William “Smokey” Robinson celebrates his birthday Feb. 19 – he was born in Detroit in 1940 – but the month also marks an important milestone in Motown pre-history. In February 1958, a song entitled “Got A Job” was beginning to generate airplay and attention for a new group from Detroit: the Miracles.
The previous summer, Smokey first met Berry Gordy, an up-and-coming songwriter at the time, and the two became close, professionally and personally. Impressed by the teenager’s songwriting promise, Gordy began managing him and his group, then known as the Matadors. By the end of 1957, he took them into Detroit’s United Sound studios to record “Got A Job,” which Gordy co-wrote.
“In those mono days, everything happened at once – the playing, singing and mixing,” Robinson recalled in his autobiography, Inside My Life. “I’d never been with a producer before. Didn’t even know what a producer did. Watching Berry like a hawk, learning all I could, I saw that he was on top of his shit, a perfectionist who pruned the tune ’till he got an overall dynamite sound.”
Berry Gordy leased “Got A Job” to New York’s End Records, with the group renamed the Miracles, for release early in 1958. The result was a Top 10 hit in Detroit, according to Billboard, but the derisory royalties earned from End for the record and its follow-up, “Money,” helped to persuade Gordy – encouraged by Robinson – that he should go into business for himself. One year later, Tamla Records was born.
Last year, among his many career achievements, Smokey Robinson received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, bestowed by the Library of Congress. Earlier this month, the PBS TV network aired the November concert which celebrated the award, featuring such artists as Esperanza Spalding, CeeLo Green and Corrine Bailey Rae, and including a tribute to Robinson by the man who helped him “get the job” of a lifetime 59 years ago, Berry Gordy Jr.