On Feb. 19, 2019, Grammy-winning artist Smokey Robinson turns 79! After beginning his musical career in the 1960s as the lead singer of The Miracles, the beloved music star eventually branched out to become a solo performer in 1973, later recording top-charting hits like "Cruisin'" and "Just to See Her." In honor of this legendary Motown singer's birthday, Wonderwall.com is taking a look at what he and more of the most iconic Motown performers are up to these days. Keep reading for more…
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After becoming vice president of Motown Records and continuing to elevate his career throughout the 1970s, Smokey Robinson took a disastrous detour amid his addiction to cocaine in the 1980s. In the wake of his eventual recovery, Smokey's music reflected a more soulful sound and his strengthened faith in religion. He remained VP of Motown until it was sold in 1988. Since then, he's continued his musical career and even competed on Season 14 of "Dancing With the Stars." He's won multiple Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 1999, been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and in 2006, he received an honorary doctorate from Howard University. In 2019, Smokey can still be found on stage, continuing his "Live in Concert" tour throughout the States.
The Beyonce of her time, Diana Ross (center) began her career as the lead singer of The Supremes (originally called The Primettes). Diana, along with girl group members Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (a fourth member, Barbara Martin, had parted ways with the group early on), joined the Motown family in the early 1960s. Although the women were a major success, eventually becoming the best-charting and best-selling girl groups of all time with memorable songs such as "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "Come See About Me," Diana made the bold decision to leave the group to pursue a solo career in 1970.
On her own, Diana Ross soared to astounding heights with tracks like "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)." She branched out into acting too, portraying Billie Holiday in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues" and Dorothy in the 1978 "Wizard of Oz"-inspired film "The Wiz." Her acting abilities were passed to three of her five children: Rhonda Ross Kendrick (her daughter with Motown founder Berry Gordy); Tracee Ellis Ross (her daughter with music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein) and Evan Ross (her son with businessman and mountaineer Arne Naess Jr.), who each went on to establish acting careers of their own. Although Diana was nominated many times, she wouldn't receive a Grammy until 2012 when she won a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy. She also received a special Tony Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016. Diana can still be found performing live in Las Vegas or spending time with her beloved grandchildren.
Known as the "Queen of Motown," the young and ambitious Mary Wells was determined to make a name for herself, so she sought out Berry Gordy in their shared hometown of Detroit to woo him with her vocal talent. She serenaded the music exec with her song "Bye Bye Baby," which would later become her first hit record for Motown. Mary would go on to create her biggest hit, "My Guy," but ultimately left Motown Records to sign with other labels. Known as The Beatles' favorite American singer, Mary continued making music throughout the '80s, but never found the same success as she did with Motown. After spending years abusing drugs, alcohol and tobacco, Mary was diagnosed with a fatal form of larynx cancer. She spoke in front of a Congressional Committee to advocate for funding for cancer research before passing away from the disease in 1992. In 1999, her hit song "My Guy" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, insuring generations to come would remember her name.
Only a handful of people in history have received more Grammy acclaim than Stevie Wonder, who's earning an unsurpassed 74 nominations throughout his career and 25 wins. Though he's been blind since birth, Stevie taught himself how to play several instruments before he was discovered by Ronnie White of The Miracles at age 11. Stevie flourished during his career with Motown Records, dominating the charts throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s with hits like "My Cherie Amour," "Superstition" and "Happy Birthday" — which was the song he used to campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a nationally celebrated holiday.
After spending decades on the charts, Stevie Wonder's musical career began to slow down by the year 2000. In 2005, Stevie released his last studio album on the Motown label, "A Time to Love," but continued to produce singles and a slew of compilation albums. In 2016, he wrote and performed the hit single "Faith" with Ariana Grande for the animated film "Sing." Today, Stevie still makes appearances and performs live, most recently paying musical tribute to Aretha Franklin at her funeral in 2018.
First discovered by James Brown as a teen and later signed to Motown by Berry Gordy, Tammi Terrell was the label's shooting star. Born Thomasina Montgomery, Tammi was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania while pursuing her music career. She didn't hit her musical stride until she was paired with Marvin Gaye and performed the unforgettable duet "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The two would go on to make other timeless songs including "You're All I Need To Get By" and "Ain't Nothin like the Real Thing."
Sadly, Tammi Terrell's meteoric rise with Motown ended shortly after it began. In 1967, Tammi collapsed into Marvin Gaye's arms onstage at a concert, which led to the discovery of a brain tumor. After undergoing eight intensive surgeries to try to remove the tumor, Tammi ultimately passed away in 1970 shortly before she would have turned 25 years old. The grief that Marvin reportedly suffered afterward is said to have inspired his legendary album "What's Going On."
