When Motown’s big female stars walked through the door that Claudette Robinson had opened for them, they looked up to her as the example of how to carry themselves. As she looks back on a musical life than even pre-dates the formation of Berry Gordy’s company, the co-founding member of the Miracles does so with affection — and, perhaps, a greater latter-day realization of what she helped to achieve.
Proud to be known as the First Lady of Motown, Claudette was indeed the first woman to be signed by Gordy, as the Miracles debuted with “Got A Job” in 1958, before his new label even had a name. She seized the chance to share her memories as part of Motown’s 60th anniversary celebrations of 2019, which included a world premiere on September 30 of the acclaimed Hitsville: The Making Of Motown documentary, simulcast to cinemas throughout the UK.
“Three of our members [Ronnie White, Pete Moore and Claudette’s cousin Bobby Rogers] are no longer with us, so I stand for them,” said the singer, who was a group member from 1957 to 1972. She was married to co-founder Smokey Robinson from 1959 to 1986, and told us that she was happy to reminisce “so that people can remember how important [the Miracles] were to the formation of the company.”
Claudette was born in New Orleans, but moved with her family to Detroit when she was eight. She sang in talent contests but, as a young teenager, was convinced her future lay outside of music. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I could be a professional singer,” she said. “I always loved to sing, since I was three or four years old. But I was also very reserved.
‘I could have been behind the curtain and I would have loved it just as much’
“I wasn’t one of those people that had to be seen. I could have been behind the curtain and I would have loved it just as much. I just never had that ‘I’ve got to be out front, I want everybody to see me.’ That wasn’t my personality. I thought I could do just as much, perhaps more, by being background, as they say, standing back, whatever.”
Motown lovers are familiar with the story of the Miracles’ first meeting, in 1957, with an aspiring businessman, roughly a decade older than them at 27, called Berry Gordy Jr. At an audition, which they failed, in front of Jackie Wilson’s manager, they happened to run into Gordy, who was starting a successful songwriting role for the great R&B showman. Smokey was fronting the Matadors, which had featured another of Claudette’s brothers, Emerson “Sonny” Rogers, until his military service; she served in their sister group, the Matadorettes.
A small defeat on that day concealed a life-changing encounter. “We played original songs [at the audition] and I think that’s what caught Mr. Gordy’s ear,” said Claudette. “He said ‘Do you have any more of those songs?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How many?’ We said ‘A hundred.’ He told Smokey that a song had to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it can’t be all over the place. I always say that was Smokey’s first professional songwriting lesson. After we finished, [Gordy] asked if we would like to work with him, and the guys said yes, so I just kind of went along with it.”
But what if Claudette had opted to stay with the Matadorettes? “We probably would have broken up and gone on with our individual careers of what we had aspirations for,” she says. “I wanted to be a schoolteacher, so I believe that’s probably where I would have directed my attention and my education.”
The teaching profession’s loss was our gain. As “Got A Job” prompted a name change to the Miracles, the five vocalists, augmented by guitarist Marv Tarplin, began the momentum that would put them in the Motown vanguard for years to come. They didn’t chart nationally for the first time until 1959’s “Bad Girl,” issued locally by the nascent Motown but licensed to the greater countrywide force of Chess Records. But by 1960 and the million-selling “Shop Around,” Gordy’s operation was moving up through the gears, Smokey’s songwriting muscle was developing fast and the Miracles were becoming a national name.
“The guys took care of me like their little sister,” said Claudette with great fondness of her years on the road with the group. “I became Smokey’s wife, Bobby of course was my cousin and Ronnie and Pete became friends. They always treated me like a lady. They never disrespected me, and my experience in showbusiness was so different from so many young ladies that have been on the road. The guys really looked out for me.
“It was limited for women,” she reflected. “There were always more guys, even back in the days when we would do amateur shows. If the girls were on the show and the guys were on the show, almost never did the girls win.”
The intrinsic obligation to conduct yourself in the correct way was as much a part of the Motown message as the music itself. Under the guidance of artist development executive Maxine Powell, the former head of her own finishing school, the Miracles were early ambassadors of that edict.
‘If you want to know how to be a lady, watch Claudette’
Recalled Claudette: “Some of the young ladies that have been on the roster of the company have told me that Mrs. Powell said to them, ‘If you want to know how to be a lady, watch Claudette.’ I am more than happy that I didn’t know of that until after the fact,” she laughed. “I would have been thinking ‘They’re going to kill me!’ But the first person to tell me that was Kim Weston.”
