Famously proclaimed "America’s greatest living poet" by Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson is more closely linked with the glory days of Motown than anyone else, save founder Berry Gordy Jr.
The Motor City label’s vice president, chief songwriter and the frontman of The Miracles, Robinson had incalculable influence on popular music, with everyone from Dylan and the Beatles, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye to contemporary indie rock acts owing him a debt.
Blessed with a celestial high tenor voice, the singer-songwriter scored Motown’s first No. 1 hit, with 1960’s “Shop Around,” which topped the R&B singles chart. Forming a close bond with Gordy, Robinson began to assume a greater share of the responsibilities at the seminal imprint, becoming a vice president the next year and writing hit singles for the Four Tops, The Marvelettes, Brenda Holloway, The Contours and Gaye. In his autobiography, Gordy wrote of Robinson, “he reminded me of me — so excited and passionate about his music.”
Under Robinson’s aegis, The Miracles racked up 40-plus top 40 hits on the R&B charts, including jukebox staples “My Girl Has Gone,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “The Tracks of My Tears.” When the group’s success began to wane in 1969, the man nicknamed “The King of Motown” briefly deliberated quitting the group before their hit single “Baby Baby Don’t Cry” stormed the Billboard Pop Top 10. Robinson’s hyper-romantic sketches of love (both requited and unrequited) and The Miracles’ achingly beautiful four-part harmonies yielded a combination that still owns jukeboxes.
The next year, the mournful single “Tears of a Clown” became a surprise No. 1 hit. With music written by Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby, the song had originally been released on the group’s 1967 LP, “Make It Happen.” Re-released in Britain in the fall of 1970, it quickly ascended to the top of the charts. Soon re-released domestically, the song became a major American sensation, reigniting the group’s fortunes.
Leaving The Miracles in 1972, Robinson embarked on a successful solo career, with a smooth style that spawned the soul sub-genre “Quiet Storm.” After a cocaine addiction that dogged him for much of the 1980s, Robinson regrouped to write top 10 hits “Just to See Her,” and “One Heartbeat.” In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and in 1999, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.