When ranking the greatest songwriters in rock and popular music of all time, most lists are capped off by either John Lennon, Paul McCartney, or Bob Dylan. Although the quality of their work speaks for itself, and I think they are all certainly worthy of high praise, my pick will likely always be the incredible Smokey Robinson. Aside from writing songs for his own group The Miracles and his solo career, Smokey also wrote some legendary songs for other artists. He is an immensely talented and prolific songwriter who is severely under appreciated when people discuss the all-time greats. Here are ten essential songs written by Smokey Robinson.
“Shop Around” by The Miracles from Hi… We’re The Miracles (1960)
Written by Smokey with Motown founder Berry Gordy, “Shop Around” was The Miracles’ breakout hit, long before Smokey Robinson’s name was added to the band’s moniker. Released in 1960, the doo-wop tinged single ended up being the first Motown single to reach #1 on the R&B Charts, as well as #2 on the Pop Charts. It hasn’t maintained its popularity and influence as much as some of the amazing songs on this list, but was Smokey’s first big hit as a songwriter and for being just a great song, “Shop Around” is essential listening.
“My Girl” by The Temptations from The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
Even if you’re a casual music fan that doesn’t know the name Smokey Robinson, chances are you will be familiar with “My Girl.” By this point, Smokey had written several songs for The Temptations, including a solid hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and a memorable but less popular single, “I Want A Love I Can See.” The Smokey Robinson and Temptations collaboration reached new heights with “My Girl.” Co-written by The Miracles bandmate Ronald White, “My Girl” became a huge hit for everyone involved, and remains one of the iconic songs of the Motown era. It was written specifically to suit tenor David Ruffin’s voice, and it made everyone involved a huge star for good reason.
“My Guy” by Mary Wells, from Mary Wells Sings My Guy (1964)
Mary Wells was struggling to find a big hit of her own when Smokey Robinson wrote the timeless “My Guy,” echoing the sentiment of slightly later The Temptations hit, “My Girl.” While The Temptations song was more of a ballad, “My Guy” has a certain uptempo swagger to it that makes Mary Wells voice really shine. It would be Wells’ biggest and last hit for Motown, as she would leave the label with the hopes of finding bigger stardom elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was never to be, but “My Guy” still gets regular radio play to this day.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” by The Miracles from The Fabulous Miracles (1963)
Just a few years after breaking out with “Shop Around,” The Miracles had another big hit on their hands with another Smokey Robinson song, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” Smokey wrote the song while in New York on business, and was reportedly influenced by the classic Sam Cooke song “Bring It On Home To Me,” another legendary soul track. It has since become one of the most influential early rock ‘n’ roll songs, as it took on a second life when The Beatles covered it for their second album and has since been sung over and over again by countless other artists.
“Get Ready” by The Temptations from Gettin’ Ready (1966)
It would have been hard to match the success of “My Girl” as far as Smokey Robinson and The Temptations collaborations go, but they came very close with “Get Ready.” Proving his versatility after the David Ruffin-centric ballad, “Get Ready” is an uptempo soul number featuring the falsetto of Eddie Kendricks instead. It was a solid hit for the group, hitting #29 on the Pop Charts, but ended up being the last song Smokey would write for the group, as he was replaced by Norman Whitfield. Smokey would continue to have success with Motown, however, as The Miracles soon after became Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and began featuring Smokey’s work even more prominently.
“The Tracks of My Tears” by The Miracles from Going to A Go-Go (1965)
Going to A Go-Go as an album is full of excellent songs, but it truly puts its best foot forward with “The Tracks of My Tears,” one of the best songs the group ever recorded. A ballad about covering up heartbreak, “The Tracks of My Tears” is a beautiful, poignant song with some of the group’s best vocal work and Robinson’s lyricism at its absolute best. With music by Miracles bandmates Pete Moore and Marv Tarplin, it is really peak Motown. It also happens to have one of best bridges ever. Seriously, tell me that bridge isn’t perfect.
“I Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1967)
Shortly after changing the band’s name to feature Smokey, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles had a huge hit with “I Second That Emotion.” It’s one of Smokey’s signature songs for very good reason; it is one of the catchiest songs ever written and a standout song for Motown. Chances are, casual listeners who only know a couple songs by Smokey Robinson will know “I Second That Emotion,” one of the best examples of how to write a pop song that exists. The single hit #4 on the Pop Charts, topped the R&B Charts, and ended up selling more than a million records.
“The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles from Make It Happen (1967)
As bizarre as it sounds, “The Tears of a Clown” was originally just an album track, and not a single at all. It wasn’t until three years later in 1970 that “The Tears of a Clown” was released as a single in the UK, immediately hit #1 on the charts, and was subsequently released as a single in the United States as well. With music co-written by Stevie Wonder and lyrics by Smokey, it’s astonishing that the song wasn’t the lead single for the Make It Happen album. Luckily, this mistake was rectified, and the song remains one of the best songs pop records of all time and perhaps Smokey’s crowning achievement.
“Quiet Storm” by Smokey Robinson from A Quiet Storm (1975)
Smokey Robinson retired from his role as the frontman of The Miracles in 1972, but didn’t stay out of performing for long. The very next year, he was back in the saddle, recording an album simply called Smokey. He didn’t find major success as a solo artist until his third album, however, which featured the #1 R&B hit “Baby That’s Back Atcha” as well as another top ten R&B hit in “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Despite the chart success of those two singles, the song with the lasting influence wasn’t a single at all, the album opener “Quiet Storm.” This unusually long song for Smokey was the foundation for an entire subgenre of R&B, as quiet storm became the name for this kind of chill, groove-heavy R&B going forward. Smokey has had a lot of standout songs as a solo artist, and “Quiet Storm” is certainly among the best and most influential.
“Being With You” by Smokey Robinson, from Being With You (1981)
Smokey Robinson has accomplished a lot as a solo artist since leaving The Miracles, but his biggest hit by far was “Being With You,” from the album of the same name. Although it certainly sounds like the 1980s, it’s a great slow jam that took Smokey to #1 on the R&B Charts for the first time as a solo artist, and led to the album being certified gold. The album hit #1 on the R&B Charts as well, and cracked the top ten of the Pop Charts. If you like the 1980s vibe in music you’ll love “Being With You.”
For more about Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, check out our interview with the daughter of the late Warren “Pete” Moore, the bass singer for the group.