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Smokey Robinson

With his androgynous falsetto and mystifying meditations of the vagaries of romance, Smokey forever carved a tear-stained corner in the hearts of soul aficionados. As Berry Gordy Jr.’s right hand man at Motown, The MIRACLES viceroy was also critical in forging the label’s overall sound as well as the careers of individual artists such as The TEMPTATIONS and MARY WELLS. While tenor Smokey and his MIRACLES could throw down foot-stomping R&B with the best of them (`Shop Around’ and `Going To A Go-Go’ prime examples), his forte was the tortured ballad. And they don’t come much more deliciously painful than the well-trodden `The Tracks Of My Tears’ and `The Tears Of A Clown’.
A certain BOB DYLAN lavished the man high praise indeed when he said of him that he was “America’s greatest living poet”. Inevitably, a solo calling beckoned in ‘72/‘73, but apart from the odd smooch-y soul classic such as `Cruisin’’ and `Being With You’, Smokey’s fire fumed and smouldered in the night-light under the mirror-ball of life.
Born William Robinson, Jr., February 19, 1940 in Detroit, Michigan, “Smokey Joe” – as he was nicknamed – had to grow up quicker than most when his dotting mother died when he was only 10. Raised by his older sister Geraldine when his truck-driving father worked shifts, his inspiration came from picking up his mother’s jazz and blues record collection (e.g. Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine to JOHN LEE HOOKER and MUDDY WATERS).
From out of schoolboy singing groups the Five Chimes and, in turn, The Matadors, The MIRACLES were formed; solidified when guitarist Marv Tarplin joined vocalists Smokey, Ronald White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and cousin Claudette Rogers (sister of the army-bound ex-member Emerson Rogers).
A meeting with an ambitious Berry Gordy, Jr. (part-time songwriter to JACKIE WILSON), sparked a business liaison which lasted decades and, more importantly, produced an iconic label, Tamla Motown, a label that heralded such inspirational greats as The TEMPTATIONS, The SUPREMES, MARVIN GAYE, STEVIE WONDER and, of course, The MIRACLES.
After 1958’s `Got A Job’ failed in its attempt to get the group going, and `Bad Girl’ only just managed to squeak out a Hot 100 place when licensed to Chess Records, things looked decidedly edgy for Smokey’s team of aspiring vocalists. That worry disappeared when `Shop Around’ climbed into the Top 3 early in 1961, kick-starting a conveyor belt of hits from Top 20 stirrers `You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ and `Mickey’s Monkey’, to mid-60s smash hits `Ooo Baby Baby’, `The Tracks Of My Tears’, `My Girl Has Gone’ and `Going To A Go-Go’. In the meantime (1963), Smokey married Claudette and almost immediately started a family; she would continue with The MIRACLES as an integral auxiliary back-up singer for the remainder of the 60s.
Smokey was also earning extra financial benefits by taking on the position of top in-house songwriter for Gordy’s Tamla/Motown roster of acts, acts that included MARY WELLS (`My Guy’), the aforesaid TEMPTATIONS (`My Girl’), The MARVELETTES, BRENDA HOLLOWAY, MARVIN GAYE, et al. For his troubles Smokey was made company vice-president, becoming Gordy’s right-hand man during his lifelong tenure at the label (he even named his kids Berry and Tamla!).
The freshly monikered SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES strengthened their grip on the charts by piercing the hit parade on many occasions; `I Second That Emotion’, `Baby, Baby Don’t Cry’ and a belatedly-issued chart-topper `The Tears Of A Clown’ (recorded in 1966), convinced their enigmatic leader to stay – just a little bit longer. When the major hits seemed to be drying up after `I Don’t Blame You At All’ cracked the Top 20, in spring 1971, and after a suitably miraculous period at Tamla, SMOKEY ROBINSON added a solo career to his CV when he unveiled his SMOKEY {*7} album in 1973.
Given an encouraging critical response, if not red-carpet-treatment from the record-buying public, the Top 75 set embraced his lighter and lush tones to full effect. Co-produced by WILLIE HUTCH and helped out on a few sittings by MIRACLES man Tarplin (their `Baby Come Close’ dented the Top 30), modest chart-breaker `Sweet Harmony’ was pitted against readings of GOFFIN & KING’s `Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ and a medley of standards by way of `Never My Love’ and `Never Can Say Goodbye’.
With much the same gravitas and line-up as his prior engagement (save for HUTCH being replaced by arranger GENE PAGE – he of “Blacula” fame), 1974’s PURE SMOKEY {*7} met with a similar commercial rebuffle. Soft-shoe soul or late-night dance music, it starred a trio of modest hits in `It’s Her Turn To Live’, `Virgin Man’ and `I Am I Am’. Not totally dearth of HUTCH’s presence, `A Tattoo’ (think HAMILTON BOHANNON in uptown soul mode), closed the set in fulgurate funking fashion.
