“I could see the changes that were happening,” Robinson remembers. “I was aware of what was going on, but my concentration was on my personal life and my music, because it was the beginning of my dreams coming true.”
The Motown venture was a family affair, with Gordy’s father and siblings holding prominent positions in the company — as well as a young William Robinson Jr., who sang lead vocals for Motown’s second signed act, the Miracles. Robinson, who went by his longtime nickname of Smokey, was named the label’s vice president, beginning a decades-long partnership and a lifelong friendship between Gordy and Robinson. That same year, Gordy purchased the first of several homes on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard that would become the nucleus of Motown Records. Sales, management, songwriting, and recording all took place there in the early days.
“Nobody could ever verbally describe the energy,” Robinson says. “It was constant energy, and it was constant creativity and constant love. It was competitive and collaborative, constructively critical. On a given day you could work on a half dozen songs, and not all of them would be yours. Another thing that was unique was that it was a hanging place. It wasn’t just a workplace. When you weren’t working, you were there because that’s where everybody was.”
Even professional rivalries could be put aside for the sake of music in the Motown studios. Though Robinson frequently competed with the late Norman Whitfield over writing and producing duties for the Temptations (Whitfield penned “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination” for the group, while Robinson contributed “Get Ready” and “My Girl”), it didn’t stop him from lending a helping hand when it was needed. “I could be hanging out there, and Norman would be working on something for the Temptations and say, ‘Hey, Smokey, I want you to sing this harmony, or stomp your feet and clap your hands,’ and I’d say, ‘OK, man.’ … We were very there for each other.”
Early on, Gordy was confident enough in his label to hang a sign outside the makeshift office/recording studio that read: “Hitsville, U.S.A.” It was presumptuous — until the hits started coming, that is. And come they did: Motown had 110 top-10 songs before 1971. The label’s first number one R&B hit was “Shop Around,” by none other than the Miracles. It was cowritten, appropriately, by Gordy and Robinson.