Berry Gordy is undoubtedly Motown’s founding father, but Gordy would not have achieved his spectacular success without Motown’s founding brother, Smokey Robinson.
Behind the scenes, however, Robinson was far more than that. He was a songwriter, record producer, and key player in just about every aspect of the Motown operation. Most importantly, he was Berry Gordy’s best friend and a man who had been with Gordy from a time before Motown existed.
Robinson was born in 1940 in Detroit and grew up in the North End. He got the name “Smokey Joe” when he was a child who was in love with Westerns at the movies. In 1955 he and some friends formed a doo-wop group called The Five Chimes, which was later changed to the Matadors and still later to the Miracles. Robinson met Gordy in 1957, and Gordy was impressed with Robinson’s passion for — and commitment to — writing songs. Robinson had showed Gordy a notebook in which he had about 100 original songs.
Gordy helped Robinson and the Miracles produce a single, “Got a Job,” an answer to the hit tune by The Silhouettes‘s “Get a Job.”
Gordy was determined to develop his own record label, and one of the first acts he signed was The Miracles. In 1960 they recorded “Shop Around,” which became the first big hit for Gordy’s company. In those early years of Motown, Robinson became one of the chief sources of hit songs for many of the groups that Gordy signed. They included “Two Lovers”, “The One Who Really Loves You”, “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “My Guy” for Mary Wells; “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” for the Temptations; “Stillwater” for the Four Tops; “When I’m Gone” and “Operator” for Brenda Holloway; “Don’t Mess With Bill”, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician” for the Marvelettes; and “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye.
By 1969 Robinson wanted to retire from active performing and spend more time with his family and as executive vice president of Motown. But then the group recorded “Tears of a Clown,” and its success induced Robinson to stay with the group until 1972.
Robinson did retire them but came out of retirement a year later had many successful songs and recordings during the next two decades.
See these previous posts about Motown:
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