Without William Robinson, a.k.a. "Smokey," there might never have been a Motown and Motown might never have earned the title of Hitsville USA. One of pop music's influetnial and significant singers, songwriters and producers - Bob Dylan called him "America's greatest living poet" and others have anointed him as "the poet laureate of soul music" - Robinson racked up more than two doezen Top 40 pop hits with the Miracles in the sixties and early seventies and helped write and/or produce some of Motown's most popular songs for other artists, from the Temptations ("My Girl," "Get Ready," "The Way You Do The Things You Do") to Mary Wells ("My Guy") and the Marvelettes ("Don't Mess With Bill" ) to Marvin Gaye ("Ain't That Peculiar"). As a performer, his emotionally charged tenor marked a handful of the most romantic pop songs of all time, from "Ooo Baby Baby," "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" (which The Beatles covered in 1963) and "More Love" to "The Tracks of My Tears," "I Second That Emotion" and "The Tears Of A Clown." The latter was a number one hit on both the R&B and pop charts in 1970.
Robinson made his final concert appearance with the Miracles in Washington D.C. on July 16, 1972, leaving at first to focus on his vice president duties at Motown. Encouraged to strike out on his own - and bored with the paperwork - Smokey launched his solo career a year later with the Top 40 R&B "Sweet Harmony," a wistful tribute to his former group. He has since blazed a trail of smooth sounds and sweet harmonies that has helped redefine "adult contemporary." In fact, the title track of his 1975 album A Quiet Storm inspired an entire genre of adult contemporary music; the phrase was adopted by radio programmers to describe a style of sophisticated R&B/pop love songs. Robinson issued one classic album after another; the first few yielded the Top 10 R&B hits "Baby Come Close" and "I Am I Am." Smokin', a live double-album released in 1979, beautifully encapsulated his career to that point. That same year Smokey scored his first major solo pop success with the slow jam "Cruisin'," a number four R&B and Pop smash developed by his long-time guitarist Marv Tarplin. He followed it in 1980 with "Let Me Be The Clock" (number four R&B/Top 40 Pop) and his biggest solo hit, the gold "Being With You" from the gold album of the same name. Smokey had written it with Kim Carnes in mind; she'd had a hit with a cover of "More Love" that year. But Smokey was convinced to do it himself and the record went number one R&B, number two Pop and number four Adult Contemporary.
In 1982 he lent his sophistication to the dance track "Tell Me Tomorrow" (number three R&B/Top 40 Pop) and next year hit Top 10 R&B again with the timeless "I've Made Love To You A Thousand Times." "Just To See Her," released in 1987, brought Smokey's falsetto into the Pop Top 10 for the first time in six years. It also reached number two R&B and number one adult contemporary, and was immediately followed by another smash, "One Heartbeat" (number three R&B/number ten Pop /number two Adult Contemporary).
Among other chart hits in the eighties was the R&B Top 20 "Ebony Eyes," a duet with Rick James; Kenny G's number four Adult Contemporary hit "We've Saved The Best For Last," on which Smokey was the guest vocalist. In 1990, "Everything You Touch, " culled from Love, Smokey, Smokey's last album for Motown at the time, hit the R&B Top 5. By then Motown had been sold to MCA and Smokey had resigned the vice presidency of the company, a position he had held since 1961. He left in 1991 and recorded the album Double Good Everything on SBK, which featured the title track, a minor hit.
After working for years honing a new album with Berry Gordy executive producing, he returned home to Motown in 1999 with the critically acclaimed Intimate. the album also kicked off a late-night syndicated radio show hosted by Smokey. In the '00s, he issued a new gospel album and a holiday disc, and then moved to Universal Music's New Door Records in 2006 for the GRAMMY-nominated Timeless Love, putting his indelible stamp on jazz, big band and traditional pop standards of the twenties, thirties and forties.
In 1987, Robinson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year, the British band ABC recorded a tribute song called "When Smokey Sings" (Everything's good in the world tonight/When Smokey sings") that went to Top 10 Pop the same week Robinson scored with "Just To See Her." In 1990, he was celebrated as a charter winner of the GRAMMY Living Legend Award for his ongoing contributions and influence in music, and in 1999 was presented with a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and was inducted into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame in June 2008.
At the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2006, that group wrote of Smokey Robinson's musical legacy: "Impressive by any standards as a string of hits, taken together they add up to a body of work that has transformed and defined American music across any pop, soul, R&B, or Rock and Roll divide... Everybody loved his songs, everybody still does."