Born William Robinson, Jr. on February 19, 1940, in Detroit, MI; married Claudette Rogers (a singer), November 7, 1959 (divorced); married Frances Gladney, 2002; children: Berry William, Tamla Claudette. Addresses: Booking Agent--William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.wma.com. Record company--Motown Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404, phone: (310) 865-5000, website: http://www.motown.com. Website--Smokey Robinson Official Website: http://www.smokeyrobinson.net.

Smokey Robinson, the "poet laureate of soul music," has been composing and singing rhythm and blues hits for more than four decades. As the lead singer of the Miracles, Robinson helped to put Detroit and its Motown Records on the music map; his solo performances have netted Grammy Awards and praise from pundits who usually shun the pop genre. People contributor Gail Buchalter labeled Robinson "one of the smoothest tenors in soul music," a romantic idol whose 60 million-plus in record sales "helped turn Motown into the largest black-owned corporation in the world."

According to Jay Cocks in Time, Robinson has written, produced, and performed "some of the most enduring rhythm and blues [songs] ever made. The church kept easy company with the street corner in his rich melodies, and his lyrics had a shimmering, reflective grace that, at his pleasure, could challenge or seduce. With the Miracles, Smokey helped make a kind of soul music that balanced ghetto pride and middle-class ambition. Some of the group's best tunes ... stayed true to the R&B roots even as they beckoned, and found, a larger pop audience." In Rolling Stone, Steve Pond concluded that Robinson has written "some 4000 songs and recorded hundreds that have made him a true poet of the soul and a voice of the soul, too."

William "Smokey Joe" Robinson, Jr., not only rose from obscurity, he brought along a number of other now-famous black recording stars when he began to find success. He was born and raised in Detroit, in the rough Brewster ghetto, where, as he recalled in People, "you were either in a [music] group or a gang or both." Young Smokey grew up listening to his mother's records, including the works of B. B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine. These black artists, he commented in Rolling Stone, were "the first inspirational thing I had." When Robinson was ten, his mother died, and his sister Geraldine took him in, raising him along with her ten children. The family was poor but close-knit, and Robinson spent his youth writing songs and singing in local bands.

The Miracles of Motown

Robinson would not consider a professional career until he graduated from high school, and even then he tried barber school and courses in dentistry before giving his full attention to music. In 1954 he formed a rhythm and blues group called the Matadors; the name was changed to the Miracles three years later to accommodate a female singer, Claudette Rogers, who married Robinson in 1959. At first the members of the Miracles--who were each paid five dollars per week by their agent, Berry Gordy--found the music business difficult. "For a while," Claudette Robinson related in Essence, "we lived basically in one bedroom. But we didn't stay in that house very long. Fortunately, the music started to happen."

Robinson was lucky to have encountered Berry Gordy during an audition for another agent; Gordy, then a fledgling music producer on a shoestring budget, was equally fortunate to have found Robinson. Gordy began to produce the Miracles's singles in 1958, collaborating with Robinson on lyrics and tunes. Their first release, "Got a Job"--an answer to The Silhouettes's number one hit "Get a Job"--hit number 93 on the nationwide Billboard top 100 chart. The debut was encouraging, but nothing prepared Gordy and Robinson for the limelight they would attain in 1960. Late in that year they released an upbeat single, "Shop Around," that became a chart-topping million-seller. The Miracles subsequently became a national phenomenon, and Gordy was able to launch Motown Records, a landmark production company that introduced such talents as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations.

Robinson and the Miracles were Gordy's first star-quality group, and they continued their association with Motown as the company gained prestige. Indeed, Robinson wrote hit songs not only for his group but for other Motown headliners as well. He explained the Motown philosophy in Rolling Stone: "We set out to ... make music for people of all races and nationalities. Not to make black music--we just wanted to make good music that would be acceptable in all circles.... All we were doing, man, was just putting good songs on good tracks, songs that anybody could relate to.... We had good, solid songs that would fit your particular life situation if you were white or Oriental or Chicano or whatever you happened to be. And that made a world of difference."

