Interview: Claudette Rogers Robinson – “The First Lady of Motown”

Posted: April 13, 2009 in interview, music
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Claudette Rogers Robinson

Date of Interview: 04/13/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Generations of Motown fans were acquainted with Claudette Rogers Robinson as the sole female singer in The Miracles.  Few know, however, that Berry Gordy affectionately dubbed her as “The First Lady of Motown,” for being the first female artist signed to Motown’s first vocal group, The Miracles, who also had the distinction of having the label’s first #1 hit, “Shop Around.”  Moreover, Ms. Robinson is the former wife of Smokey Robinson, who used her as the muse for “My Girl,” which became a signature hit for The Temptations in 1964.

On March 20, 2009, five decades after The Miracle’s founding, Claudette Rogers Robinson and her fellow Miracles were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Motown Record Corporation, which was formerly known as Tamla Records, Ms. Robinson managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Berry Gordy, “soul music,” and the legacy of Marvin Gaye.

Clayton Perry: When you look back at your Motown experience, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

Claudette Robinson: Well, I think the thought that immediately comes to mind is: “Wow! What an amazing ride!” I had an opportunity to be a part of such a fantastic part of history! And in all honesty, I thought it was going to last only a year or two, and now here we are 50 years for Motown and, actually, 51 plus for The Miracles. It’s mind-blowing and such a wonderful thing that “the sound of young America” became a slogan to represent Motown. Motown forever in my eyes would always be young, regardless of the age of the performer.

Clayton Perry: Why do you think the Motown brand still stands above all the other labels that came behind it, even after 50 years?

Claudette Robinson: I’m going to say that the name Motown has stood the test of time because of the wonderful fans who continued to enjoy the music as well as purchase the music. Because without them, regardless of how great Motown’s song may have been, it never would have happened. So we have to really give thanks to those great people out there that still remember the music of Motown and the many, many artists.

Clayton Perry: What life events led you to the company?

Claudette Robinson: When we started, Motown had not been incorporated yet. And at that time, I was singing in a sister group to my brother’s group called The Matadorettes. My brother’s group was The Matadors, and consisted of Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers and my brother, Emerson Rogers. After about a year of nothing really happening for The Matadors, they did a lot of talent shows around town and actually won first place in quite a few of the venues they happen to play. First prize was usually about $25, sometimes maybe $50. We, The Matadorettes, performed in some of those talent shows. Unfortunately, we didn’t really fare so well. So what happened was my brother decided that maybe he would join the Army because nothing was really happening in terms of the group. Maybe a month after that, an opportunity presented itself with Ronnie White’s cousin finding out about an audition that was going to take place. As a result, the guy wanted a fifth voice and they rehearsed in our home basement. Smokey asked if I would go to the audition with them. We did a little practice on some of the tunes because Smokey had written a lot of the songs himself. We went over to the audition. The guy said that he wasn’t really that thrilled with the group because of the fact that there was a girl in the background. He felt that there was a group already like that – that group happened to be The Platters. We were saying, “Well, we’re not like The Platters. We’re more like R&B. The girl’s not going to be wearing fancy gowns and all that. She’ll wear outfits like the guys except that she’ll wear skirts.” I guess it didn’t go over that well with him, but there happened to be a person walking around and listening. That person happened to be Berry Gordy. Mr. Gordy wanted to know if we had any more of those songs – actually, he was speaking to Smokey. Did he have any other original tunes? He said yes. Mr. Gordy said, “Well, I’d like to hear them.” He was so very patient and listened to – I think he said – about 30 of them. After each song, he would give nice comments as to how a song is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. You know, it has to make sense. As you go along, you can’t start talking about the snow and end up talking about going to school or something. So his advice was well-taken by Smokey. As you well know, he ended up being one of the most prolific writers around. After that, you know, Mr. Gordy said that he would like to sign a song as a group and work with us to see what he could produce. I was a bit surprised at that because I guess there had been so many times that we as a group – either the guys or myself being in a female group had been turned down. I didn’t really think that much was going to happen with that. But I thought, “Well, let’s give it a try. Stay in it for about a year or two and kind of see what happens.” That’s sort of what we did. But, of course, after the two years that’s just when we were really getting started. We started with Mr. Gordy in 1957. Motown didn’t actually begin till two years after that – that was 1959. Our first record was released February 19, 1958 which coincidentally happens to be both Bobby’s and Sophie’s birthday. They were born same day, same year, same hospital but they didn’t meet until they were teenagers. So that was the beginning of meeting Mr. Gordy and the start of the group The Matadors – which eventually became The Miracles when Motown began. I shouldn’t say when Motown began – I retract that. We became The Miracles when we recorded our very first record at a job. That was actually on the End record label out of New York. George Goldner was the owner at the time.

