Encyclopedia Of Detroit

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Robinson, Smokey

Smokey Robinson was born William Robinson on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. He started the singing group the Five Chimes, later called the Matadors, with other students of Detroit’s Northern High School. The group, consisting of Bobby Rogers, Ron White, Pete Moore and Claudette Rogers later renamed itself the Miracles, and became one of Motown’s early and most successful sensations. Robinson, who as a child was given the cowboy name “Smokey Joe” by an uncle, is known not only for his velvety-smooth voice, but for his talents as a lyricist with more than 4,000 songs to his credit.

The Miracles’ first national hit, “Shop Around” in 1960, on Motown’s Tamla label, was also Motown’s first record to sell a million copies. Robinson continued to write other hits including “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Ooo Baby, Baby” and “The Tracks of My Tears.” While still part of the Miracles, Smokey began to write for his fellow Motown artists, like the Temptations’ hit “My Girl,” as well as songs for Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. He became a key member of Motown Records and Berry Gordy made him vice-president in 1962.

Smokey Robinson left the Miracles in 1972 to perform solo and to spend more time with his first wife and fellow Miracles member, Claudette. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Robinson experienced fluctuating success. His first solo hit was “Cruisin’,” which was released in 1979. Robinson resigned as vice-president of Motown Records in 1988 when the company was sold, and when his recording contract expired in 1990 he left the company for SBK Records, signing in 1991.

Smokey and Claudette had two children, Berry William and Tamla, before the couple divorced in 1986. Berry was named after Berry Gordy and Tamla for Gordy’s first record label. Another son, Trey, was the result of an affair while he was married to Claudette. Robinson remarried in 2002 to fashion designer Frances Gladney.

Perhaps apocryphally, Robinson has been called “America’s greatest living poet,” by Bob Dylan. In 1989 he wrote his autobiography, Smokey: Inside my Life, with David Ritz. It openly discusses his addiction to cocaine and marital infidelities. Robinson has received the Grammy’s Living Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1987 Smokey Robinson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2006 and in 2016 he received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

 


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