There has never been artist like Marvin Gaye. His sensational style of singing caught the attention of Harvey Fuqua, the leader of the band The Moonglows, who helped him sign to Motown Records in the 1960s. Marvin worked behind the scenes, drumming in studio sessions for labelmates like The Supremes and Stevie Wonder. After finally hitting the top charts with his song "Hitch Hike" in 1962, Marvin developed a reputation as a versatile musician and songwriter and became known for duets with leading female singers like Diana Ross, Mary Wells and a young Tammi Terrell, whom he considered a little sister. Keeping his personal life in the Motown family, Marvin even married Motown exec Berry Gordy's sister, Anna Gordy, in 1963.
After Tammi Terrell's untimely death in 1970, Marvin Gaye was inspired to pen the politically driven hit album "What's Going On," which debuted in 1972. The following year, he released his most successful album to date, "Let's Get it On." In 1977, following his divorce from Anna Gordy, Marvin married his second wife, Janis Hunter. Their relationship came to an end in 1981, which led Marvin to move in with his parents while he battled depression and substance abuse. In 1984, during an altercation with his father, Marvin was shot and killed. He left behind three children and a musical legacy that endures to this day.
Initially billed as The Pips, Gladys Knight's undeniable talent brought her to the forefront as the lead singer of the group that would eventually be known as Gladys Knight and The Pips. A founding member at the young age of 8, Gladys was an anchor to what would be a rotating cast of family members that included her siblings Merald and Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest. Edward Patten and Langston George would later join the revolving roster. By the mid-1960s, Gladys and her group were signed to Motown and churning out hits like "Yes, I'm Ready," "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" (the latter of which Marvin Gaye went on to re-record). They left the label in 1973 to sign with MGM's Buddah Records.
In 1978, Gladys Knight debuted her first of many solo albums, "Miss Gladys Knight," while still remaining an active member of her group until their eventual breakup in 1989. On her own, Gladys nabbed 22 Grammy nominations and an impressive seven awards. In 1996, Gladys Knight and the Pips were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2012, the passionate songbird competed on Season 14 of "Dancing With the Stars" and returned after being eliminated to serenade the top three finalists. Her solo music career continued into the new millennium (her last album, "Where My Heart Belongs," came out in 2014). In 2019, Gladys was once again in the spotlight when she performed a powerful rendition of the national anthem at Super Bowl LIII.
The Midas-penned singer-songwriter Lionel Richie was a founding member of The Commodores during his time attending Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute). The group entered the Motown family by opening up shows for The Jackson 5 but soon curated their own sound and following. With silky-smooth songs like "Three Times a Lady" and hits written for others (including "Lady" for Kenny Rogers), cranking out hits proved to be too easy for Lionel. After spending more than a decade as a Commodore (and winning a Grammy with the group), Lionel struck out on his own with his self-titled debut album under Motown in 1982. It hit No. 1 on the U.S. R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts.
As a solo performer, Lionel Richie has nabbed a jaw-dropping 32 Grammy nominations and four wins, including 1985's song of the year for "We Are the World" — the hit he co-wrote with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In 1996, a decade after his No. 1 Motown album "Dancing on the Ceiling," Lionel signed with a new label, Mercury Records, a subsidiary of Universal Records, but failed to find the same success on the charts. After moving to Island Records and, later, Mercury Nashville (both under the Universal label), Lionel found himself on top of the charts once more with his album "Tuskegee." In addition to being a father and now grandfather (thanks to his daughter, reality star-turned-fashion designer Nicole Richie), Lionel continues to perform around the country. He's currently a judge on "American Idol."
Hailing from Gary, Indiana, Jackie Jackson, Tito Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Marlon Jackson and a young Michael Jackson burst onto the scene as the Jackson 5 in 1964 and paved a new road in the music industry. The five brothers were reluctantly signed by Berry Gordy to Motown in the late 1960s. Berry wasn't enthusiastic about child entertainers but was won over by a magnetic young Michael. The boy band broke ground, combining R&B, soul and funk to create a bubbly new pop sound. The Jackson 5 charted early on with singles like "ABC" and "I Want You Back" and gained superfans touring the world throughout the '70s and early '80s, eventually leaving Motown in 1975.
The vocal prodigy of the group, Michael Jackson, began producing solo albums under the direction of his father, Joe Jackson, as early as 1972. Michael eventually left the group in 1984, two years after his chart-topping album "Thriller" hit the airwaves. In 1989, Michael returned to the Jackson 5 one more time to record their final album, "2300 Jackson Street." All five original members were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 (and all nine of the Jackson siblings — of whom Janet Jackson was the most successful next to Michael — have ranked on the Billboard music charts at some point). Since Michael's unfortunate death in 2009, Jackie Jackson, Tito Jackson, Jermaine Jackson and Marlon Jackson have continued touring and performing under the shortened moniker The Jacksons. Their last album with Motown was 2012's "Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls."
