The Kennedy Center

Smokey Robinson


To hear Smokey Robinson shine his way through his "The Tears of a Clown" is to understand a lovely, perfect moment in American music. A Detroit native and the very soul of Motown, a singer's singer, a poet's own poet, everyone's giving, loving clown—do these begin to describe the miracle that is Smokey Robinson- Fellow Kennedy Center Honoree Bob Dylan once rapturously called Robinson "America's greatest living poet." That is an unguarded, disarmingly emotional response to a musician whose emotions never fail to ring true. Think not only of his lyrics to "Tears of a Clown," but also of "The Track of My Tears," "Shop Around," "You've Really Got A Hold On Me," "My Guy," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," "It's Growing," "I Second That Emotion," "Sweet Harmony," "Baby Come Close," "Baby That's Backatcha," "I Am I Am," "The Agony And The Ecstasy," "Open," "Quiet Storm," and "Let Your Love Shine On Me." Impressive by any standards as a string of hits, taken together they add up to a body of work that has transformed and defined American music across any pop, soul, R & B, or Rock and Roll divide. Perhaps Bob Seeger put it best in Rolling Stone magazine, when he recalled nostalgically how "I used to go to the Motown revues, and the Miracles always closed the show. They were that good, and everybody knew it. Not flash at all. The Supremes had bigger hits. The Temptations had the better dance moves. The Miracles did it with pure music. Back then the radio played the rougher stuff, [but] Smokey Robinson – they played him all day. Everybody loved his songs, and he had a leg up on all the other singers, with that slightly raspy, very high voice. Smokey was smoky."

That he wrote his own songs seemed like so much icing on a sweet cake. Everybody loved his songs, everybody still does. Together with The Supremes, The Temptations and the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson—with the Miracles and on his own as a composer, producer and hit-maker—was a powerful and influential creative force alongside Motown's visionary Berry Gordy in combining the naïve sweetness of mainstream American pop with the gritty sensuality of the most daring of rhythm and blues. Doo-wop came of age, and the Motown sound was born.

William Robinson was born and raised in Detroit, where as a child he was nicknamed "Smokey" because of his love of Westerns. He was just 15 when he founded a doo-wop group called The Five Chimes with four friends from Northern High School. Playing Detroit clubs, they renamed the group The Matadors in 1957, and were joined by Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore; Ronnie Whites and Smokey Robinson's future wife, Claudette Rogers. They changed names again, to the Miracles, and they met up with the young Berry Gordy, Jr., who in 1958 co-wrote for them the single "Got A Job," a humorous, nevertheless very positive answer song to The Silhouettes' hit "Get a Job." The song came true: young Smokey really got a job. Gordy founded Tamla Records in 1959, soon reincorporating it as Motown Records, with his friend and protégé Smokey Robinson as vice-president by 1961. The rest, it is not exaggeration to note, is music history. The Miracles bridged the worlds of doo-wop and soul, with Robinson as their guiding light. After what proved to be a warm-up single called "Way Over There," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' second release for Motown, "Shop Around," established a sound that would cool and caress a generation. It was their first million-seller. Throughout the 1960s and early '70s, music and musician alike grew in assurance, from elegant ballads to easy, throbbing dance numbers like "Mickey's Monkey" and "Going To A-Go-Go." Robinson's activity was not limited to The Miracles, either. As a generous songwriter and producer, he created "My Guy" for the sassy Mary Wells, and "My Girl" for the inimitable Temptations. But it was Robinson's own voice, the silky cooing and wooing of everything from "Ooo Baby Baby" right through the immortal "Tears Of A Clown" that forever marked the soundtrack of Baby Boomers' lives.

After Motown's glory days, Robinson continued to thrive on his own. His final hit with The Miracles was 1972's "We've Come To Far To End It Now" and—like the Supremes' bittersweet "Some Day We'll Be Together"—it signaled the end of an era but also the dawn of reinvigorated artistic maturity. Smokey Robinson grew jazzier, perhaps mellower, certainly never a slave to the disco fashion but very much in touch with the pulse of music lovers. His work became more subtle, still yielding unforgettable hits such as "Sweet Harmony" and "Just My Soul Responding." His album A Quiet Storm turned out to be the apotheosis of a golden era of R & B even as a new generation's hip-hop and rap peered not far in the horizon. It was with A Quite Storm that Robinson gave notice that smooth, lush and gorgeous ballads could never be out of place in our hearts. "As a kid, this is what I wanted my life to be," Smokey Robinson once said, confessing that "Not in my wildest dreams did I ever dare to dream that it would be this." He was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1991, he won a Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement. Never one to rest on his laurels, this poet laureate of love released his first Gospel album, Food for the Spirit, in 2004. In 2006, Howard University conferred on Smokey Robinson an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

Updated September 06, 2006
Smokey Robinson