The Story Behind Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Shop Around” and Why It’s One of the Most Important Songs in Motown History

The Motown label dominated the music world throughout the 1960s as a steady stream of hits came forth from an outstanding variety of artists. But it’s fair to wonder what might have happened had not Smokey Robinson and The Miracles helped break the dam, so to speak, with their massive 1960 hit single “Shop Around.”

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What is the song about? Why was it changed at the last minute? And how did it help launch Motown as a national powerhouse label? Let’s look at “Shop Around,” an iconic hit from a legendary record company.

Berry and Smokey

Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy acted as a kind of mutual motivation society. For his part, Gordy encouraged Robinson’s songwriting talent, which was clear even before he had any hits on the ledger. Meanwhile, Robinson kept after Gordy to start his own label, if only so his songs would get the showcase they deserved

Gordy trusted Robinson, allowing him to both record on his own and write for other artists. But he was also demanding, rejecting many of Robinson’s songs if he felt they weren’t up to snuff. “Shop Around” apparently appeared only after Robinson had struggled in his previous efforts to meet Gordy’s standards.

Oddly enough, Robinson didn’t think all that much of “Shop Around.” He thought it was just another in a long line of songs where a character recounts advice given to him by his mother. But Gordy, who received a co-writer’s credit, heard its potential and stopped Robinson from giving it away to Barrett Strong, another Motown artist, instead insisting that Smokey and The Miracles give it a shot.

Released Not Once, but Twice

Robinson dutifully reported to the studio and cut “Shop Around” with The Miracles. The song was released in the Detroit area (the home of Motown/Tamla) in September 1960. Gordy prepared for a national release the following month.

Just before that happened, Gordy felt a twinge of apprehension, feeling the recording of “Shop Around” that was in the can just wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. He summoned Robinson and The Miracles back to the studio in the wee hours one morning to do it again.

Gordy’s instincts were right. Even as he mostly kept the arrangement the same (including the prominent saxophone start), he juiced the tempo ever so slightly. While we’ll never know if the original version might have broken through, we do know the rerecorded hit went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts (and topped the Cashbox charts). Even more important, it became the first song connected to Motown that would sell a million copies, a major coup for the then-fledgling label.

What is the Meaning of “Shop Around”?

Smokey Robinson may have been right about “Shop Around” following in the footsteps of many songs like it. But his song then outpaced all of its similar predecessors, thanks to Robinson’s flair for wordplay and rhyme. It begins with an introduction that makes us expect the mother is going to tell him what kind of bride he should choose.

Instead, the music takes a sassy turn on a dime, and the narrator reveals that his mom had other advice: Before you ask some girl for her hand now / Keep your freedom for as long as you can now. Later, she expands upon this with a kind of cosmic wisdom: Just as sure as the wind’s gonna blow now / The women come and the women gonna go now. Her jaded outlook continues in the bridge, comparing marriage-eligible girls to commodities: Try to get yourself a bargain, son / Don’t be sold on the very first one.

As it turned out, Berry Gordy’s discerning tastes, combined with Smokey Robinson’s elite storytelling skills, helped Motown to one of the biggest hits of their early years. There would be many more to come from both of these men.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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