"Tears" Was a Number One Hit

Throughout the 1960s, especially in the latter half of the decade, the Motown sound competed with the music of the British invasion for popularity among the young. Robinson and the Miracles were favorites among the Motown personnel, earning more than six gold records containing such hits as "The Tracks of My Tears," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "I Second That Emotion," and "Ooo Baby Baby." Still, Robinson was on the verge of quitting the group in 1968 when his son Berry was born. He reconsidered almost immediately, however, when a Miracles single, "The Tears of a Clown," became a Number One hit, first in England and then in the United States. Robinson noted in Rolling Stone that "The Tears of a Clown" became "the biggest record we ever had. It catapulted us into another financial echelon as far as what we made on dates, and I felt that the band was entitled to reap the benefits." The Miracles, a model group in terms of road behavior, endured until 1972, when Robinson quit.

For a time after leaving the Miracles, Robinson concentrated on his business duties as vice-president of Motown Records. He soon returned to recording, however, this time as a solo artist. His solo albums are, on the whole, more reflective and mellow than his work with the Miracles. All of them highlight the singer's particular talent--the creation and performance of meaningful love songs at a time when many erstwhile romantics have become jaded cynics.

Robinson's records of the late 1980s, when he was well into his third decade in the music business, continued to garner popularity and the approval of critics. A People reviewer found that on Smoke Signals of 1986, for example, the singer "remains a uniquely resilient performer," and 1987's One Heartbeat was termed "another winning package of sharp, sophisticated soul" in Rolling Stone. Robinson hits like "Cruisin'," "Just to See Her"--a Grammy Award winner--and "Being With You" became both R&B and pop hits and were rendered in a voice Essence contributor Jack Slater hailed as "a hypnotic, airy aphrodisiac that puts tens of thousands in the mood for love." Coupled with his success with the Miracles and as a prolific Motown songwriter, Robinson's solo achievements in the music industry led to his 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1989 he was named a Grammy Living Legend.

Coping with such enormous fame has not always been easy for Robinson. He chronicles his personal struggles in his 1989 collaboration with David Ritz, Smokey: Inside My Life. Musician contributor Jon Young remarked that the autobiography "documents everything from [Robinson's] family history and the early days of the Miracles to his extramarital affairs and, most striking, a graphic account of two years in thrall to cocaine in the mid-'80s." When asked why he chose to provide such candid details about his drug addiction, Robinson responded to Young, "I wrote it because it was God's will.... I was saved from drugs in 1986 when my pastor prayed for me. I never went to rehab or to a doctor. It was a miracle healing from God, so that I could carry the message about the perils of drugs. At the time I was saved, I was already dead. You are now speaking to Lazarus."

With the onset of the 1990s, Robinson's contract with Motown Records expired, and after a long and productive career with the record company, he moved to SBK Records. According to Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, the singer said simply, "My contract with Motown was up, and I was just out of there." He also pointed to the sale of Motown Records to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988 as one of the reasons for his departure. "After we sold the company," he continued to Graff, "it was never really quite the same for me." With SBK Records, Robinson released a well-received LP he coproduced and recorded in less than six weeks, 1991's Double Good Everything. "It feels like a new day or something, man," he divulged to Graff. "This is the first thing I've ever done outside of Motown; that's a big deal to me.... I feel like a new artist, almost."

Also in 1991, Robinson ventured into previously uncharted areas of the music world, considering an album of country-western tunes and penning the score for a Broadway musical titled Hoops, which presents the history of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. "I've written 22 pieces so far," Robinson told Young in February of 1992. "I want this to be like [the Broadway musical] South Pacific and produce several hits. The title track is a funk thing that I can envision being a halftime song for the NBA [National Basketball Association]."

Returned to Motown

In 1999, Robinson returned to Motown and released Intimate, and in 2004, he released Food for the Spirit, a collection of spiritual tunes that reflect his faith. He had begun writing the songs over several years, and originally planned to pass them on to friends who were gospel performers. However, he eventually realized that he wanted to perform the songs. "My spiritual self is very important to me," he told Aldore Collier in Ebony. "And I'm trying my best to develop that part of me."

Robinson has continued to tour and perform, and has also regularly visited schools, rehabilitation facilities, gang meetings, and juvenile detention centers to share his story of drug addiction and redemption. He has also continued to expand his line of food products, Smokey Robinson Foods; they are available at supermarkets in California, Texas, and Chicago. The idea for the food line came from Robinson's friend, evangelist Leon Isaac Kennedy; the first product was a seafood gumbo called "The Soul is in the Bowl." Seafood appealed to Robinson because he does not eat red meat. Robinson told James Ragland in the Dallas Morning News that part of the proceeds from the foods will go toward training forums and seminars to teach young minority people how to become entrepreneurs.