Clayton Perry: What inspired the name change? How did you come up with the name?

Claudette Robinson: The name change was actually done because of the fact that The Matadors seem to reflect that fact the group was all men and they were trying to get a name that would fit for both males and females. We considered several names and they were all placed into a hat.  We all took turns pulling a name out, and I pulled “The Miracles.”  I guess it was the luck of the draw.  And “The Miracles” was the name everyone thought would be a better name for our group.

Clayton Perry: Motown was well-known for its investment in the development of its artists.  Can you give a little bit of detail about how The Miracles developed as a group?

Claudette Robinson: Actually, for The Miracles, we started our own personal development because you have to remember when we were there as a group starting out, going to do the shows starting in ’58, there was no Motown. There was no artist development at that time. So we learned from other groups, from other people on the road, watching and observing and trying to better whatever we were doing at that time.  Our first show was a disaster at The Apollo. The gentleman that had booked us actually called Mr. Gordy to see if he could get his money back. We were pretty green. We thought we had it but our experience was so limited in terms of knowing what people really, really wanted. We were with a very difficult audience in terms of they either loved you or they did not. Fortunately, they really liked us a lot. I think because we were so green. They probably had pity on us and just said, “We’ll let them go. We’ll give them another chance.” That was our first really big professional gig and for us to be there at The Apollo was just like awesome in itself. It was really an experience, a true experience to see what people were really doing as performers. We had no idea, so we sort of learned as we went. Mr. Charlie Atkins was one of the people who gave us some help in that area because we were going to do a nightclub for just a short time, not very long. He was very helpful in pulling that all together for us, along with the songs. You know, doing songs like “Summertime,” the classics.

Clayton Perry: In terms of your overall experience, what do you consider to be the pivotal moment in your career as a group that brought you over the top?

Claudette Robinson: Well, I think the pivotal moment for me was our first gold record. We received that in 1961 and that was at the state fair in Detroit, Michigan. It was a real, real surprise because we were performing at the fair and all of a sudden, Mr. Gordy came on stage and presented us with this beautiful plaque saying “One million sales of ‘Shop Around.’” How exciting that was to think that we were basically just kids that started out and now had actually come to fruition that we really had sold a million records. That was like, “Well, maybe we can stay around longer.” Perhaps.

Clayton Perry: What insight do you have on Berry Gordy, as the man behind the vision? Was there any advice that you received from him or an experience that you had with him that really shaped your career?

Claudette Robinson: I would say that almost everything that helped shaped the career really came from his vision and what he perceived the artist should be when they went out to present themselves to the world – that they were to be as classy as they could be, to dress well, to speak well, and just overall represent themselves as well as the company. So I think that from the beginning, he was giving that kind of advice. At that point, he was a songwriter for Jackie Wilson and he had several hits with him. Our first meeting happened to be at the studio where Jackie Wilson recorded many of his songs.

Clayton Perry: In Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, he dubbed you as “The First Lady of Motown.” How do you feel, when all is said and done, your name will stand above all other names?

