Blessed with the warmest falsetto in all of pop, Smokey Robinson proved you didn't have to scream to be soulful. One of the principal architects of the mythical Motown sound, he wrote and produced dozens of hits for Mary Wells
, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye
, and the Miracles themselves. His songs also spawned hit covers by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt
, and the English Beat, among many others.
Born William Robinson Jr. on February 18, 1940--the childhood nickname was given to him by an uncle--he formed the Miracles with fellow Detroiters Warren "Pete" Moore, Ronnie White, and siblings Bobby and Claudette Rogers while still in high school, scoring their first hit (the ethereal "Bad Girl") for Chess in '59. Thus encouraged, Robinson convinced Berry Gordy
to set up what would become the Motown empire. In 1960, the Miracles delivered the company's first smash, "Shop Around." While the Miracles' uptempo hits were many ("Mickey's Monkey," "Goin' To A-Go-Go," "Tears Of A Clown"), the group is best remembered for Robinson's fragile, lung-pumping ballads ("You Really Got A Hold On Me," "Tracks Of My Tears," "Ooo Baby Baby") and his deft wordplay ("Now all that's left are lipstick traces of kisses you only pretended to feel" from "The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage"), which inspired Bob Dylan
to call him "America's greatest living poet." Claudette--who'd married Robinson years earlier--left the group in '64. Robinson began getting top-billing three years later. In 1972, he went solo with infrequent, but brilliant success: "Quiet Storm," "Cruisin,'" "Being With You." Meanwhile, the Miracles--with new vocalist Billy Griffin--topped the charts with "Love Machine" in '75.
Robinson and Claudette divorced in '85. The Miracles were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987--the same year that ABC racked up a huge hit with the marvelous tribute record "When Smokey Sings".