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How did smokey robinson get his name?

Smokey Robinson is an iconic American singer-songwriter and record producer who has been active in the music industry for over 60 years. Known as the “King of Motown,” Robinson founded the legendary Motown vocal group The Miracles and was instrumental in shaping the distinctive Motown sound. But how exactly did he get the nickname “Smokey”? Here’s the story behind Smokey Robinson’s famous moniker.

William “Smokey” Robinson – Childhood and Early Musical Influences

William Robinson Jr. was born on February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. From a young age, Robinson was surrounded by music. His mother played piano and his uncles were both musicians. At the age of 11, Robinson formed a doo-wop group called the Five Chimes with his best friend Ronald White and three other boys from his neighborhood.

Around this time, Robinson got the nickname “Smokey Joe” from his uncle Claude who said Robinson looked like “Smokey Joe” from the Gene Autry cowboy song “Old Smokey.” The nickname was eventually shortened to just “Smokey.”

The Matadors and The Miracles

In 1955, Robinson and White joined forces with cousins Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, and Clarence Dawson to form a group called The Matadors. After Dawson left, the remaining members changed their name to The Miracles in 1957. As the lead singer of The Miracles, Robinson was encouraged by Motown founder Berry Gordy to pursue a career as a songwriter and producer.

Smokey Robinson’s Songwriting Talents

Smokey Robinson became Motown’s first vice president in 1961, overseeing quality control of all releases while continuing to write and produce hits for The Miracles and other Motown artists. Robinson ended up writing or co-writing over 4,000 songs and received the nickname “King of Motown.”

Some of Smokey Robinson’s biggest songwriting hits include:

Song Artist Year
“My Girl” The Temptations 1964
“My Guy” Mary Wells 1964
“Get Ready” The Temptations 1966
“Ain’t That Peculiar” Marvin Gaye 1965
“Don’t Mess with Bill” The Marvelettes 1966
“The Tracks of My Tears” The Miracles 1965
“I Second That Emotion” The Miracles 1967
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” The Miracles 1962

Robinson also wrote hits for The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, and other top Motown artists, becoming one of the most influential songwriters at the label.

Smokey’s Solo Career

In 1972, Robinson left The Miracles to fully focus on his duties as Motown’s vice president as well as to pursue a solo career. His first solo studio album, Smokey, was released that same year. The album included one of Robinson’s most enduring solo hits, “Cruisin’.”

Throughout the 1970s, Robinson continued releasing solo albums and hit singles like “Baby That’s Backatcha” and “Quiet Storm.” He also discovered and helped mentor new Motown artists like The Commodores and Rick James.

After Motown relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, Robinson stayed behind in Detroit but remained affiliated with the label. In 1975, Robinson’s solo track “Love Machine (Part 1)” became a #1 R&B hit. Through the late 70s and 80s, Robinson scored more hits like “Being With You” and “Just to See Her.”

Later Career

Even as he entered his 50s and 60s, Smokey Robinson remained active in music, touring frequently and recording new material. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.

In 2006, Robinson released the standards album Timeless Love, garnering him two Grammy nominations. At age 74, he showed he still had chart power when his 2015 album Smokey & Friends debuted at #1 on the R&B Albums chart.

Now in his 80s, Smokey Robinson is an icon who has influenced countless artists over the past six decades. The man born William Robinson will forever be remembered by his timeless nickname – the one and only Smokey.


In summary, Smokey Robinson earned his enduring nickname as an 11-year-old member of a doo-wop group in the 1950s. His uncle Claude called him “Smokey Joe” after the Gene Autry song, which was eventually shortened to “Smokey.” Robinson carried the nickname with him into the legendary vocal group The Miracles and his career as one of Motown’s most gifted songwriters and producers. Smokey Robinson has embraced the nickname for over 60 years, cementing it as one of the most iconic monikers in music history. Though born William Robinson Jr., he will forever be remembered as simply “Smokey” – a testament to his incredible legacy and lasting influence on popular music.