reached No. 1 R&B, Gordy’s royalty check was for $3.19. Gordy had written hits for Jackie Wilson, Marv Johnson and Barrett Strong, but had seen very little cash for his efforts. This last insult enabled Robinson to talk Gordy into forming Tamla Records, and their first release was the Miracles’ “Way Over There” in 1959. It was Smokey’s first solo production, and although it wasn’t a national hit, it did sell out its run of 60,000 copies.
Tamla’s next release was Gordy’s production of the Miracles on Smokey’s tune “Shop Around,” and the bouncy Mama-knows tune shot to No. 2 pop. Motown and the Miracles were on their way.
Smokey has a special relationship with his own songs, and his high tenor soothes and soars through the classic Miracles repertoire. After the peppy adolescent pop of “Shop,” “You Really Got a Hold On Me” in 1963 began a string of increasingly sophisticated songs that led Bob Dylan to call Smokey “the world’s greatest living poet.”
“Hold” was inspired by Sam Cooke and the churchy piano and call and response are gospel, where agony and ecstacy vie for the singer’s soul. Smokey has a zen-like gift (which complements his vaguely Asian looks) for balancing seeming contradictions: “I don’t like you, but I love you,” and “you do me wrong, my love is strong” in “Hold”; “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” from (the Temptation’s) “My Girl”; the titles and imagery of “Choosy Beggar,” “My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)”, and “The Tears of a Clown.”
Robinson’s next classic was “Ooo Baby Baby” with an atavistic, echoey doo wop feel. Smokey’s gossamer vocal and shimmering strings suspend time at the moment just before emotion breaks, as he builds a case that repeatedly yields to an unarticulated call to reconciliation, “ooh baby baby.”
“The Tracks of My Tears” treads similar thematic ground. A beautiful, regret-tinged guitar figure opens into a strong backbeat and the Miracles light “doo doo doos.” The singer’s character is more confident here than on “Ooo,” as he states his case against the appearance of happiness.
“Going To a Go-Go” reminded the world that Robinson could rock as the Miracles accompany him down a swinging little street that leads to the happening. Percussion percolates and piano rollicks through a brassy arrangement that celebrates life and the beat.
“More Love” returned to smooth Smokey-land where his lilting falsetto can convey devotion as well as regret. A great James Jamerson bass burbles out of a field of lush strings as Smokey’s wordless “hmm” conveys peace and sweet desire. “More,” with its ever-expanding vista of love, is the mirror-image of “Hold,” where desire is debilitating and confining. Having learned from experience, Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” cautiously threaded between his previous extremes of emotion and makes a case for love contingent upon doing it right, in which case he “seconds that emotion.”
“The Tears of a Clown” recapitulated the happy veneer theme, and consolidated everything Smokey had learned about production, using piccolo highs and saxophone lows to create a festive circus feel that is chased by a rocking beat and Robinson’s most powerful vocal. He seems to find heretofore untapped reserves of air. Smokey’s words are sorrowful, but he seems simultaneously elated to have found the right images to convey that pain.
Robinson left the Miracles in 1972 and moved from Detroit to L.A., following the migration of the Motown offices. Robinson had been appointed vice president of Motown in 1961, and he took his company responsibilities seriously. As Berry Gordy once remarked, “He’s the most unselfish artist I’ve ever met. Not only does he write hits for himself, but everyone else.”
Some of his best work with others includes Mary Wells’ sultry “Two Lovers,” a tale of a good lover and his evil twin, who turn out to be the same person in a classic Smokey twist. Her “My Guy” reached No. 1 on the strength of a gently rocking beat, Wells’ self-assured vocal and another great Smokey melody. Robinson put the Temptations on the map with the smash “My Girl” which is much more than the gender reverse of “My Guy.”
Smokey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’87, and won the Grammy’s Living Legend Award in ’89. In recent years he has been singing gospel music and selling “The Soul Is In the Bowl” gumbo.