Les Back on ‘Smokey’ Robinson and Love

tracks of my tears coverTracks of My Tears:  Motor City Poet, William ‘Smokey’ Robinson

During the 1960s Robinson led The Miracles, scoring hit after hit for Motown, Berry Gordy’s Detroit based label. “Some people write about social or political issues, I write about love: love never goes out of fashion,” said Smokey in 1992.  Among his 4,000 songs are seminal soul classics like My Girl by The Temptations and Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t That Peculiar.   These songs are not tales of male bragging or synthetic romance. Love in Smokey Robinson songs is often vulnerability, or, as Gillian Rose wrote, to putting one “at the mercy of others”.  Love is no dream-like mirage but a verb, a doing that grows and accumulates in caring for someone.

Laurie Taylor commented on his BBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed that, “It is probably a good idea… if you are a thorough going romantic to stay rather well away from social scientists on social occasions. I mean if you are truly in love the last person you want to speak to at your party is a relativist, someone who tells you your emotion is historically contingent.” Perhaps he is right, but, as feminist writers like Mary Evans argue, love is far from an eternal fact. Rather, a ‘romanticisation’ of love took place during the nineteenth century.  Evans also shows convincingly that romantic love was closely tied to processes of modernization, drawing on classical social theorists from Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas.  This modernization paradoxically freed love from its traditional normative structure but yet as the same time modern love – as a commodified and hedonistic personal entitlement – becomes less accessible.  Evans argues brilliantly that what is needed is an “unromantic discussion” in order to respond to the “hysteria of love” in contemporary culture. Or, maybe the DJ at Laurie Taylor’s hypothetical Valentine’s party is best advised to just play Smokey Robinson records all night long.

Born in Detroit on 19th February 1940 to African American parents, the infant Robinson had blonde hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. William’s great grandmother had been a white Frenchwoman and he inherited her green blue eyes.  The hospital’s nursery segregated infants into ‘black’ and ‘white.’  The nurses placed the Robinson’s child in the white nursery to the anguish of his father who couldn’t find him as result.  Smokey wrote in his biography Inside My Life: “Can you imagine the stupidity of segregating little babies? And the nurses – black and white – were giggling behind Mama’s, figuring that this black woman had just given birth to a white baby.”  His father would not tolerate their racism and as a result Smokey wrote “my own birth made minor social history”.

As a child, William was fixated with cowboy movies.  After one trip to the cinema his Uncle asked him “How’d like the picture Smokey Joe?”  Thinking it was a reference to the picture, the boy adopted Smokey as his new nickname.   But his Uncle’s ironic aside contained a deeper message.  Dark-skinned black people in Detroit were often called ‘smokey’.  William – still blonde-haired and blue-eyed – was anything but ‘smokey.’ He later reflected “in doing this he was saying don’t ever forget you’re black.”

He grew up in a working-class black neighbourhood in a house where the Victrola record player served up regular portions of Sarah Vaughan, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine.  Intoxicated by the tight harmonies of doo-wop, he formed a group with neighbourhood buddies Ronnie White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and Claudette Rogers, whom he would later marry.

Their big break came in August 1957 when one of Jackie Wilson’s managers offered the group of five 17 year olds an audition.  They failed to impress anyone except a young songwriter who just happened to be passing by.  Berry Gordy had written Jackie Wilson’s hits ‘Reet Petite’ and ‘Lonely Teardrops.’  Gordy saw potential in Smokey’s gift for wordplay. So began one of the most lasting and productive relationships in the history of popular music.  Gordy was the mentor:  Smokey the eager student.  Gordy’s unflinching criticism gave the young songwriter discipline, focus, lyricism and coherence.

The first record was Got a Job that was an answer to the Silhouettes hit Get a Job.  Released on February 19th 1958 it signalled the arrival of the group – re-named The Miracles – and the beginning of a soul music dynasty.  Berry received a cheque for a meagre $3.19 which included producer’s fee, publishing income, writer’s and artists’ royalties.   He decided to start his own record label for the next Miracles record and Motown was born.

The Miracles first real smash hit came in 1960.  Gordy had been unsatisfied with the slow shuffle Shoparound.  In the early hours of the morning he suddenly cracked the arrangement by changing the tempo.  He called the Miracles at 3.00am to come in and re-cut the record.  There was no piano player available, so Gordy played the song and it was the label’s first million seller.  It takes the form of a message of pragmatic advice from a mother to her son about being cautious and practical in matters of love.

The Miracles’ ‘Shoparound’:

The early records bore all the traces of Smokey’s love of doo-wop.  Their tight vocal harmonies and Smokey’s high searing lead soon evolved into a unique style.   Many thought that Smokey was a woman.  This misconception was reinforced during one tour when Smokey was hospitalised in Washington D.C. with Asian flu and the Miracles continued with Claudette singing his lead parts.  Recuperating in Detroit Smokey called to Berry Gordy on the telephone, he said:  “Hey, man, they are loving you in Georgia… They think Smokey’s a girl!”