One of the youngest icons on our list rose to fame before ever landing a deal with Motown. Fans first met Erykah Badu in 1997 when she released her highly acclaimed album "Baduizm," which featured hits like "On & On" and "Tyrone," which ranked No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 200 and No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. Since 2007, Erykah has found a new musical home with Motown. Under the label, she's released studio albums "New Amerykah" Part One in 2008 and Part Two in 2010, giving us smooth-sounding tracks such as "Honey" (which earned a Grammy nod for best short form video) and "Window Seat."
In 2015, Erykah Badu released a mixtape titled "But You Can't Use My Phone," which paid homage to famous lyrics from her '90s hit "Tyrone." The album showed off her ability to adapt and make more modern music, with each song playing off of cellphone- and technology-related topics. In 2018, Erykah was honored with the Soul Train Legend Award, which commemorated her career in music. Stepping outside her artistry, Erykah made headlines that same year when she claimed she "saw something good" in Hitler and his paintings and empathized with convicted sexual assault perpetrator Bill Cosby. In 2019, she once again found herself in the midst of controversy when she said the following of alleged child rapist and music star R. Kelly while performing in Chicago in January: "I'm putting up a prayer right now for R. I hope he sees the light of day if he done all those things that we've seen on TV and heard those ladies talk about. I hope he sees the light of day and comes forward." Fans decried what they saw as support from Erykah for the embattled music star. She later clarified her remarks on Twitter, writing to R. Kelly, "I love you. Unconditionally… That doesn't mean I support your poor choices. I want healing for you and anyone you have hurt as a result of you being hurt. Is that strange to you?" Today you can find Erykah performing across the U.S. or on the popular YouTube musical series NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.
Not many groups could sustain and endure the way The Four Tops have for more than half a century. Original members Levi Stubbs, Abdul Fakir, Renaldo Benson and Lawrence Payton formed what was then known as The Four Aims in the mid-1950s before renaming themselves The Four Tops in 1956 to avoid being confused with the Ames Brothers. The group finally landed their first big hit in 1964 with "Baby I Need Your Loving" through Motown Records. They kept coming with No. 1 singles like "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and "Ask the Lonely," making room for themselves among the legends of their time like Nat King Cole and Miles Davis. When Motown moved operations from Detroit to Los Angeles, The Four Tops left the label though they came back to Motown in 1983 to tour with The Temptations.
After lead singer Levi Stubbs suffered a stroke in 2000, Theo Peoples stepped in, although Ronnie McNeir, the group's former music director, later joined in his place. Theo stayed on but was eventually replaced by Harold Bonhart. Eight years after Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer in 1997, his son, Lawrence "Roquel" Payton Jr., took over his spot in the group. Renaldo Benson passed away from lung cancer the same year Roquel joined their group, with Levi dying three years later in 2008. Abdul, who's now in his 80s, has continued on as the final remaining original member of The Four Tops and tours with his "newer" bandmates around the country. The group received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2009 after being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and NAACP Hall of Fame.
The irreplaceable Rick James began his recording career with Motown in the mid-1960s. Rick's first band, The Mynah Birds, included Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, who would go on to become members of Buffalo Springfield. The Mynah Birds recorded their first album with Motown, however, after going AWOL from the Navy and fleeing to Toronto, Rick was arrested and served time, leaving their album unreleased. After returning to Motown, Rick continued to write and produce music under Gordy Records (a subsidiary of Motown Records), releasing hits like "Mary Jane" and "Super Freak." MC Hammer even sampled "Super Freak" in his song "U Can't Touch This" in 1990, helping Rick win his only Grammy.
In 1986, Rick James left Motown after the label sued him for breach of contract for missing the deadline on an upcoming album. In response, Rick countersued the label, saying it didn't pay him the royalties or advances he'd earned. After years of hard partying and open drug use, which included an admitted $15,000-a-week cocaine addiction, Rick was arrested and later convicted of drug-induced sexual assault and torture, landing him in Folsom Prison for two years. In 1998, a year after releasing his album "Urban Rapsody," Rick (seen here with an unnamed date in 2003) suffered a stroke during a performance in Denver that left him temporarily unable to walk. In 2002, his downfall continued when he was once again the subject of a sexual assault investigation, although he was never arrested. In 2004, Rick died of an enlarged heart while writing his autobiography, "Glow."