In 1964, Claudette retired from the touring group, but as she describes it, “was retired” would be more accurate. “I wanted to stay on the road, I did not want to come off,” she said firmly. “Mr. Gordy and Mr. Robinson made that decision for me, I didn’t have a choice. My guys, Bobby, Ronnie and Pete, they would not vote for me. We always said our organization was such that you voted, and they were like, ‘No, that’s personal, it’s family.’ I said ‘No, it’s business.’ I felt like that was not fair to me.
“I guess they felt ‘Well, you’re going to sing on all the records,’ but then I missed the camaraderie, as well as the many fans we had and the relationships I had built over the years. After you’ve done it for about eight years, it becomes part of you. But I will say that I met many wonderful people over the years, and many of them are still my friends today.
“But we had some rough times, especially in the early days,” she went on. “Sometimes I look at that and think, ‘How did I make it as the lone female?’ We had five guys in the car originally, the four singers as well as Marv Tarplin. You would travel in your car, not a plane, a bus or a station wagon. We went from place to place to place.” She adds with another chuckle: “The one saving grace? Youth.”
Robinson views the Miracles’ achievements as a combination of intuition and hard work. “I always tell people practise, practise, practise. But I think a lot of our harmony was sort of natural. When we would get together – let’s say we hadn’t been together for five years, in the latter years — as soon as we’d hit that note, it would come right. Bobby’s statement to me always was ‘You got your note?’ ‘Yes, I have mine, do you have yours?’
“My granddaughter right now is getting ready to graduate from USC, and her major is the music industry,” Claudette continued. “Her project is, she has to write a song, record it and put it all together. She was telling me what she was going to do, and it was amazing. These young people today, their thought patterns are so far advanced to where we were.”
Robinson continued as a recording member of the Miracles until 1972, when she left simultaneously with Smokey. Of their prodigious output during nearly a decade and a half of studio work, she singles out two numbers in particular. “One of the songs that really touches my heart is [1967’s] ‘More Love.’ That’s a song Smokey wrote specifically for me, because I’d had several miscarriages and if you listen to the lyrics he’s kind of explaining, he’s telling me about the ‘more love’ portion of our love. There were several other songs, but that one really touches me.”
Her former husband, she says, “just has this God-given talent that, as I understand, he had from six or seven years old. Smokey’s unique in how he can phrase things, it’s just amazing. He thinks that way. That’s the way his brain works.”
She also favored an early number from 1961’s debut LP Hi…We’re The Miracles. “A lot of people, when we were touring, wanted me to sing ‘After All,’” revealed Claudette. “That was one of the songs I led on. I listened to it about a week ago, and a friend of mine said it really could be a great country and western song, because it’s talking about two singers in a travelling show, ‘Pack our bags and off we go.’
“I was like, I never really thought of it like that. Sometimes you’re a part of something and you’re enjoying it, but you don’t really sit and listen to it like you do perhaps later on in life.”
From New Orleans via Detroit to Beverly Hills
A film documentary on Claudette’s life and times is reported to be in later development, and as for the question of her long-rumored autobiography, she laughed again: “I probably have been working on it for about 30 years. It kept changing focus. I don’t know if you ever heard about the first one. It was going to be I Was A Ghetto Princess, and my mother hated it, she said ‘You can’t do that.’
“So it’s changed. Once it was [about] a little girl moving from the south and ending up in Beverly Hills. By the time we moved to Detroit, I was already in the sixth grade, I was advanced academically, but I was a very shy little girl. But I am still working on it. I’m kind of thinking maybe I’ll go back and write it on my own. People don’t know you like you know yourself.”
The possibility of her finishing a solo album that she started long ago seems a little less optimistic. Robinson began the project with musician Mark Davis, “then Smokey wanted in on it, he wanted to write and do a duet with me. You know what happens when all those people get involved? Nothing! They get distracted, they go to different places, everybody is mixing it and it ends up probably flat on the floor.
“I still have [the tapes]. It’s good music, [but] it would need to be updated. Every so often, I think I’d like to do something like that. One of the things I used to think about is I’d love to have done an album, or even a song, with a hundred-piece orchestra. How great would that be with an orchestra playing behind you? Every now and then,” she concluded, “I come from behind the curtain.”