As Smokey matured as a songwriter the group found its own unique voice.  His love songs are complex, particularly around questions of gender. He drew on the things he learned from his mother. “Mama taught in proverbs, parables and poetry,” he remembered.  Through his mother’s voice he developed sensitivity to a woman’s point of view, which resonates through many of these songs. Motown as a working environment was – if not feminist – still open to women at all levels.  “Berry… believed in women, not just as secretaries, but as executives,” remembered Smokey.  “His first two vice presidents were women, Raynoma and Loucye. Through the years women played a major role in running the company.”

Essential to The Miracles’ musical development was their relationship with guitarist Marv Tarplin.  Smokey met Tarplin through a young singer from the neighbourhood called Diana Ross. He agreed to introduce her to Berry Gordy if he could use her guitarist.  Tarplin possessed a style that was mellow and percussive but packed a funky punch.  Together they composed tunes like I Like it Like That and Tracks of My Tears, and gave black music a new shape combining soul poetry with subtle rhythmic accompaniment.  Also, Tarplin’s guitar sound gave Smokey’s lyrics a unique counterpoint expressed particularly in Tracks of My Tears, which reached Number 2 on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1965.

Tracks of My Tears: http://vimeo.com/24706618

Ruined love is marked on the face of the song’s protagonist worn by a freshet of tears but the gendering of the male protagonist isn’t fixed. When Smokey sings “my smile is my make-up I wear since my break up with you,” the character in the song is gendered ambiguously.  Smokey also recounts in his biography encountering homophobia. One specific case took place in a tailor shop in Philadelphia.  A man recognized the singer and proclaimed loudly to everyone in the shop: “I think he’s a faggot. With a voice like that, he’s got to be a faggot.” A violent confrontation is provoked, which left Smokey feeling “foolish for fighting for my manhood.”

By mid-sixties the band became Smokey Robinson and the Miracles as recognition of its leader’s gift.  Smokey’s ability as a songwriter now overshadowed his mentor Berry Gordy. Smokey wrote hit after hit for The Temptations, including the It’s Growing, The Way You Do the Things You Do, Get Ready, Ain’t too Proud to Beg, Since I lost My Baby and the epic My Girl which was penned while the Temptations and the Miracles were playing a week at the Apollo theatre in New York.  He also wrote tunes for Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, The Four Tops and The Supremes.  Gordy acknowledged his contribution by making him Vice President of Motown.

By 1969 Smokey was tired of touring and wanted to leave The Miracles.  It took him another three years to create the right conditions for his departure.  After a short recording hiatus he started a solo career.  By now the industry had changed.  Motown had been built in an era when the producer was king but by the seventies it was the age of the artist.  Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Talkin Book signaled this shift.  Smokey struggled to find his place in this new world.  He turned his attention to his abiding theme:  love.  The result was a series of stunning adult soul records the best of which is A Quiet Storm released in 1975.  The record combined Marv Tarplin’s atmospheric guitar with fables of love at the dark end of the street.

In her book All About Loving, bell hooks argues that all forms of oppression destroy love – patriarchy, domestic violence, racism and class exploitation.  She recalls Eric Fromm who wrote in The Art of Loving, “the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible.”  We need look no further than Martin Scorsese’s portrait of narcotic capitalism in the Wolf of Wall Street – and Jordan Belfort’s nihilistic emotional life – for confirmation of Fromm’s diagnosis. Like Mary Evans, she is skeptical of the confinements for women of patriarchal romance.

At the same time bell hooks makes an impassioned case for holding to a love ethic, one that is inspired equally by Martin Luther King’s sermons and feminist commitments.  She writes, “Love is action, a participatory emotion,” “Trust is the heartbeat of genuine love” and “To love fully and deeply puts us at risk. When we love we are changed utterly.”  These aphorisms read to me like Smokey Robinson lyrics; they are – I would suggest – in the same affective and political key.

In one passage bell hooks recounts an encounter with female rapper Lil’ Kim, who she had agreed to interview: “I found it fascinating that she [Kim] had no interest in love. While she spoke articulately about the lack of love in her life, the topic that most galvanized her attention was making money.”  The rejection of love and the embrace of material wealth is the flip side of the commodification of romance.  Both impulses damage love’s redeeming and healing potential.

The art of loving advocated by hooks is not confined to one person alone, rather it is also circulated and routed within wider communities.  Her conclusion offers a bold new vision: “No matter how hard or terrible our lot in life, to choose against lovelessness – to choose love – we can listen to the voices of hope that speak to us, that speak to our hearts – the voices of angels.” Then, in my mind, I hear the languid melodies of Marv Tarplin’s guitar, and Smokey Robinson sings in his high falsetto, I second that emotion.


Evans, Mary Love: An Unromantic Discussion (Polity Press, 2003)

hooks, bell All About Loving: New Visions (The Women’s Press Ltd, 2000)

Robinson, Smokey with David Ritz Smokey: Inside My Life (Headline Book Publishing, 1989)

Robinson, Smokey: Inside My Life

Taylor, Laurie from BBC Radion 4, Thinking Allowed Special on Romantic Love, 1st January, 2014.



Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

In 1998, TCS published a Special on Love & Eroticism (TCS 15.3, August 1998), edited and introduced by Mike Featherstone. Read the whole issue here (available for free until 14th March)

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