Claudette Robinson: For Mr. Gordy to just give me that official title…I feel so very proud and also humbled. The name came about as I was the very first female that was signed on to Motown Records. There were no other females when we came around. In fact, we were the first group and it was a couple of years before anybody else came to sign on to Motown. When The Miracles received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Mr. Gordy and Stevie Wonder were the speakers. Mr. Gordy kept saying, “The First Lady of Motown,” when they were going to introduce me to speak to the group. He said, “The First Lady of Motown, Claudette Robinson.” A couple of my neighbors were there and they were like, “I didn’t know you were the First Lady of Motown.” I said, “Well, it’s not a badge I carry around on my sleeve or something.” I’ve always been kind of reserved as a younger person, very shy. If you were asking me that, I wouldn’t walk around saying, “Hey, I’m the First Lady of Motown,” even though there have been people who have taken my title for themselves.

Clayton Perry: Well, it’s yours, and no one should argue with Berry Gordy! [laughing]

Claudette Robinson: Right!  [laughing] I feel as though the person that knows who the title is officially for would be Mr. Gordy because it was his company. It was the name that he came up with and he bestowed that title on me. And for that, I am very, very humbled and I’m proud. I’m all of the things that one can be when someone thinks enough of you. Because, definitely, I was not the biggest artist there; I was just the first.

Clayton Perry: In all things, there has to be a first to lay the groundwork for those that come after. That’s the most important piece.

Claudette Robinson: Yes, The Miracles was the first group, and I was the first lady of Motown, with the first million-seller. So we had a lot of firsts. But I have to say thanks to the fans because honestly, without any of that happening and without the people going out and coming to the concerts and buying the records, none of that and none of what has happened would be possible.  I was just amazed that so many people came out to see us receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A lot of the star ceremonies – they’re great ceremonies – but not a lot of people come out. It’s basically the record company, their family and friends and that’s about it. There were people getting off of the bus when they found out what was going on. We have just been extremely blessed. We’ve just been really blessed through all these years to still be able to have people come out. They just always seem so thrilled and excited. I guess my mind just goes back to day one and I never ever would have thought that 50 plus years later people would be listening to the music and even want to see the group – any part of it. So we’ve been extremely blessed. We are extremely blessed.

Clayton Perry: 50 years from now, I believe that the world will continue to play Motown records.  I doubt the same will be true for much of the contemporary fare.  Looking at the current R&B landscape, a lot of people would say that “the soul” is gone.  What do you think makes the Motown sound so timeless? And do you think anything happened to “the soul” of R&B?

Claudette Robinson: Well, I truly believe the soul never dies. I think that soul is something that comes from within. It still exists today. The difference is a lot of the music today is manufactured. In our day, it was going to the recording studio. In the initial days, you were actually recording with the band; the band was right there with you. There were real instruments. It wasn’t manufactured music. I’m not knocking manufactured music. It does have its own place. but I think that you can get a much better feeling when you have the real instruments there.

Clayton Perry: To many, Marvin Gaye was known as “The Prince of Soul.”  With 2009 marking the 25th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s untimely death, as well as the digital release of Then & Now, which features some of his vintage, unreleased works, what do you find to be his lasting contribution to the music industry?

Claudette Robinson: Well, I was fortunate enough to go to the candlelight vigil by Marvin Gaye’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To think that it has been 25 years since his death…it’s unbelievable that much time has passed. Several Motown artists were in attendance, as well as fans that wanted to pay their respects to one of the greatest singers of our time. We would definitely rather that he was here alive and well to be a part of his celebration. But I think his legacy will go on forever and ever because his music is unmistakably genius. I don’t know of any other word that would really come into play for what he has contributed to the music world. And to this day, his contributions continue to go on because there is so much unreleased material that is currently being released. His work is absolutely fantastic. When you listen to his music, it’s still current; it’s never old. That’s only what a genius would be able to do because the average person, after a few years, the music begins to sound dated and old. His never does.

For more information on Claudette Robinson and/or The Miracles, visit the Classic Motown website: http://classic.motown.com/

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