Why Smokey Robinson's Father Ran Away From Home At 12 Years Old

When Motown was put on the map in the 1960s, it was the mastermind of the legendary producer Berry Gordy who brought a unique sound to the airwaves. That era paved the way for the Temptations, the Supremes, and dozens of other vocal groups to top the charts with hit after hit. Some might be surprised to know that it was musician and songwriter Smokey Robinson that inspired Gordy to create a label that would forever encapsulate the sound and feel of a generation.

Robinson hails from Detroit, where he grew up singing in various local groups around the city. When he was a young teenager, he formed a group called the Five Chimes with his friends. Robinson was heavily influenced by the harmonies, vocal ranges, and nonsensical syllables common in the 50s era, using this those dynamics with the stylings of the jazz that was popular at the time (per Britannica). The Five Chimes would evolve into the vocal group the Matadors, with one incarnation of Robinson's band getting an audience with the man who managed soul singer Jackie Wilson. Though the Matadors were not signed by the label, Robinson caught the ear of Berry Gordy. Gordy was Wilson's songwriter and began to collaborate with Robinson, leading to the eventual formation of Motown Records. In time, the Matadors would change their name to the Miracles and mark the beginnings of a successful recording career for Robinson.

Robinson had a unique and interesting life. But, as he revealed in an interview with Vlad TV, his father also had a history that is certainly noteworthy.

Robinson's father was being bullied

Smokey Robinson sat down with DJ Vlad for an interview earlier in 2023 to discuss his legendary career (per YouTube). But the conversation took some interesting turns when Robinson began to talk about his family. The "Tears of a Clown" singer would give grim details about an incident with his father that would paint a picture of how racial injustices in the elder Robinson's era forced him to leave his home when he was only 12 years old.

Born in 1896, William Robinson, Sr. had worked delivering papers in Selma, Alabama since he was 10. The meager earnings he made each week were often taken by a kid that was five years older than he. Robinson's dad was Black, and his older bully was a white teen. Complaining to any authorities in early 20th century Alabama seemed pretty futile. So the young kid just took it, continuing to work while knowing that he stood a good chance of losing his money to this older kid at any given moment. 

Robinson's father was the youngest child in the family. Robinson mentions that his father had considered telling his older brothers about his problem, but one legitimate fear stopped him. He was certain that if he involved his brothers that they would do something to stop the bully and thief from stealing his money, but that their actions would come with some serious consequences. Young Black men accosting a white kid could have led to a mob of white people storming the Robinson's home and beating or killing members of his family. So he went a different route.

Robinson's father took extreme measures to solve his problem

After two years of being bullied and robbed, Robinson's father decided to take matters into his own hands. Robinson told Vlad TV (via YouTube) of how his father bought a boy scout knife and waited for the older boy, who was now 17, to try and steal from him again. Shortly after payday, the teen accosted Robinson's father for the last time. The paperboy was shoved onto the ground for refusing to give up his hard-earned money but then brandished his new knife. He plunged the blade into the bully's leg. 

The bully's screams marked the end of him taking money from Robinson's father. But his short-term relief was replaced with the fear of the teen and his friends and family retaliating against the Robinsons. Believing that if he stayed in town that it would make his family a target, the 12-year-old walked to the railroad tracks and hopped a train out of town. He would live as a transient throughout his teenage years before settling in Cleveland at 19, according to Robinson. 

Robinson said that his father left Selma that day and never looked back. As the interview went on, Robinson conveyed that though he felt sympathy for his father's situation that most of his feelings of sorrow were with his grandmother. He talked of how horrible it must have been for her to have her youngest child run away and never see him again (per YouTube).