The man Bob Dylan once called one of America's greatest poets began mastering his trade inauspiciously, writing poems at Detroit's Dwyer Elementary while avidly listening to soul and classic popular music. He continued honing his writing skills in high school and formed a local singing group called the Matadors. But it was his chance meeting with fellow Detroiter Berry Gordy that changed Smokey's life. Gordy signed the Matadors (then called the Miracles) and mentored Smokey on songwriting skills, helping the young protege turn clever but disjointed rhymes into three minute short stories. The result was the best songwriter in America during the early 60s, churning out classic cuts for the Miracles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and others. While his songwriting star at Motown would later be eclipsed by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it is amazing to see Robinson's output between 1962-66. During that time he penned songs like "My Girl," "Ooh Baby Baby," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "My Guy," "It's Growing" and dozens of other soul classics.
Robinson also became a heartthrob as the lead singer for the Miracles. His smooth voice and green eyes were magnets for young women, and he and the Miracles rode the charts consistently for the entire decade with hits like "Mickey's Monkey," "I Second That Emotion" and their all-time classic "The Tracks of My Tears."
In 1972 Robinson left the Miracles for a solo career and a bigger job in the Motown organization, and was replaced by Billy Griffin. Smokey released a number of uneven albums through the 70s, with only moderate chart success. Perhaps his biggest contribution was a theme album of romantic ballads that is more memorable for the musical genre it spawned than for the album itself. A Quiet Storm became the reference album for the "Quiet Storm" format of smooth love ballads that would dominate nighttime black radio in the 80s and would help launch the careers of soul balladeers such as Anita Baker and Luther Vandross.
Smokey seemed more an afterthought as the 70s closed, but an unlikely second release from his Where There's Smoke album became his rebirth, as "Cruisin'" shot to the top of the charts and opened a new audience and a new decade to Robinson's smooth stylings. It also set up a landmark follow up album that was the best of his career and one of the best soul albums of the 80s. Warm Thoughts contained only one hit, the somewhat gimmicky "Let Me Be The Clock," but was, front to back, a breathtaking album that brought together the best Smokey elements -- the lyrical play, the memorable hooks and the restrained, effective production -- in a way only hinted at in his previous solo releases. Shockingly, it is unavailable on CD (shame on Motown for that), but should be sought out by Smokey Robinson fans everywhere.
Smokey continued to score in the early 80s with big hits like "Bein' With You" and "Tell Me Tomorrow," but became creatively and physically incapacitated by a cocaine addition that he chronicled in his autobiography, but which he almost miraculously overcame in 1987, in time to release the smash album One Heartbeat. He continued to record for the remainder of the 80s with Motown, but suffered with other artists from Motown's developing dysfunction. He moved to upstart label SBK in 1991 after Gordy sold Motown, but later returned in 1999 to release Intimate, a nice collection of new material.
In April 2004, Smokey released Food for the Spirit, his first Gospel album and his first studio album of any kind in five years. For those of us who have literally listened to Smokey our entire lives, there is a certain comfort in hearing his voice anew, no matter what he is singing. Fortunately, Food for the Spirit was full of quintessential Smokey compositions. On Food, Smokey again worked with longtime collaborator Michael Stokes (remembered by many for his great work with Enchantment). From the start of the very good first track, "Jesus Told Me To Love You," Smokey worked his magic again, his voice sounding as clear and strong as it did twenty years ago, and certainly belying his age. He also lyrically weaved through a number of faith and redemption-based topics in his unique way (who else, when writing about Paul's conversion, could rhyme "Damascus" with "what he asked us?"). The upbeat cuts in the second half of the CD were not as strong, hurt in part by the album's overreliance on programmed drums and electronic keyboards. But the backing choir (including former Temptation Louis Price) was excellent , and Robinson's phrasing was superb throughout, especially on "Let Your Love Shine On Me," a beautiful ballad reminiscent of his 1980 masterpiece "Into Each Rain Some Life Must Fall." Food for the Soul was a welcome return of an incomparable artist.
In May, 2005, Motown released My World, the most comprehensive single disc compilation of Smokey Robinson's solo work and his recordings with the Miracles. The disc also included two enjoyable new cuts, the smooth ballad "Fallin'" and the mild island midtempo title cut. He followed it up two years later with Timeless, a collection of standards recorded with a big band. It didn't make much of a dent in the charts, but showed him to be in good voice. In 2010, Smokey released an album of new material called Time Flies When You're Having Fun. It was a welcome release that harkened back to the sounds of some of Smokey's early solo work. He also stayed busy touring and appeared on a great episode of Daryl Hall's Live From Daryl's House.
As the Motown 50th Anniversary celebrations took place in January 2009, Smokey seemed to be everywhere, giving tours of the Motown Museum, being interviewed by one network after another, and serving largely as the face of Motown for the millions around the world who wanted to celebrate what the Sound of Young America meant to them in their lives. And there couldn't have been a better spokesperson.
by Chris Rizik