Of all the R&B vocal groups formed in Detroit, Michigan, USA, in the mid-50s, the Miracles proved to be the most successful. They were founded at the city’s Northern High School in 1955 by Smokey Robinson (b. William Robinson, 19 February 1940, Detroit, Michigan, USA), Emerson Rogers, Bobby Rogers (b. 19 February 1940, Detroit, Michigan, USA), Ronnie White (b. 5 April 1939, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 26 August 1995) and Warren ‘Pete’ Moore (b. 19 November 1939, Detroit, Michigan, USA). Emerson Rogers left the following year, and was replaced by his sister Claudette, who married Smokey Robinson in 1959. Known initially as the Matadors, the group became the Miracles in 1958, when they made their initial recordings with producer Berry Gordy. He leased their debut, ‘Got A Job’ (an answer record to the Silhouettes’ major hit ‘Get A Job’), to End Records, produced a duet by Ron (White) And Bill (Robinson) for Argo, and licensed the classic doo-wop novelty ‘Bad Girl’ to Chess Records in 1959.
The following year, Gordy signed the Miracles directly to his fledgling Motown Records label. Recognizing the youthful composing talents of Smokey Robinson, he allowed the group virtual free rein in the studio, and was repaid when they issued ‘Way Over There’, a substantial local hit, and then ‘Shop Around’, which broke both the Miracles and Motown to a national audience. The song demonstrated the increasing sophistication of Robinson’s writing, which provided an unbroken series of hits for the group over the next few years. Their raw, doo-wop sound was further refined on the Top 10 hit ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ in 1962, a soulful ballad that became a worldwide standard after the Beatles covered it in 1963. Robinson was now in demand by other Motown artists: Gordy used him as a one-man hit factory, to mastermind releases by the Temptations and Mary Wells, and the Miracles’ own career suffered slightly as a result.
They continued to enjoy success in a variety of different styles, mixing dancefloor hits such as ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ and ‘Going To A Go-Go’ with some of Robinson’s most durable ballads, such as ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ and ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’. Although Robinson sang lead on almost all the group’s recordings, the rest of the group provided a unique harmony blend behind him, while guitarist Marv Tarplin – who co-wrote several of their hits – was incorporated as an unofficial Miracle from the mid-60s onwards. Claudette Robinson stopped touring with the group after 1965, although she was still featured on many of their subsequent releases.
Exhausted by several years of constant work, Robinson scaled down his writing commitments for the group in the mid-60s, when they briefly worked with Holland/Dozier/Holland and other Motown producers. Robinson wrote their most ambitious and enduring songs, however, including ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ in 1966 (a belated hit in the UK and USA in 1970), ‘The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage’, and ‘I Second That Emotion’ in 1967. These tracks epitomized the strengths of Robinson’s compositions, with witty, metaphor-filled lyrics tied to aching melody lines and catchy guitar figures, the latter often provided by Tarplin.
Like many of the veteran Motown acts, the Miracles went into a sales slump after 1967 – the year when Robinson was given individual credit on the group’s records. Their slide was less noticeable in Britain, where Motown gained a Top 10 hit in 1969 with a reissue of ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’, which most listeners imagined was a contemporary record. The success of ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ prompted a revival in fortune after 1970. ‘I’m The One You Need’ became another reissue hit in Britain the following year, while ‘I Don’t Blame You At All’, one of their strongest releases to date, achieved chart success on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1971, Robinson announced his intention of leaving the Miracles to concentrate on his position as vice-president of Motown Records. His decision belied the title of his final hit with the group, ‘We’ve Come Too Far To End It Now’ in 1972, and left the Miracles in the unenviable position of having to replace one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. Their choice was William ‘Bill’ Griffin (b. 15 August 1950, Detroit, Michigan, USA), who was introduced by Robinson to the group’s audiences during a 1972 US tour. The new line-up took time to settle, while Smokey Robinson launched a solo career to great acclaim in 1973. The group responded with Renaissance, which saw them working with Motown luminaries such as Marvin Gaye and Willie Hutch. The following year, they re-established the Miracles as a hit-making force with ‘Do It Baby’ and ‘Don’tcha Love It’, dance-orientated singles that appealed strongly to the group’s black audience. In 1975, ‘Love Machine’ became the Miracles’ first US chart-topper, while the concept album City Of Angels was acclaimed as one of Motown’s most progressive releases.