The summer San Francisco Symphony series hosts an icon in soul music, William “Smokey” Robinson this evening. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the famous Motown group, The Miracles. Though he “retired” from the Miracles, he has continued on in a solo career. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1987.
He was born (February 19, 1940) and raised in Detroit, and was actually a next door neighbor of Diana Ross. As a youngster, his first exposure to music on the radio was through Nolan Strong and the Diablos, and Bill Ward and His Dominoes. He formed what became the Miracles in 1955, with Ron White and Pete Moore. Two years later they were renamed The Matadors.
But the big break came in 1958, when he met Berry Gordy, who produced his first single. Unknown to most people, Robinson started college in 1959, to study electrical engineering, though he dropped out when the Miracles released their first record. Then through various changes and failures, Robinson suggested to Gordy that he start his own label. They formed Tamla Records, which later became Motown Records. The Miracles became one of the first groups to sign with Motown.
Between 1960 and 1970, he produced 26 top forty hits with the Miracles as the lead singer, chief songwriter, and producer. The groups only number one hit was “Tears of a Clown”, though many others peaked in the top twenty. In 1965, they formally changed their name to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. He was also in demand as a songwriter and producer for many other artists at Motown. His last performance with the Miracles was in 1972, when he decided to devote more time to his family.
He came back as a soloist in 1973. The Beatles were big fans of his, including most prominently, George Harrison, whose “Pure Smokey” was a tribute to his idol. During this time, he was forced to compete with other songwriters like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and former Temptations member, Eddie Kendricks. All three had multiple hit singles during this period.
After various successes and challenges, he won his first Grammy in 1988. The album, One Heartbeat, became his most successful album, selling half a million albums. In 1989, he was elected to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and in 1993, he was awarded a medal at the National Medal of Arts. Howard University conferred an honorary Doctor of Music degree in 2006. Also in 2006, he was one of five Kennedy Center honorees, along with Dolly Parton, Zubin Mehta, Steven Spielberg, and Andrew Lloyd Weber.
In 2009, the Miracles were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, and gave the commencement speech.
His final totals as a songwriter, over 4000 songs with 37 top 40 hits. He has served as Vice-President of Motown Records. He was impressive in his performance on Dancing With the Stars. He has often been called “The King of Motown.”
I cannot tell you how many times we danced to Motown music and Smokey in our youth. The songs will certainly bring back memories of many good times, school and church dances, parties, and proms. Or maybe just sitting around the old frat house on a warm Spring eve, hoping that we get a date for Saturday night.
One of the evening’s highlights was Smokey’s rendition of seeing Stevie Wonder on his last visit to Motown Records. He did the upper body sway, the voice, and the calm, cool words that have become his signature. The entire Symphony hall was rolling on the ground!
Much like other aging stars, I highly encourage you to see these great performers while they are alive and performing live concerts. It was a great evening of music! Oh, and Sara Hicks the symphony guest conductor is not so bad either!