Smokey Robinson - Guest Judge on April 15, 2003

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b. William Robinson, 19 February 1940, Detroit, Michigan, USA. A founding member of the Miracles at Northern High School, Detroit, in 1955, Robinson became one of the leading figures in the local music scene by the end of the decade. His flexible tenor voice, which swooped easily into falsetto, made him the group's obvious lead vocalist, and by 1957 he was composing his own variations on the R&B hits of the day. That year he met Berry Gordy, who was writing songs for R&B star Jackie Wilson, and looking for local acts to produce. Vastly impressed by Robinson's affable personality and promising writing talent, Gordy took the teenager under his wing. He produced a series of Miracles singles in 1958 and 1959, all of which featured Robinson as composer and lead singer, and leased them to prominent R&B labels. In 1960 he signed the Miracles to his Motown Records stable, and began to groom Robinson as his second-in-command.

In Motown's early days, Robinson was involved in every facet of the company's operations, writing, producing and making his own records, helping in the business of promotion and auditioning many of the scores of young hopefuls who were attracted by Gordy's growing reputation as an entrepreneur. Robinson had begun his career as a producer by overseeing the recording of the Miracles' "Way Over There", and soon afterwards he was charged with developing the talents of Mary Wells and the Supremes. Wells soon became Robinson's most successful protégée: Robinson wrote and produced a sophisticated series of hit singles for her between 1962 and 1964. These records, such as "You Beat Me To The Punch", "Two Lovers" and "My Guy', demonstrated his growing confidence as a writer, able to use paradox and metaphor to transcend the usual banalities of the teenage popular song. A measure of Robinson's influence over Wells" career is the fact that she was unable to repeat her chart success after she elected to leave Motown, and Robinson, in 1964.

Although Robinson was unable to turn the Supremes into a hit-making act, he experienced no such failure in his relationship with Motown's leading male group of the mid-60s, the Temptations. Between 1964 and 1965, Robinson was responsible for the records that established their reputation, writing lyrical and rhythmic songs of a calibre that few writers in pop music have equalled since. "The Way You Do The Things You Do" set the hit sequence in motion, followed by the classic ballad "My Girl" (later equally popular in the hands of Otis Redding), the dance number "Get Ready", "Since I Lost My Baby" and the remarkable "It's Growing", which boasted a complex lyric hinged around a series of metaphorical images. During the same period, Robinson helped to create two of Marvin Gaye's most enduring early hits, "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I'll Be Doggone". Throughout the 60s, Smokey Robinson combined this production and A&R work with his own career as leader of the Miracles. He married fellow group member Claudette Rogers in 1959, and she provided the inspiration for Miracles hits such as "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" and "Ooh Baby Baby". During the mid-60s, Robinson was apparently able to turn out high-quality songs to order, working with a variety of collaborators including fellow Miracle Ronnie White, and Motown guitarist Marv Tarplin.

As the decade progressed, Bob Dylan referred to Robinson apparently without irony, as "America's greatest living poet"; as if to justify this assertion, Robinson's lyric-writing scaled new heights on complex ballads such as "The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage" and "I Second That Emotion'. From 1967 onwards, Robinson was given individual credit on the Miracles" releases. For the next two years, their commercial fortunes went into a slide, which was righted when their 1965 recording of "The Tracks Of My Tears" became a major hit in Britain in 1969, and the four-year-old "The Tears Of A Clown" achieved similar success on both sides of the Atlantic in 1970. At the end of the decade, Robinson briefly resumed his career as a producer and writer for other acts, collaborating with the Marvelettes on "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game", and the Four Tops on "Still Water (Love)". Business concerns were occupying an increasing proportion of his time, however, and in 1971 he announced that he would be leaving the Miracles the following year, to concentrate on his role as Vice-President of the Motown corporation.

A year after the split, Robinson launched his solo career, enjoying a hit single with "Sweet Harmony", an affectionate tribute to his former group, and issuing the excellent Smokey. The album included the epic "Just My Soul Responding', a biting piece of social comment about the USA's treatment of blacks and American Indians. Robinson maintained a regular release schedule through the mid-70s, with one new album arriving every year. Low-key and for the most part lushly produced, they made little impact, although Robinson's songwriting was just as consistent as it had been in the 60s. He continued to break new lyrical ground, striking the banner for non-macho male behaviour on 1974"s "Virgin Man', and giving name to a new style of soft soul on 1975"s A Quiet Storm. Singles such as "Baby That's Backatcha" and "The Agony And The Ecstasy" sold well on the black market, but failed to achieve national airplay in the USA, while in the UK Robinson was regarded as a remnant from the classic era of Motown. His first film soundtrack project, Big Time, in 1977, won little praise, and it appeared as if his creative peak was past. Instead, he hit back in 1979 with "Cruisin'", his biggest chart success since "The Tears Of A Clown" nine years earlier. A sensuous ballad in the musical tradition of his 60s work, the record introduced a new eroticism into his writing, and restored faith in his stature as a contemporary performer.

Two years later, he gained his first UK number 1 with "Being With You", a touching love song that came close to equalling that achievement in the USA. "Tell Me Tomorrow" enjoyed more Stateside success in 1982, and Robinson settled into another relaxed release schedule that saw him ride out the 80s on a pattern of regular small hits and consistent album sales. Robinson was contributing significantly less new material, however, and his 1988 autobiography, Smokey, revealed that he had been battling against cocaine addiction for much of the decade. Although his marriage to Claudette failed, he returned to full health and creativity, and enjoyed two big hits in 1987, "Just To See Her" and "One Heartbeat". He was voted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988, and returned to the Motown stable in the late 90s after a brief tenure with SBK at the start of the decade. Smokey Robinson is now one of the senior figures in popular music, a writer and producer still best remembered for his outstanding work in the 60s, but who has seldom betrayed the responsibility of that legacy since then.


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