Smokey's songs have always suggested that love is a complex game, if not an outright conundrum, and his own life is a testament to that viewpoint. He married Claudette in 1959 when he was 19, and they divorced 27 years later. They remain close remarkably so, in fact. It seems to be far more than a matter of being bound by finances, or by the two children (Berry, 32, and Tamla, 31) and three grandchildren (3-year-old Lyric, a girl, and the twins, Alex and Alexis, born in December) they share.
The lyrics to a pair of old Miracles hits offer significant clues to the powerful, possibly karmic, nature of his relationship with Claudette. In the plaintive ''Ooo Baby Baby,'' he sang, ''I did you wrong/My heart went out to play/But in the game I lost you/What a price to pay,'' all too accurately presaging the events leading up to the couple's divorce in '86 (two years after Smokey fathered an out-of-wedlock son, Trey, with a paramour). ''More Love,'' which Smokey wrote expressly for Claudette in 1967, tells another tale, one in which the singer pledges to shower his mate with ''more love/and more joy/than age or time could ever destroy.'' Both sentiments ring true.
''Claudette is my heart,'' says Smokey, who has never remarried. ''We're not in love, but we are lovers. I don't mean physically, I mean we're spiritually connected. I could not have a woman in my life who would not understand who Claudette is to me.''
For her part, Claudette says she is ''healed'' of any post-divorce ill will, and speaks feelingly of her ex-husband's fundamental goodness. ''He has never stopped coming to visit for the holidays,'' she says. ''What always came across [in Smokey] was a gentleness. I remember telling my mother after I met him, 'Mom, he's one of the nicest guys I know.' I think he got those qualities from his mom and his older sister. His mother passed away when he was 10, but she must have been a very wise woman to inject all that wisdom and knowledge about life into him.''
The son of a bowling-alley pinsetter and a housewife, William Robinson Jr. was born Feb. 19, 1940, on Belmont Street in the North End of Detroit. When he was 6 or 7, his Uncle Claude christened him ''Smokey Joe,'' which the young William, a Western-movie enthusiast, at first assumed to be ''his cowboy name for me.'' Some time later, he learned the deeper significance of his nickname: It derived from ''smokey,'' a pejorative term for dark-skinned blacks. ''I'm doing this,'' his uncle told the light-skinned boy, ''so you won't ever forget that you're black.''
The name and lesson stuck, a lifelong symbol of poetic irony at its sharpest.
Despite a pair of early tragedies his parents' divorce when he was 3, and his mother's death from a cerebral hemorrhage, which forced his older sister Gerry and her husband, Bill, to take him into their extended family Smokey excelled in school. He was an above-average student and an avid athlete, but music was his primary passion. By his teen years, he had fallen under the spell of doo-wop and started a singing group called the Five Chimes with some like-minded buddies at Northern High School. One thing concerned him: his high singing voice, which he secretly worried was unmanly. Thankfully, an epiphany was coming.