he Miracles' saga began in 1955, in a Detroit junior high. Ronnie White and Pete Moore, who'd known each other since kindergarten, formed a vocal group with Bobby Rogers and thirteen-year-old William "Smokey" Robinson. Smokey brought along his girlfriend, Claudette, who in 1959, became his wife.
For four years, the Matadors (as they were called) polished their singing style, appearing locally whenever they could. In search of a break, they eventually auditioned for Jackie Wilson's manager. He was not impressed with what he heard, but there was a man in the audience who was -- an up-and-coming songwriter-producer, Berry Gordy.
Gordy was impressed by the fact that the group did not attempt to emulate other artists, but presented original material in their unique way. He took the five under his wing, and gave Smokey a few pointers on composition. In 1958, they began recording under a new name -- the Miracles.
Not much happened until late 1960, when "Shop Around" put the Miracles and Gordy's new label on the musical map. It was the first million-seller for both, and over the next dozen years, there were many more hits, among them "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Mickey's Monkey" (1963), "Ooh Baby Baby" and "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965), "I Second That Emotion" (1967), "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" (1969), and their first number one single, "The Tears of a Clown" (1970). Smokey wrote or co-wrote nearly all of the 43 songs charted by the Miracles between 1959 and 1973.
Soulful lyrics, intricate harmony, and Smokey's soft, caressing tenor helped make the Miracles one of the best-loved of all sixties groups. They were a cornerstone of the Motown empire, and played a major part in erasing the color barrier in popular music. By 1973, they were a rock 'n' roll legend -- and that's when Smokey decided to bail out.
"We'd been doing it for seventeen years," he said, "and with the traveling and the hotels and the food -- I had really had it."
So, in the summer of 1973, there was a farewell tour, ending with the introduction of Smokey's replacement. He was William "Bubbey" Griffin, who'd grown up in Baltimore idolizing the Miracles. Griffin was chosen because, in his own words, "I looked and sang like Smokey."
"We were not in demand at all," recalled Pete Moore. "Promoters and bookers thought the Miracles without Smokey weren't very potent. We played some nice engagements, but also some places that weren't so nice. The thing is, we wanted to work, so we did 'em. We were just waiting for the hit that would change it all."
"As writers, we really hadn't done anything since Bill joined the group," explained Pete. "We concentrated on getting him acclimated. Our next album, though, was completely written by Bill and me."
That album was City of Angels, an ambitious concept work. Its loose theme was "life in Los Angeles."
"We wanted to make sure all the songs on the album could stand alone," he said. "We didn't want to tie them too closely, so that if one was pulled as a 45, it wouldn't need the others to make sense. We did, though, make sure that all the songs were played in sequence.
"One of the characters in the story was a guy named Michael, who becomes an L.A. superstar. When he does, he describes himself by singing the song "Love Machine.'"
In early October 1975, Motown split "Love Machine" in half, and released it as two sides of a single. Part 1 took off almost immediately, steadily climbing to the top of the charts in February 1976. In all, it spent more than six months on the best-seller list, and ironically -- without Smokey -- became the Miracles' biggest hit.
In 1977, Billy Griffin was replaced by his brother Donald, but the Miracles disbanded in the late seventies. They have reappeared in concert and on records in recent years, sometimes including Claudette Robinson, whom Smokey divorced in 1985. Smokey had a few more hits for Motown after leaving the Miracles, among them "Cruisin'" in 1979 and "Being with You" in 1981, but he eventually left the label in 1990. He has received the Grammy's Living Legend Award and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Miracles in 1987.
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