ROBINSON cruised back into vogue on Top 40 third album, A QUIET STORM (1975) {*8}, a record that finally went some way in competing with Motown peers, GAYE, WONDER and ROSS. The fact that the LP title became a sub-genre in its own right made it all the more wonderful. On mid-table hits, `Baby That’s Backatcha’ and `The Agony And The Ecstasy’ (an edited `Quiet Storm’ platter stalled at #61), Smokey continued to wrap his silken falsetto around a far more laid back, sophisticated sound, becoming an expert romantic balladeer in the process, although appealing largely to an MOR audience.
Grooving in spaces tuned into by the aforementioned MARVIN GAYE, it was admirable that his kinfolk got in on the picture with SMOKEY’S FAMILY ROBINSON (1976) {*5}. Light and laid-back on many of the ballads, only a “Summer In The City”-like `Open’ took minor chart honours. On the other end of the spectrum, the crooner-disco sprinkled Top 50 entry, DEEP IN MY SOUL (1977) {*5}, fell short of the promises he’d shown only a few years back. Leaving the songs to outsiders such as Donald Baldwin & Jeffrey Bowen, or Elliot Wilensky, only the Kathy Wakefield & Brenda Sutton piece, `There Will Come A Day (I’m Gonna Happen To You)’, registered in the minds of sophisticated soul seekers.
The underrated dancefloor flirtations of the BIG TIME (1977) {*6} soundtrack, can be construed as his own little piece of baroque’n’soul – or Smokey does disco. Dispensing with the hard graft and hired scribes of his previous offering, ROBINSON dropped an AVERAGE WHITE BAND-meets-GIORGIO MORODER title bomb, wired with one-track rhythm and Meccano guitar; sweet Studio 54 candy, sung like a SLY STONE successor.
Smokey’s real genius, though, was to sneak in blasts of organ-awkward gospel (e.g. `J.J.’s Theme’ and the slamming `He Is The Light Of The World’) just so one knew the hedonism was blessed from on high. The man was more recognisably tearful on side two, but he sang, produced and generally turned on those sad songs like no one else; the stunning, disembodied intimacy of `So Nice To Be With You’, distilled the ambience every popstar-wannabe-soul-legend would try – and usually fail – to approximate. This being the decade of all things Corleone/MORRICONE, there was even a few minutes of trilled mandolin called `The Agony And The Ecstasy’, audaciously, absurdly fading back into that monster groove of a title reprise. Motown would unceremoniously sweep this one under the long-pile rug.
The doyen of heartbreak wasn’t quite so crucial in cinematic terms; Smokey making a few subsequent acting appearances beginning with a cameo as himself in street gang effort, Knights Of The City (1985). This was followed by minor roles in John McNaughton’s sci-fi horror, The Borrower (1989), martial arts stinker, Pushed To The Limit (1992) and glib actioner, Hollywood Homicide (2003).
As new wave and punk reared its ugly head outside the doors of “Studio 54” and the disco scene, rich man Smokey looked out from a different window for inspiration as his marriage to Claudette was hitting another bad spell. As metaphoric and spirited as he’d always been, 1978’s LOVE BREEZE {*6} featured only one modest hit, the cutting and more than poignant, `Daylight And Darkness’.
As a collaboration tribute single to the passing of Berry Gordy, Sr. (`Pops, We Love You’) with DIANA ROSS, MARVIN GAYE and STEVIE WONDER, was about to bomb unceremoniously, the career-spanning concert double-LP, SMOKIN’ (1978) {*6}, re-traced several “Miraculous” tracks and a few tears.
ROBINSON wasn’t back in the Top 20 chart spotlight until 1979’s self-penned WHERE THERE’S SMOKE… {*6}, and its steamy accompanying Top 5 single, `Cruisin’. Now at ease at being given the disco treatment (even going as far as to re-vamp his old TEMPTATIONS donation, `Get Ready’), the smooth balladeer looked to be in his comfort zone – at last!
As the rock dinosaurs and gods thrashed their bloodied tails, it was surprising how many silver-age soul men were still making vital records at the fag-end of the 70s. MARVIN GAYE, STEVIE WONDER and CURTIS MAYFIELD were all pushing ever more baroque concepts which needled the era’s critics, but were ultimately rehabilitating. SMOKEY ROBINSON was too mature, shrewd and hopelessly romantic for such folly; in his own pre-coital way, though, he more or less maintained his critical stock right through the next decade.
About to turn 40, with already several studio sets to his solo name, WARM THOUGHTS (1980) {*7}, railed in ROBINSON with another critical and commercial success. Fuelled with his characteristic horizontal aplomb, opening cue `Let Me Be Your Clock’ breezed into the charts, while the stylistic and funky disco approach was limited to `Melody Man’ and `Heavy On Pride (Light On Love)’.
