The Motown musical genius Smokey Robinson—the man whom Bob Dylan famously called America’s “greatest living poet”—turns 75 today. In a career of astonishing longevity spanning more than half a century and with hits too numerous to list, he has given pleasure to millions throughout the world.
As such, it is only fitting that we pause to celebrate this titan’s remarkable achievements and pay homage to a venerable living legend, his musical legacy and what he has bequeathed to the American cultural landscape over the last 50 years.
Who has not dolefully sung along to “Tracks of My Tears” while brokenhearted and thinking of a recent ex? Who has not merrily tapped his or her fingers against the steering wheel, window down, sun shining, while driving to the languorous “Cruisin’” or turned up the radio to serenade a beloved with the mellifluous “Being With You”?
Born William Robinson in Detroit in 1940, as a child he was given the sobriquet “Smokey” by his uncle because of his penchant for watching Westerns.
The Motown record label, founded by Berry Gordy in 1959 (and where Robinson served as vice president for 20 years) owes much of its success to Smokey. With his group the Miracles, Smokey almost single-handedly revolutionized popular black music in the racially polarized 1960s. His angelic voice and prodigious songwriting talents were the bedrock of Gordy’s groundbreaking empire for decades. The up-tempo beat of “My Girl,” the romantic declarations of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” the yearning of “Just to See Her,” the elegiac tones of “Tears of a Clown,” the trenchant social commentary of “Just My Soul Responding”—all are great songs that uplift, educate and entertain, combining delicate poetic sensibilities, beautiful melodies and harmonious refrains.
Former lovers, spouses and ex-girlfriends have all made their way into his music. From teenage crushes and ephemeral infatuations to illicit affairs, Smokey’s songs articulate with nuance the anguish, pain, loss, regret, carnality, joy, spiritual elevation and contentment that love can bring. His are no cloying or trite emotions but, rather, genuinely heartfelt feelings. Tender, passionate, replete with realism and hope, love in all its guises is dissected by Smokey with majestic aplomb and a deftness of touch that has never been surpassed.
Moreover, his psychologically astute lyrics transcend race and express the amorous plight of millions, regardless of color. People of all backgrounds have drawn from his songs sustenance, support, insight and delight—thus emphasizing our common humanity.
Then there is his voice. Dulcet and gilded, it caresses your soul with its emotional intimacy. His was no deep, Barry White growl, nor a raw, Teddy Pendergrass sensuality, but an alluring, ethereal balm.
Smokey gave us ballads for the boudoir and the brain, with a lyrical content that spoke to both the heart and the head with sincerity, profundity and urgency. With his famously green eyes and cherubic good looks, Smokey is a modern-day black Cupid. His brilliance gave us songs for each occasion and, in so doing, gifted us the soundtrack to our lives. No other singer has had such an effect on the amorous consciousness of this country.
Such has been Smokey’s iconic influence on later generations of musicians that even Big Daddy Kane famously reminded us, in his 1991 hit “Ooh, Aah, Nah-Nah-Nah,” “that any MC tryin’ to be this lyrical should go ask Smokey Robinson for a Miracle”—high praise indeed from one of the greatest rappers of all time.
Today Smokey’s songs are, sadly, testaments to a bygone golden era of soulful music. When nowadays so much hip-hop and R&B pulsates with profanity and lyrics that callously degrade women, glorify violence and revere thuggery, irresponsibly extolling a culture of instant material and sexual gratification, it is a tragedy that more modern music has not inherited Smokey’s ear for love and his talent for lyricism devoid of Oedipal expletives, misogyny and aggression.
Today, Smokey, as you turn 75, we both thank you and salute you—for the music, the memories and the pride. With your timeless, universal and sublime songs, you are our Catullus, our Petrarch and our Shakespeare rolled into one.
The famous Virgilian motto “Love conquers all” serves to describe the indomitable power of the greatest human emotion as well as it epitomizes the potent, underlying message of your life-affirming music. Happy birthday, black Cupid!
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.