Motown’s 60th anniversary has been in full swing since January, commemorating the $800 loan Berry Gordy Jr. received from his skeptical family to start a record company. So far the legendary label has been feted on TV with Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration during April on CBS, and was honored during the 32nd annual ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards this month in Los Angeles. A weekend of activities is also slated to take place during September in Motown’s birthplace of Detroit.
The party moves to disc on June 28 with Motown: The Complete No. 1’s, a reissue of the 2008 50th anniversary boxed set — housed in a miniature replica of Gordy’s Hitsville USA headquarters in Detroit — that adds an 11th CD featuring a half-dozen additional tracks, including remixes, by the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross.
As a member of the Miracles — who had Motown’s first No. 1 hit, “Shop Around,” in 1960 — Claudette Robinson, aka the First Lady of Motown and ex-wife of Smokey Robinson, had a front row seat to all that went into the company’s success. With the Miracles’ version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” added to The Complete No. 1’s (it was later covered by the Jackson 5, En Vogue, Lauryn Hill, Terence Trent D’Arby and others), Robinson, who owns the Miracles name and oversees the current performing lineup of the group, took Billboard on a trip down memory lane and into Motown’s past…
Billboard: So does this all feel like 60 years? Sixty minutes? Six hundred years?
Claudette Robinson: (Laughs) Well, I’m more than excited to still be here, because unfortunately so many of my sisters and brothers of song are no longer with us. So this is a blessing. And for me I’m standing up for the legacy of the Miracles, for the three guys — Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore — who are no longer with us. Their greatest dream was to be able to continue the legacy of the Miracles, and they were so driven to make sure that we were not forgotten. So with them being gone I feel I have a responsibility to stand up for them and be their voice since their voices have been silenced. But even though that sounds a little sad I know they would be more than happy that we’re celebrating Motown’s 60th.
You were there at the start. What made Motown work and made it what it became?
I think it was the talent, the acts, and everyone wanting to become successful. It was, first, Mr. Gordy’s dream and then I believe the artists coming along help make his dream a reality, as well their own reality. Everyone worked hard for it, for the same goal.
What do you think it was that distinguished the Miracles from the other groups that were on the label?
Number one, I think what separated us was the fact of having a girl. There were a few other groups that had females as well as men — of course Gladys Knight & the Pips, but she was the lead singer. We almost didn’t get signed originally because they said the world didn’t need another group with a girl in the back — of course at the time they were referring to the Platters. But we were trying to tell them that we were going to be very different; I wasn’t going to be wearing gowns and I was gonna do the same steps as the guys. We would buy five suits and they would cut down one of the suits for me and instead of pants I’d wear a skirt, and then I could move and be able to do the steps. There’s not a lot of live footage of me with the group at that time, and I regret that.
Was there a particular point or moment where it occurred to all of you that, for the group and for Motown, it was really taking off and becoming a big deal?
I would say when we received a gold record at the Michigan State Fair, which was in Detroit. It was a real surprise to us because Mr. Gordy, Mrs. (Esther) Edwards and Barney Ales came on stage while we were performing; We were finishing a song and all of a sudden they just walked on and I see a plaque and it was for “Shop Around,” one million sales. We were shocked that it had sold that many; You want to believe it’s going to happen, but when it really happened it hits you like, “Maybe we’ve got something here. Maybe something is starting to happen and we’re going to be stars.” I think that was the beginning when we thought this could be a career.
What was the balance — the real balance — of Motown acts supporting and rooting for each other versus competing against each other?
Well, I think it was creative competition. In the early days it was like, “Glad you made it, glad you got a hit, because if you made it then that means that maybe I can make it, too.” So it’s almost like having a sister or brother or even a cousin or something that was doing something special, so you’re happy and excited for them — even though there’s always competition. But it’s the competition that’s good, and it’s OK for you to not only praise them but give them a little piece of advice along the way, ’cause we all worked together in the early days. If someone needed handclaps or foot stomps or cowbell or whatever when they were recording, everyone was there and more than willing to help. It was like a big family encouraging you to do well.
The new version of the box set adds the Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin’ You.” What’ the significance of that song being on there now?
That was actually a song that we recorded that many, many years ago (1960). A lot of people attribute that to Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5; Even my grandchildren would say, ‘Ooh that’s a Michael Jackson song’ and I’d say ‘No, it’s a Miracles song that they covered and did an amazing job with.’ For us what would happen many times when we would sing the “Who’s Lovin’ You” in person, on the end of the Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin’ You” I say “who’s lovin’ you,” like singing it. And as I would sing it live our audience would just go wild because I didn’t sing solo very often in person. I would be thinking, “I’m only signing, like, three words, and if they’re liking it that much the group felt like I should sing more, solo. (laughs) But I was a very shy girl, and I just felt like “Oh, Smokey’s doing a good job…” And as I look back over the last 60 years I wish I had done more, but at the time I did what I could or thought this was the best way to go. I really enjoyed doing the backgrounds with the boys because they made me feel comfortable and my voice was strong with them. And when I would sing solo I just didn’t have the same kind of confidence, because I thought Smokey was an amazing singer and we didn’t need another one. But I would think differently today if we changed places.
Were there songs that other Motown groups recorded that you wished the Miracles had a crack at?
Y’know, our group had a different sound then most of the other groups, so some song that was a hit for someone else may not have been right for us. But there were a lot of great songs around, as this box set lets people know. I always thought I could have been a Temptation if only I were a little bit taller; I always tell Otis (Williams), “I could have been in your group” because they had great routines and at the time I felt like I was a really great dancer. That would have been a fun group to be part of.
Have you seen “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” the Temptations’ musical, then?
Oh my gosh, I think it’s amazing. I loved it. It’s great, and it deserves all the wards it can get. They did an outstanding, amazing job because it’s not always so easy to convey a full story that has its ups and downs and sadness and joys. I saw it twice, and I hope to see it again.
That begs the question — do you think there’s a musical in the Miracles’ story?
You know, forever and ever we’ve talked about it, but it hasn’t happened yet. There are people who present these ideas, but anything that I’ve read from people who are trying to do the Miracles story, it hasn’t been complete. It’s only about one person and the real story is about all five people, and if you can’t do that then it doesn’t make sense to do it. So I hope and pray that there is one day a Miracles story (on stage), and soon because I would like to be part of that.
Do you feel that as years have gone on there has at least been a better understanding of the Miracles as a group rather than just the people who sang with Smokey?
I’m going to say yes and no to that. There are people who are Miracles fans, followers; They know the story and continue to follow it. And there are parts of our story that continue to be lost or missed. It’s not a bad reason Smokey has loomed so very large over the group, which is great for him and all of his success but in the meantime a part of the Miracles had gotten lost and people will think of the group as Smokey’s group, like people he may have hired. I think our induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame let people know that, “Oh! There are some other people in the group.” But that’s just something that happens; Many times the lead singers get wider recognition because they’re more out front. But Bobby and Ronnie and Pete all worked hard to continue the legacy and their lives were dedicated to the Miracles. They were always happy for Smokey and excited for what he achieved, but it’s important that they get recognized as well.