Smokey Robinson, known as the “King of Motown,” is an iconic American singer-songwriter, record producer, and record executive. He was the founder and frontman of the popular Motown vocal group The Miracles. Robinson has had an enormously successful career spanning over six decades, and at age 83, he is still actively making music and performing.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. was born on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. He was raised in the North End neighborhood of Detroit, an area known for producing talented musicians. As a child, Robinson formed a doo-wop quartet called The Five Chimes with his best friend Ronald White and three other neighborhood boys. They began performing at local venues and talent shows, laying the foundations for Robinson’s musical career.
At age 17, Robinson founded The Matadors, a vocal group that included Ronnie White and fellow high school classmates. They soon changed their name to The Miracles and caught the attention of songwriter Berry Gordy. Gordy helped them land a recording contract with End Records in 1958. Their single “Got a Job” became their first charting hit on the R&B charts.
Success with The Miracles
After modest success with End Records, The Miracles caught their big break in 1960 when they began recording for Gordy’s newly formed label, Motown Records. Their first single with Motown, “Shop Around,” was Motown’s first million-selling hit record, reaching #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Pop charts in 1961. This launched the careers of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles into superstardom.
For the remainder of the 1960s, The Miracles became one of Motown’s premier acts, cranking out over 26 Top 40 hits including smashes like “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “The Tears of a Clown.” Robinson’s exceptional songwriting and honey-coated vocals were integral to the group’s popularity. He penned hits not just for The Miracles but also for other Motown artists like The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye.
In 1969, Robinson married fellow Motown star Claudette Rogers, who became a member of The Miracles shortly after. They adopted their son Berry in 1970.
By 1972, Smokey Robinson decided to retire from The Miracles and focus on a solo career, songwriting, and his duties as Motown’s vice president. His first solo project was the album Smokey, which yielded the hit ballad “Baby That’s Backatcha.” For the remainder of the 1970s, Robinson enjoyed solo success with singles like “Cruisin'” and “Just to See Her.” He also ramped up his songwriting, composing hits for Motown artists The Temptations, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye throughout the decade.
In 1975, Robinson’s solo career soared to new heights with the release of his single “Sweet Harmony.” It was his first Top 10 Pop hit since “The Tears of a Clown” with The Miracles six years earlier. The subsequent album A Quiet Storm showcased Robinson’s sensuous R&B vocals and lush Quiet Storm musical style. Three tracks off A Quiet Storm-“Baby That’s Backatcha,” “The Agony and The Ecstasy,” and “Quiet Storm”-reached the Top 10 on the R&B charts.
Robinson’s 1978 album Love Breeze contained his disco-influenced single “Ebony Eyes,” a UK chart topper. His 1979 track “Cruisin'” saw even bigger success, becoming one of his signature solo hits and garnering a Grammy nomination.
In 1981, Smokey Robinson teamed up with fellow Motown labelmate Rick James to form the R&B superduo The Super Producers. They collaborated on the hit ballad “Ebony Eyes.”
Robinson’s solo offerings in the first half of the 1980s, like Being With You (1981) and Touch the Sky (1983), continued showcasing his upbeat R&B style. “Being With You” was one of his biggest solo chart-toppers, reaching #1 in the UK and #2 in the US. He also penned tracks for other artists during this period, including Luther Vandross’ “Since I Lost My Baby.”
In 1987, Robinson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, receiving the honor alongside contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. His induction honored his prolific career both as frontman of The Miracles and as a soloist.
Late 1980s albums like One Heartbeat (1987) and Love Smokey (1990) saw Robinson team up with a range of contemporary artists, from fellow Motown veterans to new jack swing stars like LL Cool J. He continued blending his vintage Motown flair into modern R&B sounds.
The 1990s and Beyond
Smokey Robinson entered the 1990s still in high demand as a performer and songwriter. He collaborated with artists like Jon Bon Jovi for the soundtrack to the 1990 film Blaze of Glory. In 1999, his comeback track “Easy to Love” scored on the R&B charts, followed by the Top 40 duet “You’re the One for Me” with The Backstreet Boys in 2000.
In 2002, Robinson released his first gospel album, Food for the Soul. Three years later came his album Timeless Love, featuring classic pop standards. 2006 saw the release of Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, which included modern re-recordings of his Motown hits.
As Smokey entered his 60s and 70s, he continued touring extensively both solo and with Human Nature, a Motown tribute group from Australia. He also put out occasional new releases like 2009’s Time to Grow and 2014’s Smokey & Friends, which featured duets with Elton John, Steven Tyler, and Mary J. Blige.
In 2016, Robinson released his final studio album to date, Smokey & Friends: Christmas, featuring holiday duets with classic Motown artists and contemporary pop stars. Now in his 80s, Smokey Robinson’s seven-decade-long career has cemented his status as a true American legend.
Key Facts About Smokey Robinson’s Age and Career
|Date of Birth||February 19, 1940 (age 83)|
|Place of Birth||Detroit, MI|
|First Band||The Five Chimes (1955)|
|Founding of The Miracles||1957|
|First Major Hit Single||“Shop Around” (1960)|
|First Solo Album||Smokey (1973)|
|Biggest Solo Hot 100 Hit||“Being With You” (1981)|
|Inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame||1987|
|Last Studio Album||Smokey & Friends: Christmas (2016)|
As this overview of Smokey Robinson’s life and career illustrates, he has been serenading fans with his velvety voice and catchy tunes for over 60 years. Born in 1940 in Detroit, Robinson formed his first vocal group The Five Chimes at age 15. Just two years later, he founded The Miracles and caught the attention of Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy.
With The Miracles, Robinson became a star in the 1960s, cranking out over two dozen Top 40 hits for Motown’s Tamla label. He also emerged as one of Motown’s chief songwriters, penning tracks for Mary Wells, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and others. By the early 1970s, Robinson embarked on a successful solo career while continuing to write for Motown artists.
Major solo hits like “Cruisin'” and “Being With You” kept Robinson on the charts throughout the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. Even into his 80s today, he maintains an active performance and recording schedule. Smokey Robinson has maintained his superstar status for over half a century, making him a true American pop music icon.
In summary, legendary singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson was born William Robinson Jr. on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. He founded his first vocal group The Miracles at just age 17 in 1957. With The Miracles, Robinson became one of Motown’s biggest stars during the 1960s with multi-million-selling hits like “Shop Around,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “The Tears of a Clown.”
He embarked on a solo career in the early 1970s while continuing to write songs for other Motown artists. As a soloist, he scored huge hits like “Cruisin'” and “Being With You,” also his biggest solo Hot 100 single to date. In 1987, Smokey Robinson was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, honoring his prolific career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. Now age 83, he remains active in music as a live performer and occasional recording artist. Smokey Robinson has maintained his popularity and critical acclaim over six decades in the music business, making him one of America’s most legendary R&B singer-songwriters.