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The Music Diaries | Smokey Robinson - A musical Jack of all trades

Published:Sunday | October 16, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Smokey Robinson

They were all big hits: My Girl, I Want A Love I Can See, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Since I Lost My Baby, Don't Look Back - all done by The Temptations; My Guy, You Beat Me To The Punch, Two Lovers, The One Who Really Loves You, by Mary Wells; Don't Mess With Bill by The Marvelettes; Still Waters by the Four Tops; Who's Loving You by The Jackson Five; Ain't That Peculiar by Marvin Gaye; Sweet Harmony, Cruising, Let Me Be The Clock, Being With You, I Second That Emotion, I'll Try Something New, We've Come Too Far To End It Now, and Track Of My Tears, all recorded by Smokey Robinson (some with the group The Miracles).

All had more than one thing in common: They were recordings done for the larger-than-life recording company Motown Records, and they were all written by a prolific songwriter-vocalist named William 'Smokey' Robinson Jr. . Along with Berry Gordy, Robinson was the rock on which Motown Records was built. He was indeed the chief architect in the development of the Motown Sound. Robinson wrote more than 50 per cent of the early recordings that helped to establish the entity as the biggest and most successful black-owned American business ever.

Gordy, who was really the brainchild behind the creation of Motown Records, spotted Robinson as he performed with his group - The Miracles - at a Detroit talent show. Impressed by Robinson's original compositions and his silky high-pitched falsetto, Gordy became the group's manager and signed them as one of his first clients. Apart from being a singing sensation, Robinson was introduced to Gordy as one who possessed incredible songwriting and production skills, and for what Gordy was about, Robinson seemed the ideal partner in establishing his company. For his part, Gordy laid the groundwork for his career by composing for Jackie Wilson some of his earliest hits. They included Lonely Teardrops, To Be Loved, That's Why, and I'll Be Satisfied. With the establishment of his first label - Tamla, at 1719 Gladstone Street, Detroit in the late 1950s, Gordy came good in 1959 with Marv Johnson's Come To Me and You Got What It Takes, the latter becoming his first production to break into the pop top 10. A year later, he formally established his world-renowned Motown Record Label.




Smokey Robinson's arrival at Motown Records really set the engines in motion for the recording entity. Mary Wells was perhaps the first to propel the label into perpetual prominence with a string of hits, mostly written by Robinson. They included, The One Who Really Loves You; Two Lovers; the Grammy-nominated You Beat Me To The Punch, all in 1962, and her signature hit, My Guy, in 1964. Known as one of Motown's first singing superstars, her exploits, inspired mainly by Robinson's compositions, earned for her the title The Queen of Motown.

Robinson's songwriting skills also set in motion one of the flagship performers for the label - The Temptations - when he wrote for them their first hit single, The Way You Do The Things You Do, in 1963. Robinson's follow-up compositions further helped to send The Temptations on the road to success.

Born in the Motor Town of Detroit, Michigan, on February 19, 1940, Robinson's fascination with singing cowboys like Roy Rogers earned for the youngster the nickname 'Smokey'. Enjoying school, he excelled in English, jotting down what would later become song lyrics. His obsession with doo-wop music soon led to the formation of his first vocal group - The Five Chimes - while still at Northern High School.

Writing in his autobiography, he said, "I was raised in a dazzling din of doo-wop, seduced by the silver sounds of Harvey and the Moonglows, The Dells, Flamingos, Spaniels, Sonny Til, and The Orioles."




In the mid-1960s, Robinson was appointed vice-president of Motown Records and given responsibility to recruit and sign new acts. With the added workload of vice-president becoming overbearing, Robinson left the group in 1972, but surprisingly made a comeback the following year, launching his solo career with the release of the eponymous Smokey album. The album contained the Miracles' tribute song, Sweet Harmony, which Robinson wrote as a tribute to the group with which he had spent over half the years of his life and with which he was about to part company. The sentimental feel of the lyrics is palpably felt as 'Smokey' sings:

"Sweet harmony, go on and blow on

Stay in perfect tune,

With your own familiar song.

Make the world aware

That you're still going strong.

Go on, spread your joy around the world

Spread your joy around the world.

Sweet harmony, yeah yeah

Go on and blow on."

Robinson continued to rip through the 1970s and 1980s with a succession of self-penned chart-toppers that made him, perhaps, the most outstanding singer-songwriter of that period. Cruising, in 1979 became one of his most successful solo efforts, hitting number one on the US, Cash Box top 100, peaking at number four on the Billboard pop chart, number five on the soul charts, and was a major hit in several European countries.

Let Me Be The Clock (1980) also sold well, while, Being With You, in 1981, hit number one on the US Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart, number one on the US, Cash Box Top 100, and was a number-one single in the UK and New Zealand.