Motown Records, the legendary Detroit-based label that set the blueprint for modern rhythm and blues, has a long successful history with female singers. While many women have become synonymous with Motown over the years, one lady reigns supreme as the first lady of Motown and it’s not who you think. Claudette Robinson, was just a teen in 1953 when her brother was drafted into the army. Unbeknownst to her, her brother’s drafting was about to change the trajectory of more than just one life in her family.
At the time, the teenage songstress was a member of a local quintet in Detroit when her brother went to the army. “We were all teenagers and my brother had a group and I had a sister group. My brother’s group was called the Matadors and I had a sister group called the Matadorettes,” she recalled with a laugh.
Hall of Fame legend and Motown royalty Smokey Robinson was a member of the Matador’s and when Claudette’s brother was drafted, Smokey decided to put Claudette in his place. “After my brother joined the army, about a month later there was an audition taking place where they were looking for groups to sign for recording. The guys used to rehearse in our basement all the time. I would hear them and listen to them and the girls, we would sing their songs,” she remembers.
“When Smokey first asked me to join the group, I was hesitant because I had never sang with them before. But we went to the audition and while we were there the gentleman in charge saw us and said what he didn’t need was another signing group with a girl in it. At that time the Platters were another singing group with a girl and they were very popular, that’s what he was referring to,” Robinson said.
According to Mrs. Robinson they attempted to explain that they weren’t anything like that other singing group but the gentleman was not interested. Then fate intervened.
“Another gentleman was walking around and he kept noticing us and he wanted to know if we had any other songs because we were singing original songs,” claims Robinson. She continued, “So he asked Smokey if he had any more songs, Smokey said yes about a 100, then he said to Smokey, ‘can you sing for me?’ So, we all went over to where he was tinkering on the piano and we started harmonizing, then he introduced himself and said my name is Berry Gordy.”
That initial meeting took place in 1957. Motown eventually was founded in 1959 and the Matadors went on to become the legendary Miracles and were the first act to be signed to the infamous label.
As a member of the Miracles and the first female signed to Motown, there’s no denying Robinson’s influence on the legacy of the women of Motown. Although she’s much more modest about her impact, she was the model and the standard for the women of Motown. Much of the grace, style and elegance that epitomized girl groups of that era can be traced back to her. “I understand Mrs. Powell (Maxine Powell, who had been hired at Motown to teach the other female singers how to conduct themselves as artists), when the other girls started coming in and she was teaching them, she said to them, ‘if you want to be a lady just watch Claudette,’” she said. And while Robinson hesitates to use the words [role model] herself, its clear that’s exactly what she was. “I wouldn’t say I was a role model but I played a part in teaching the artists that came after me, what I had learned while out on the road — that’s important because I didn’t have anybody to teach me or tell me what to do or how to do it, you know we had to learn on our own.”
Unfortunately, Claudette’s time on the road took a toll on her and in 1965 she stopped performing with the Miracles.
“I came off the road performing in 1965, due to several miscarriages. Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy made the decision that perhaps my health was suffering and so I came off the road. Initially, I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t think I’d have any children and I might as well finish my career. It was a difficult time for me.”
Claudette continued to sing on all the records the Miracles recorded even after she stopped touring with the group. She actually continued to sing with the Miracles until Smokey retired from the group in 1972. When Smokey resumed his career three years later, she sang background for him on occasion.
“I’ve always love singing for as long as I can remember, since I was about three years old. I love the art of singing; I love harmonizing more than anything, that’s what I enjoy. I know there are people that like to be out front but my out front was the background. People don’t realize that’s not an easy task; it’s not just some oohs and ahhs, and even when it is you have to have a perfect blend to make it sound right—if you have ten sopranos you should like one voice, and ten basses should sound like one voice. If you’re singing with a group, it needs to have what I consider a perfect blend,” she stated.
Today Robinson prefers to keep a low profile and work with kids. Even though it’s what she prefers, keeping that low profile is becoming increasingly difficult for the music legend. Recently, she was featured in one of the longest running exhibits at the Grammy Museum, Legends of Motown: Celebrating The Miracles. The exhibit was the Grammy Museum’s second tribute to a Motown act. Also, this Friday, May 19, she will be honored at 9 a.m. by the City of Los Angeles at a ceremony for her accomplishments in the music industry. She is also writing a book about her life and life with the Miracles.
“You know most people think, I’m writing one of those tell all but that’s not the type of book I’m writing. I’ve had a good life with the Miracles and before them and I want to share that with the world.”
For booking and appearances, please contact Ms. Cynthia Busby – Publicist to Ms. Claudette Robinson.