William ‘Smokey’ Robinson was born on 19 February 1940, the son of a municipal truck driver from what he called “the suave part of the slums”.
He formed The Miracles (originally The Matadors) – mostly for fun – at his Detroit high school in 1955 with a line-up of Smokey, his high school sweetheart Claudette Rogers (later his wife), Ronnie White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and Marv Tarplin.
Smokey and The Miracles rose to #2 in the US with the eighth release on the new Tamla label, Shop Around, during February 1961, at which point the fourth release on sister-label Motown, Bye Bye Baby, written and recorded by 17-year-old Mary Wells also began to climb the charts.
Robinson’s exceptional songwriting ability combined with his extraordinarily expressive falsetto voice made each Miracles’ release an occasion.
During the next ten years some 36 singles hit the charts – among them such classics as You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, What’s So Good About Goodbye?, The Tracks Of My Tears, I Second That Emotion and the chart-topping Tears Of A Clown.
So prolific was Smokey during the sixties that he was able to provide colleagues with equally powerful songs: The Temptations and Marvin Gaye both benefited from his writing, as did Mary Wells, whose trio of Robinson epics (The One Who Really Loves You, You Beat Me To The Punch and Two Lovers) all went Top 10.
Famously described by Bob Dylan in 1967 as “America’s greatest living poet” Robinson also penned My Guy – a #1 hit for Wells, but also her Motown swan song. The Miracles were also a major influence on The Beatles in their early days.
Many people were upset when Robinson split from the Miracles in 1972 (in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden in New York) but his solo career was not without interest. The Miracles, meanwhile, recruited William Griffith to replace Smokey.
Robinson lost much of the 1980s to cocaine addiction but cleaned himself up in 1986 and continued touring, still a tireless guardian of the Motown legend.