It’s impossible to overstate just how important The Miracles and their leader, Smokey Robinson, were to Motown. In the late 50s, making the most of Robinson’s obvious potential became the pet project of Berry Gordy, the company’s founder. This kid with the soulful high voice had talent; Gordy, already a strong songwriter, with hits to his name for Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson, made his mind up to shape Smokey’s compositional chops until they became a commercial proposition. Gordy taught Robinson about the structure of songs, and to seek meaningful lyrics. The outcome of his inspired mentoring must have been beyond his wildest dreams. Before long, Robinson would pen one of Motown’s earliest classics, The Miracles’ “Shop Around.”
Smokey became a writer and producer not only for his own group, but for other artists such as Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and Marvin Gaye – to name but a few. The other Miracles knew their way around a song, too, and their guitarist, Marv Tarplin, was often a source of inspired melodies. Smokey’s trusted judgment made him a de facto A&R man for Motown and he was installed as the company’s vice president in 1962. But at first, The Miracles were just five Detroit kids – Smokey, his wife Claudette, Bobby Rogers, Ronald White, and Pete Moore – scuffling for a break that was by no means certain to arrive.
The group cut three singles for other labels under Gordy’s production supervision before Robinson urged Gordy to launch his own record company, Tamla, which released four more Miracles’ singles, two of which, 1959’s “Bad Girl” and the following year’s “Way Over There,” tickled the bottom reaches of the pop Hot 100. But their next single was a game-changer.
The biggest record for Motown
“‘Shop Around’ was the third record we had that made a noise nationally, and the biggest record we’d had until that point, and the biggest record for Motown,” recalled Smokey. “It really was the first bang-bang record the company had. It was recorded in 1960, and early in ’61 we got a gold record for it. It really got us established as a group.”
If anything, Smokey played down the record’s brilliance. Released in Detroit on September 27, 1960 (and given a nationwide release on October 15), “Shop Around,” recounting motherly advice about the search for Miss Right, reached a huge audience. It hit No.1 in the R&B charts and No.2 pop. As if that wasn’t enough, the B-side, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” gradually became regarded as a classic ballad, drawing an array of covers including those by The Supremes, The Temptations, Jackson 5, and En Vogue. The latter was slightly bizarre, as it was sung at the start of En Vogue’s breakthrough record, “Hold On,” which had itself been written as an answer song to “Who’s Lovin’ You” – 30 years later.
“Shop Around” drew its own following, thanks to versions by Mary Wells, Johnny Kidd And The Pirates, The Captain And Tenille, and many more. But The Miracles’ next pop Top 10 smash, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” drew even more accolades and established Smokey’s credentials as a songwriter for all time.
“Smokey was very, very confident in the record”
The Miracles’ Ronnie White remembered: “‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,’ Smokey and Bobby Rogers sang lead, and I’ve got a personal thing about it. At the time we were recording it, I didn’t like it. It was different in that it had some things going on that weren’t the way things usually go in songs. But Smokey was very, very confident in the record. We recorded it and it turned out it was a hit, and it was subsequently recorded by The Beatles and other artists.”
Inspired by hearing Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” Smokey wrote the song in a New York City hotel. It sold a million copies in the US across 1962-63, and after The Beatles covered it on their second album, With The Beatles, it entranced an even bigger audience worldwide. The song remains a rhythm’n’blues classic. Berry Gordy’s protégé had come good – for all time.