When you think of Motown, the legendary music label that defined an entire era, a few names come to mind.
Yes, Diana Ross exemplified glitz and glamour; Marvin Gaye oozed sensuality, and Berry Gordy, Jr. was the bona fide boss. But Smokey Robinson was the label's true Renaissance man. Robinson could just as easily belt out a hit, identify an up-and-coming act or pen a tune that would quickly rise to the tops of the charts.
Al Payne, operations manager for Radio One's four-station cluster in Richmond, Virginia, said Robinson could be viewed as an architect of contemporary black music.
"I am amazed at how his music and business savvy seemed to create a blueprint that would be followed for generations to come," Payne told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
"We've all read about, heard about or experienced the marketing genius of Smokey and his Motown contemporaries," Payne added. "They shook up both the black and 'general market' charts with strings of back-to-back hits and paved the way for continued dominance of modern R&B music."
Dominate indeed. Robinson first stepped on the scene as a teenager, starting a group called the Five Chimes with some high school friends in Detroit in 1955. Two years later, the Five Chimes were renamed the Matadors and featured two new members, including his future wife, Claudette Rogers. Barely out of his teens, lead singer Robinson and the Matadors were headlining acts in local Detroit venues. By 1958 and with an emerging partnership with songwriter Gordy under his belt, Robinson had once again changed his group's name, settling on the Miracles. Singles had been issued on two labels, but Robinson was urging Gordy to start up his own.
In 1959, Gordy founded Tamla Records, which would eventually become Motown Records. The Miracles were among Motown's first signees, and Robinson was taking in all that he could from impresario Gordy. After the 1960 release of "Shop Around," the first Motown hit to reach No. 1 on the R&B singles chart and the label's first million-selling album, the Miracles were legitimate players in Motown. Robinson was named vice president of the label in 1961, a position he would hold for more than a quarter century.
In addition to recording a string of hits through the 1960s, including "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Mickey's Monkey," "Ooo Baby Baby," "The Tracks of My Tears," and "I second That Emotion," Robinson wrote and produced hits for other members of the Motown family. Without Robinson's talent and vision, Mary Wells may never have told us about unconditional love in "My Guy" and Marvin Gaye would never have had a hit in "I'll Be Doggone."
Robinson, who appeared in VH-1's biopic of The Temptations, was a major contributor to the group's success, serving as their primary songwriter and producer from 1963 to 1966. Favorites like "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "My Girl," "Since I Lost My baby," and "Get Ready" are synonymous with the sounds of Motown.
Mainstream entertainers like Bob Dylan and the late John Lennon were just as quick to praise Robinson as black fans and entertainers did. Dylan called Robinson, who has more than 4,000 songs to his credit, "America's greatest living poet." Lennon, who rose to fame as a member of The Beatles, said in a 1969 interview that one of his favorite songs was The Miracles' "I've Been Good to You."
Niecy Davis, assistant programs director for Radio One in St. Louis, said Robinson was - and still is - an innovator.
"He was a huge factor in the Motown sound," Davis told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Smokey did a lot of the writing and what we now call A&R (for artist and repetoire) at Motown. He moved into management, and he's still doing it."
By the 1970s, Robinson wanted to leave the Miracles to dedicate time to family and business and focus on his solo career. His 1976 MP and single "Quiet Storm" was more than a song; it ushered in a new radio format -- a slow style of R&B that was a must for late-night listening. His other solo hits – 1979's "Cruisin," 1981's "Being With You," and "Ebony Eyes," a 1983 duet with Rick James are still jams that will make someone stop and sing along.
Today, Robinson is still a force in the industry. He was a featured judge in the most recent season of "American Idol;" he's proven that he's just as good in the kitchen as he is in the studio with SFGL Foods, a special brand of gumbo launched in 2004, and he was awarded a Kennedy Center honor in December 2006 for his contribution to the arts.
Robinson is a unique entertainer with whom today's artists and producers would have a hard time competing, Davis said.
"He is truly," she told BlackAmericaWeb.com, "a living legend."