By the early ’70s, Smokey Robinson had been the lead singer of the Miracles since the late ‘50s, recording such classics as “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Shop Around,” and “Tears of a Clown.” In many ways, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were one of the indelible faces of early Motown but as late as the late ’60s, Robinson reportedly wanted to move on; he had many other responsibilities, from his family life and his work as Motown’s vice-president. Following a brief break, Robinson officially left the Miracles in 1972 and embarked his solo career. At first, it didn’t seem easy; but Robinson’s talent and song craft made his solo work just as engaging as that from his earlier career.
Robinson’s first solo album, 1973’s Smokey, found him responding to the changes in R&B music as well as becoming more introspective like many of his contemporaries. The album contained interesting songs like the hit “Baby Come Close,” as well as album tracks like “Silent Partner in a Three Way Love Affair” and the medley of “Never My Love/Never Can Say Goodbye.” Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin had left the group to join Robinson, and his sedulous guitar lines appeared on many of Robinson’s solo efforts. In late 1973, Robinson appeared on Soul Train and did three songs from the album: “Just My Soul Responding,” “Sweet Harmony,” and an especially memorable live version of “Baby Come Close.”
Smokey Robinson released Pure Smokey in 1974. This album got Robinson a bit closer to finding a signature solo sound and the album’s single, “Iam Iam,” was a midrange hit. Robinson’s next album, A Quiet Storm, delivered on the initial promise at the beginning of his solo career. The album’s first single, “Baby That’s Backatcha,” hit #1 on the R&B charts. The rest of A Quiet Storm had some of Robinson’s strongest and most direct songs, such as “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “The Wedding Song.” The album’s most popular song, “A Quiet Storm,” boasted a powerful yet subdued sound that helped to define a R&B radio format.
In 1976, Robinson released the so-so Smokey Family Robinson and although the album was a top 10 R&B effort, the work paled in comparison to its predecessor. By the mid- to late ’70s, Robinson had started to have commercial issues. Albums like Deep In My Soul, the soundtrack for Big Time, and Love Breeze were all so-so sellers despite the often great work they contained. Robinson made three appearances on Soul Train in support for each album and remained a potent live act. Tamla released the double album Smokin in 1978, which was a snapshot of Robinson’s shows of the period.
1979’s Where There’s Smoke found Robinson regaining his knack for making hits and was a work of honesty and maturity. The album’s single, “Cruisin’,” was Robinson’s biggest hit in years and made the top 5 of both the R&B and pop charts. The rest of the album was just as good, with the strong ballad “The Hurt’s On You” and Stevie Wonder’s effervescent and charming “I Love the Nearness of You.” Robinson also included a disco version of his classic “Get Ready.” Throughout Where There’s Smoke and his subsequent efforts of the time, Robinson’s voice had broadened and he became an even more expressive and interesting singer.
Robinson followed up Where There’s Smoke with the even better Warm Thoughts in early 1980, which include such romantic classics as “I Want to Be Your Love,” “Travelin’ Thru,” and “What’s In Your Life For Me.” During this era, Soul Train saluted Robinson’s successful career with a 1980 episode entitled Soul Train Salutes Smokey Robinson. In the episode, Robinson sang new songs like “Cruisin'” and “Into Each Rain Some Life Must Fall,” and duetted with Aretha Franklin for a too-brief piano version of “Ooh Baby Baby.”
In the ‘80s, Robinson was in the midst of a triumphant comeback and became a ubiquitous presence on television, video, and on the radio. In 1981, Robinson paired with producer George Tobin for the album Being With You. Although the album was a bit more pop-oriented, “Being With You” became a #1 R&B single and a much-played video. The song was so popular he even recorded a Spanish version of the song, “Aqui Con Tigo,” which also received a fair amount of airplay.
By this point, Robinson was one of the most popular R&B and pop singers of the day. Solid and mature albums like Yes It’s You Lady and Touch the Sky soon followed. Robinson released a video for the enjoyable “Old Fashioned Love” and the suave “Tell Me Tomorrow.” While his solo career was in full swing, Robinson appeared with the Miracles for NBC’s broadcast Motown 25, and the group (including original member and Robinson’s ex-wife, Claudette Robinson) sang some of their hits including “Going to a Go-Go” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
In 1983, Motown issued Blame It On Love All of The Great Hits, an odd compilation with three new songs. Robinson’s duet with Rick James, “Ebony Eyes,” also earned raves during this time. Not long after, Robinson’s career began to take a turn thanks to his battle with cocaine addiction. The low-selling Essar seemed to exemplify the time, and only the likable “I Can’t Find” displayed Robinson’s inimitable trademark wordplay.
Despite his issues, Robinson was still a constant presence in entertainment. He appeared on NBC’s Motown Returns to the Apollo and joined George Michael on stage for a version of “Careless Whisper.” In the summer of 1985, Robinson was the host of NBC’s Motown Revue and also did a stint on Broadway. Smoke Signals was released in 1986 and sadly, most of the work showed the strain of the issues Robinson had been dealing with. A little bit later, Robinson beat his cocaine addiction and regained his chart-topping expertise.
In 1987, Motown president Berry Gordy got Smokey on a new program that included new management, and Robinson rebounded quickly. His label, Tamla, shuttered, so Robinson’s work appeared on Motown. That year, Robinson scored big hits with the pop and AC #1 hit “One Heartbeat” and “Just To See Her,” earning his first Grammy Award for the latter. In ’87, Robinson made a triumphant return to Soul Train and performed “One Heartbeat,” “Just To See Her,” and “What’s Too Much?”
Robinson stepped down from his duties as vice-president of Motown in 1988 and in 1989, released Love Smokey. The effort spurred the top 5 R&B and pop chart hit, “Everything You Touch.”
Smokey Robinson received a Grammy Legend Award in 1990, then left Motown in 1991. He signed to SBK, the label best known for acts like Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips. Robinson released Double Good Everything to little acclaim and produced a video for the cutesy title single.
In 1998, Smokey Robinson appeared as himself in the NBC miniseries The Temptations and
sang “Really Gonna Miss You” in a particularly emotional scene. He returned to Motown in 1999 for the album Intimate, his first effort in close to a decade. Although the album fell short of expectations, songs like the smooth ballad “Love Love Again” retained the spark of the best of his solo work. In 2001, Motown Records released The Solo Anthology, a 2–CD, 32-song set that covered Robinson’s solo career from 1973-1990.
Robinson’s the gospel effort, Food For the Spirit, emerged in 2004 and in 2006, he made good on a promise outlined in his 1989 autobiography Smokey: Inside My Life and released a CD of romantic standards. Timeless Love, which was issued on New Door Records, was a collection of classics such as “Night and Day” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” as well as his original song, “I Love Your Face.” 2009’s Time Flies While You’re Having Fun was also a well-received effort. In 2014, Robinson released Smokey and Friends, an album where guest stars like Elton John, John Legend, and James Taylor joined Robinson to croon his classics with.
Smokey Robinson continues to record and tour and remains one of music’s national treasures.
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.