January 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

April 10, 1969

From the archive: Smokey's Miracles -- black was a barrier

If you're over 25 and have never given serious thought to the world of pop music, chances are if you're asked "What group has been your favorite over the years?" your answer might be "Rock and roll groups are never around anytime at all before they're replaced by another. It's impossible for one particular group to last as a favorite."

If that was your answer then you should give serious thought to the matter, for nothing could be less true.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles earned their first gold record for selling over a million copies of "Shop Around," 10 years ago. And they have been going strong ever since.

No, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles don't strike gold with every new record. But they do have hits, still sell a lot of records, and are consistent on the national charts.

In the 1950s William (Smokey) Robinson, Ronnie White, Pete Moore and Bobby Rodgers, all Detroit born, sang as high school kids -- either together or with others under such group names as the Matadors, the Lyrics, the Orchids and the Five Chimes.

Bobby's cousin, Claudette, now Smokey's wife, joined the quartet in 1957 and after pulling names from the hat, the Miracles became a reality.

But becoming a success is not as easy as forming a group. There are a great number and variety of difficulties and frustrations a group encounters while trying to make it.

How did it all happen? Follow me:

I pulled up to park and there was Bobby Rodgers bubbling with a few of his friends in a sidewalk conversation. He locked the doors of his Mark III and with "What's happening, Man?" walked me up to Smokey Robinson's pad.

After passing between Cadillacs of various colors we were greeted at the door by the warm Claudette. "Newspaper reporters never turn out to look the way I pictured them," was her remark and I wondered how I should take it.

Inside, the Chinese décor was sophisticated and stunning but unnatural against the loud rocking beat of pop music emanating from somewhere in the house. At that moment, apparently using the beat as a means of locomotion, in came Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore and Ronnie White.

"Professionalism just seemed to sneak up on us," Ronnie said. "We were lucky enough to have a writer in the group -- Smokey -- and to meet Berry Gordy Jr."

The first Miracles release under Gordy was "Way Over There" and sold 50,000 copies. The second release, "Shop Around," catapulted the singers into show business careers.

"But because we had a million-seller it didn't mean the struggle was over," Smokey said. "We encountered an unbelievable number of hang-ups.

"Being black was the greatest of all barriers for us to cross. It was a most difficult realization for us to come to. It's really been quite recent that our records have been readily played by those radio stations with primarily a white audience."

"Back in 1963," Claudette recalls, "my health was not the best and the road work was keeping me thin. Smokey thought it was best for me to discontinue traveling with the group and only sing on records.

"We were afraid this might hurt the group's image, as rumors always fly after a group makes a personnel change like that.

"We decided to take the chance and in 1964 I dropped out. I guess the fans understood because in the following months things continued to move right along. I still miss the people and the excitement, though."

Taylor Cox, the group's manager, tells the story of Smokey's lookalike imposter, another hindrance to the group's success.

"For the past few years a man posing as Smokey traveled around the country charging hotel and travel expenses to Smokey and the group. Last year at an engagement in New York, the Mercedes agency there called to tell us that Smokey's $28,000 limousine was ready, built-in television and all.

"We discovered this guy had ordered the Mercedes under Smokey's name. The imposter was caught shortly after that in Puerto Rico."

Smokey wrote his first song around the age of five. He says, "My songs come to me in different ways. Sometimes the melody pops up first and sometimes I might start with the words or just an idea.

"I think both words and music are important, though occasionally a song will break through on the strength of one or the other."

As a whole, it seems music today has jelled. Most records

Heard now are a combination of many types and styles of music -- pop, r&b, jazz, country.

"Many sounds are being accepted now that would have been totally out of place a few years ago," Ronnie said. "Things like 'Classical Gas' and 'MacArthur Park' are examples of truly great productions.

"But soul music has remained basically the same. The only difference now is, it is finally being recognized -- through the Motown acts and such artists as Aretha Franklin and Hugh Masekela."

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles agree music is one of the major influences in joining the races, especially among teen-agers.

"Today's young people are a product of what's happening." Said Pete. "They see a lot of wrongs about them, and they realize things as they are. Today's music is echoing many of these realizations.

"One of our recent recordings, 'I Care About Detroit,' sums up our thoughts on this subject."

The lyrics to that song, a special production of Motown Records and publisher Stein & Van Stock, go:

"...I care about Detroit,

yes I'm proud to call this city my hometown;

It's been good to you and me,

Let's learn to live and work in harmony...

And the first place to start,

You must feel in you heart,

We should all pull together as one ..."

Even though "I Care About Detroit" was a special record for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, it still is characteristic of their sound -- clear, minus the heavy echo, with a strong beat, and always full of meaning.

Smokey writes and sings what he feels, as evidenced by some of his past hits, "Tracks of My Tear," "O Baby Baby," "More Love," and the million-seller, "I Second That Emotion."

"The thing that amazes me about Smokey and his group," says Taylor Cox, " is the love they have for their work. They always want to please their fans; and stubborn audiences -- even one person -- really shake them up.

"There is no jealousy here. They all dig each other."

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles have been invited to participate in all the major TV shows, and recently performed at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood.

After 10 years on the pop music scene, they are as popular as ever. They were the first on the roster of Motown stars, and though other stars outshine them at times, the Miracles still hold their own as one of the most consistent record sellers.

And considering the hundreds of records that vie for chart positions each week, that's a little "miracle" in itself, wouldn't you say?