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Born: February 19, 1940
Biography: Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, but one could argue that Smokey Robinson was the man who first pushed America's most iconic soul music label toward greatness. As the leader of the Miracles, Robinson was one of the very first artists signed to the fledgling label in 1959, and while he racked up many hits for it with the Miracles and as a solo act, Robinson was also an invaluable behind-the-scenes talent who wrote songs, produced records, scouted and groomed talent, and served as a vice president at Motown from 1961 to 1988. Robinson is one of the most iconic figures in American R&B; his work helped defined pop-oriented soul, his lush, romantic R&B ballads literally gave quiet storm its name, and no less an authority than Bob Dylan has called Robinson "America's greatest living poet."
William Robinson, Jr. was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 19, 1940. He grew up in Detroit's Brewster housing project, and picked up the nickname "Smokey Joe" from his Uncle Claude, which quickly stuck. Robinson first developed an interest in music by investigating his mother's record collection, which included classic sides by Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. Robinson's mother died when he was ten, and since his father was frequently on the road making his living as a truck driver, young Smokey was looked after by his older sister Geraldine, and in his early teens he began singing, performing in informal doo wop groups with his friends.
In 1955, Robinson assembled a vocal group called the Five Chimes, which featured his schoolmates Clarence Dawson, James Grice, Pete Moore, and Ronald White. In 1956, the group adopted a new name, the Matadors, after Dawson left and Emerson Rogers took his place, and a year later, Rogers and James Grice left the lineup, and Claudette Rogers and Bobby Rogers (respectively Emerson Rogers' sister and cousin) stepped in. With their new co-ed lineup, the name the Matadors was considered a poor fit, and they began calling themselves the Miracles. A guitarist, Marv Tarplin, joined the act in 1958, and the Miracles began making a name for themselves on Detroit's R&B scene.
In 1958, Robinson met Berry Gordy, a Detroit-based songwriter who had penned several hits for Jackie Wilson and was looking to make a name for himself in the music business. Gordy was impressed with the Miracles and Robinson's talents as a songwriter; he helped the band land a deal with End Records, and the Miracles released their first single, "Got a Job" (an answer song to the Silhouettes' hit "Get a Job") later that year. While the single sold well in Detroit, it didn't make much noise nationally, and follow-ups on End and Chess fared no better. Robinson believed he and Gordy could do better themselves, and he urged Gordy to follow through on his idea of forming his own label. The Miracles became the first act signed to Gordy's new record company, Motown, and in 1960, their song "Shop Around," written by Robinson, was the first Motown single to become a nationwide hit. [Read more via AllMusic here]