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Smokey Robinson changes record labels

In what ranks as one of the most surprising artist defections in pop-music history, R&B legend Smokey Robinson has left Motown Records for one of the world's hottest new record labels. The crooner recently signed a contract with SBK Records, the upstart label that has enjoyed great success with newcomers like Wilson Phillips, Vanilla Ice, Jesus Jones and Technotronic.

"I've nothing to tell you except, yes, he is officially with us," said SBK Records head of publicity Angela Lang.

"We're not really making a statement," said Motown Records vice president of communications Michael Mitchell. "We wish him well. Basically that's it."

Robinson's departure from Motown is startling. For years he symbolized Motown's rise from modest Detroit origins to a contender in Hollywood's lucrative music sweepstakes.

Motown's first staff songwriter, Robinson got his start fronting the Miracles. The group was discovered performing in Detroit in 1959 by a young entrepreneur named Berry Gordy.

It is said that Gordy was initially interested in the group's female background singer. But it wasn't long before Gordy began to see the potential in Robinson's angelic falsetto voice and boyish charm (Robinson would later marry backup vocalist Claudette Rogers).

The Miracles were signed to Gordy's new Tamla Records label _ an offshoot of Motown _ around 1959. Gordy's instincts about Robinson would be validated months later after the Miracles' Shop Around became Tamla's first hit.

The single was just the tip of the iceberg. Robinson would have such a colossal influence on Motown and the pop music world that Gordy was compelled to rename the group Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Guided by Robinson's and Gordy's songwriting and producing savvy, the Miracles scored hit after hit in the '60s and '70s. Songs such as Shop Around, Ooh Baby Baby, The Tracks of My Tears and The Tears of a Clown are now considered R&B classics.

As the group's hit streak continued, Robinson's songwriting skills drew praise from contemporaries such as Bob Dylan. Acts as diverse as Linda Ronstadt, Eddie Money, Japan and En Vogue have interpreted his songs.

Robinson was among a handful of acts that remained at Motown during the turbulent '70s and '80s. While groups like the Temptations, the Jackson 5, and Gladys Knight and the Pips defected to other labels, Robinson stayed to become Motown vice president.

The singer is currently in the studio recording an album slated for fall release.

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