Bolstered by the #2 (UK chart-topping) title track, the suave and sophisticated soul of BEING WITH YOU (1981) {*6} continued Smokey’s creative renaissance; only a stab at lovers-rock reggae in `Food For Thought’ was ill-advised. The pinnacle of his long-standing career, but crooning to a beat far removed from his Motown buddies, ROBINSON was now a serious contender to succeed BEN E. KING or the late, great SAM COOKE.
While both YES IT’S YOU LADY (1982) {*5} – featuring hit `Tell me Tomorrow (Part 1)’ – and TOUCH THE SKY (1983) {*5}, spent a few weeks in the Top 50, the synthetic, Sonny Burke-arranged ESSAR (1984) {*4} and SMOKE SIGNALS (1986) {*5} had the opposite effect on his fanbase. An annus horibilis by any stretch of the imagination, Smokey’s marriage to Claudette finally came to a grinding halt when their divorce was finalised; he fathered a son (Trey) by a different mother in ‘84. An addiction to crack cocaine certainly didn’t help, while Smokey’s romantic infidelities had continued to trouble him.
While the mid 80s proved a difficult period both personally and commercially, only 1987’s million-selling ONE HEARTBEAT {*6} album breached the Top 30, while its outsider-sourced spawns, `Just To See Her’ (a Grammy winner) and the title track, climbed into the lower reaches of the Top 10. Co-produced by Rick Chudacoff and Peter Bunetta (Sonny Burke as always on keyboards), a duet with SYREETA WRIGHT on `Love Brought Us Here Tonight’, was also noteworthy.
Having resigned his vice-presidency in ’88 and free of his drug addiction, ROBINSON finally left Motown after the dismal showing of LOVE, SMOKEY (1990) {*4}, a record that couldn’t mirror his duet chart appearance with KENNY G on `We’ve Saved The Best For Last’. Signed to the S.B.K. imprint for 1991’s DOUBLE GOOD EVERYTHING {*4}, the man accomplished little or nothing in supplying feel-good commercial pop that encompassed everything from R&B, simple soul, cod-reggae, crooner country and noodly nostalgia.
Several years on, a spiritually-enhanced SMOKEY ROBINSON decided to have another spot under the limelight by way of INTIMATE (1999) {*5}. Certainly not his best work by any means, the singer and his producer/co-writer Michael Stokes fired in the odd smouldering ballad and/or uptempo number, although approaching 60 years of age, the Motown icon was never going to attract a fresh-faced following from the effervescent hip-hop generation.
Turning his dread-locked head toward gospel-soul music, citing a re-awakening from his drug-hell days, 2004’s FOOD FOR THE SPIRIT {*5} eased out his demons one by one. Tinted by a sentimental swoon and a crystalline production, Smokey attempted to rope in and preach to the converted by way of `Jesus Told Me To Love Him’, `Let Your Light Shine On Me’, the er… `Gang Bangin’’ and the hip-hop fusion of `We Are The Warriors’.
Following in the weary footsteps of “American Songbook” acolyte ROD STEWART, Smokey took his chance to display his own idolatrous tendencies on TIMELESS LOVE (2006) {*6}. Cherry-picking from the amiable catalogue of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Sammy Cahn, et al, the “quiet storm” had subsided somewhat on standards such as `Night And Day’, `I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, `Our Love Is Here To Stay’, `Time After Time’, `Fly Me To The Moon’, among many others.
Self-financed on his own Robso Records, TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE HAVING FUN (2009) {*5} (and some doppelganger cuts on the re-makes set NOW AND THEN (2010) {*5}), kept Smokey’s fires alight as the songsmith again moved into supper-club terrain. If he was having fun, then it was certainly in short supply on the soft-shoe-shine of `You’re The One For Me’ (a duet with JOSS STONE), `You’re Just My Life’ (featuring INDIA.ARIE) and `Please Don’t Take Your Love’, the latter highlighting the guitar frets of CARLOS SANTANA.
These collaborations probably went into the thinking behind 2014’s return-to-chartland set, SMOKEY & FRIENDS {*4}. Produced by American Idol judge Randy Jackson, ROBINSON’s career-spanning “greatest hits” were given a contemporary spin by all and sundry, from rock god Steven Tyler on `You Really Got A Hold On Me’ and ELTON JOHN on `The Tracks Of My Tears’, to SHERYL CROW’s “Bangles-y” version of `The Tears Of A Clown’, folky JAMES TAYLOR on `Ain’t That Peculiar’ and MARY J. BLIGE’s understated re-tread of `Being With You’; this time around fans could be the judge to possibly turn the tables on X-Factor’s GARY BARLOW and The Voice’s JESSIE J.
Not a time to bow out Smokey Joe!
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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