It was the end of an era 50 years ago today. That night in 1972 was when Smokey Robinson left the Miracles, with them doing their last regular concert together after being together for about 17 years. It was doubtless an emotional time for them…and for Motown Records, because in many ways, Smokey Robinson had “made” Motown.
The Miracles had formed as a more or less equal partnership of five teenage friends at Detroit’s Northern High School back in 1955. Back then they were known as the Five Chimes. After a few lineup changes, including adding member Bobby Rogers sister, Claudette, they’d become The Miracles.
Motown’s Berry Gordy saw them at a record tryout in 1957 and was impressed. Only back then he wasn’t yet “Motown’s Berry Gordy”. He was just an eager, energetic music fan with dreams. He particularly liked Robinson’s voice and was impressed by a notebook Smokey showed him full of songs he’d written. They formed a partnership of sorts, and Gordy paid for them to record a single. It went largely unnoticed, and they had trouble getting it released, so Robinson suggested Berry form his own record company…which he did, of course. Motown, and its companion brand, Tamla Records.
The Miracles had Motown’s first single, “Bad Girl”, but since the company was just a fledgling unknown outside of Detroit at the time, they had to get Chess Records to distribute it. It didn’t do much. But fast forward just a couple of years and lots was happening.
Smokey had married Claudette, and the group hit it big with “Shop Around,” a song written largely by Robinson. It got to #2 in the U.S. and earned Motown its first gold record. Detroit was on the map for something besides automobiles.
The ’60s were good to the Miracles, and to Motown. The group would grab 11 more top 20 hits in the decade, including “I Second That Emotion”, which topped the R&B charts. And unlike the majority of the Motown stars, The Miracles – primarily Smokey – wrote most of their own hits. They even wrote for some of the label’s other stars, including hits for The Temptations (“My Girl”) , Mary Wells (“My Guy”) and Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar.”) By the middle of the decade, it’s reported they were being paid over $100 000 a night for concerts…a huge amount at the time. No wonder Berry Gordy loved them, particularly Robinson.
In 1964, he named Smokey Vice President of Motown; around the same time Gordy changed the act’s name to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Also then, Claudette quit touring with the Miracles due to the stress it was putting on her which had probably been responsible for some miscarriages she’d gone through. She did continue to add backing vocals to the records though, until her husband left the group.
Which he wanted to do by 1969. He was getting tired of it, wanted to settle down with the family and devote more time to the office work at Motown. But he was talked out of it, partly because in 1970 ABC gave them a prime-time TV special and they had their first-ever #1 hit on Billboard – “The Tears of A Clown”, which also went to #1 in the UK.
However, about a year later, he’d really had enough so they arranged a farewell tour for early 1972. It was a six month tour Pete Moore of the Miracles remembers as “it was amazing.” They played largely sold out shows, wrapping it up in Washington DC at the 4200-seat Carter Barron Ampitheater.
For this one, Claudette returned to the stage with them and they rolled through many of their own hits plus covers of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” and label-mate Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be there.” Near the end of the show, Smokey brought out Baltimore singer Billy Griffin and introduced him as the replacement singer. Much of the concert was released on CD as part of the Miracles Live Collection.
From there they went their separate ways. The Miracles, with Griffin, continued on for much of the decade, even scoring one #1 hit in 1975 with “Love Machine.” Smokey settled in, briefly, at Motown’s new offices in L.A. But he soon found that boring. He says of playing live it’s “probably my favorite part of this. Because I get a chance to be with the fans and react to them, have them react to us.” So by 1973, he was recording a solo album. He kept busy recording but didn’t really fit the times, it seemed until 1979 when he got to the top 10 with “Cruisin’”; in ’81 he’d do even better with “Being With You” a lovely ballad that went gold and to #1 in the UK and New Zealand and #2 at home.
The Miracles got back together, Smokey included, for a one-off in 1983, when they took part in the Motown 25 TV show, the one which famously introduced Michael Jackson’s “moon walk” to the masses.
Smokey Robinson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their second group of inductees, in 1987. That wasn’t without some controversy because it ignored The Miracles, where he’d made his name and had some of his best-loved, most successful works. Pete Moore of the Miracles said “it was a slap in the face. Very disappointing. We are the premier group of Motown. We were there before there was a Motown!” That was corrected in 2012, when The Miracles as a group were inducted, after extensive lobbying from Robinson and others.