Billy Griffin: The Miracle of Forest Park

WHEN MOTOWN'S MIRACLES NEEDED A REPLACEMENT FOR SMOKEY ROBINSON, THEY FOUND HIM IN BALTIMORE!

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It is rare that one gets the opportunity to replace an icon and idol. But Billy Griffin, the Baltimore crooner and Forest Park High School graduate(68), did just that.

Griffin grew up admiring and idolizing the legendary Smokey Robinson.  After years of honing his skills in local groups including The Last Dynasty, Griffin was ready for a career defining moment. In 1972, Smokey Robinson left the Miracles and Motown’s legendary president, Berry Gordy, had the huge task of finding a replacement.  Fresh off a major win in a talent contest, Griffin headed to Detroit to audition for the Miracles. As fate and faith would have it, Griffin beat out all competitors and became a Miracle.

In 1972, The Miracles launched a Smokey Robinson farewell tour that also introduced Billy Griffin as the new lead singer. In contrast to the support from Smokey Robinson and his band mates, there were many doubting that the Billy Griffin led Miracles could continue the success they had achieved with Smokey at the lead.  One of the factors in selecting Griffin as Smokey’s replacement was not only his voice but his writing ability. The Miracles first posthumous release was 1973’s Renaissance.  The album was a critic’s favorite and included production from Willie Hutch, Marvin Gaye and Freddie Perren.

The platinum selling single “Do It Baby” proved to the doubters that the Miracles were still viable and Billy Griffin was a huge reason for it. The sexually charged “Do It Baby” would be the jab that would ultimately set up the groups knockout blow.

One listen to the album and it was evident that Griffin was more than a Smokey Robinson replacement; vocally he was just as good. But the album wasn’t as much a success commercially as it was critically. Enter 1974 and the game would change. After some missteps with singles to promote Renaissance, the Miracles released the album “Do It Baby” and the single with the same name.  The platinum selling single “Do It Baby” proved to the doubters that the Miracles were still viable and Billy Griffin was a huge reason for it. The sexually charged “Do It Baby” would be the jab that would ultimately set up the groups knockout blow.

In 1975, the Miracles released the album City of Angels. This was a concept album that told the story of a man who follows his girlfriend to Los Angeles where she has hopes of becoming a star.  City of Angels also contained the group’s biggest hit, “Love Machine”. The multi-platinum “Love Machine” moved more than 4 million units worldwide and more than solidified the presence of Billy Griffin as lead singer. The album was written by Billy Griffin and fellow Miracle Pete Moore. The Baltimore bred Griffin was at the zenith of his career.

Some controversy soon followed with the song “Ain’t Nobody Straight in LA”, a song that highlighted the growing gay lifestyle in Los Angeles. It left many listeners puzzled as to how to receive it. Another interesting song was ,“My Name is Michael” originally written for Michael Jackson’s first solo album.

A couple of years of chart success would not be enough for the Miracles to stay with Motown. In 1976 they headed to Columbia records. Their stint at Columbia would not even remotely rival their success at Motown. After a couple of albums at Columbia it was time for a new direction for Griffin.

In the 80’s the Forest Park High School grad released three solo albums with classic singles that included “Hold Me Tighter in the Rain” and “Serious”.  The 80’s also saw Griffin sign with Motorcity Records.  Motorcity Records was a Motown reunion project that not only showcased Griffin fronting a reunion with the Miracles but also writing for other artists.

Today, Griffin is still writing and performing. His most recent solo effort, Like Water, can be best described as ‘grown folk’ music.

Based on his successes in the UK, Griffin may be more appreciated there than in America, and certainly in Baltimore. Billy Griffin’s musical gifts have taken him across the globe and given him success that any number of artists would envy. Griffin grew up idolizing the man he would replace in a legendary group on a legendary label; Co-wrote and performed on multi-platinum songs; tutored by Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson; performed, wrote, produced for one of the greatest record men, Berry Gordy.

But a detailed look into his musical landscape as a singer, musician, songwriter, producer and it is easy to see that Griffin has been one of the most underrated talents.  As part of the Miracles, he is star blazed on the sidewalks of Hollywood, but was not included when the Miracles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This gifted artist whose talents were honed right here in Baltimore has never received the recognition he deserves. How fitting it would be for a wax statue at Blacks in Wax Museum or some tribute at Forest Park High School.

We salute you Billy Griffin!

{copyright 2013) Clinton Green/School 18 Project