In May of 2002, Robinson married his second wife, Frances Gladney, an interior designer. They had known each other as friends for more than 25 years before getting married. In addition to enjoying married life, Robinson has continued to enjoy his three children and eight grandchildren. He told Regina R. Robertson in the America's Intelligence Wire, "I don't have any children anymore, I have all adults now. Being a grandparent is probably the most wonderful part of parenthood because grandbabies are like your kids, plus."

Robinson plans to continue his often hectic schedule of performing, composing, and recording. "If the world lasts until the twenty-second century," the enduring singer-songwriter declared to Young, "I hope they're still playing my music."

by Anne Janette Johnson and Kelly Winters

Smokey Robinson's Career

Singer and songwriter, 1954--. Founder of group the Matadors, 1954; group's name changed to the Miracles, 1957; performed with the Miracles, 1957-72; solo performer, backed by group Quiet Storm, 1972--. Cofounder, with Berry Gordy, Jr., of Tamla record label, 1959; vice-president of Motown Records, 1972-91; marketed a line of foods, circa 2000; has made numerous television appearances, including a special in 1971; appeared on Broadway in An Evening With Smokey Robinson, 1985.

Smokey Robinson's Awards

Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987; Grammy Award, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance for "Just to See Her," 1987; Grammy Living Legend Award, 1990; inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1990; Soul Train Heritage Award, 1991; Motor City Music Awards, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992; the Miracles inducted into Vocal Group Hall of Fame, 2001; President's National Medal of Arts Award, 2003; NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award.

Famous Works

Further Reading

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 5 years ago

I saw "smoke" for the first time a few years back at Taste of Minnesota. I have always liked his music but I am really hooked. The man can hold a note forever. He is also cool and classy and connects to the audience in an unbelievable way. He was great recently on Dancing with the Stars but I will tell you Tv does not do the man full Justice--see him live --he is unique --you will be glad you did.

over 7 years ago

He has more than three kids, he has another son in his 40's ,don't know why he never talks about him, he looks just like him.

almost 8 years ago

Mr. Robinson, Smokey. i have been a fan of your since i was 8 years old. i am 54 now. while livving in St. Louis, Mo before joining the Military, I went to see you and the Miracles whenver you were in town. i remember one show you performed in the early sixties. you and the miracles had on green outfits. damn good show. In 1998 in Biloxi, Ms., my wiofe and i saw your show at the then Grand Casino. It was distroyed (hurrican Katrina. We took a pic with yopu and i sked you about one of your songs from 1963., COME SPY WITH ME. You will be in Biloxi, Ms on 19 Sep 09, at the Beau Rivage.

about 8 years ago

I just want to let him know that I have been a fan of his since I was 14 years old.. I saw in last year at universal studios in Florida.Every time he made a new record or album I would buy it I have his 45, 33 cassettes and cd's till this day He has always been my # 1 singer. I love his for his soft romantic and caring personality and his spitual ways. I believe in 1997 he was in Newark New Jersey signing off on one is records he was signing off on his picture till this day he sits on my wall unit as if he was a family member...That is how much I like him.. I always told my husband that Smokey would be the only man for me if he did not come along. By the way I have his book also. May be if he is every back in Fla I can personally meet him again end let him know I much he means to me as an artist. I am 55 Years old in I always look under his website to see what is going on.. My God bless you and keep you around forever and ever ..I also saw you on American Idol I never watch that show.Some one told me that you where going to be on that show and guess what I watched for the whole 2 days. When you are on TV or appearing anywhere my freinds from all over call me and say smokey is around. and there I am looking for you. I am truly your fan until the end...Cindy Johnson from Florida. May God Bless You Always

over 8 years ago

I would like to find out more on smokey's drug confession. what the truth?

over 8 years ago

I've been told Mr.Robinson spent some time in Cincinnati,ohio.Any truth to that?

almost 9 years ago

Some one mentioned that Smoky had a son named Terry...any info