The Great Smokey Robinson. Singer. Songwriter. Producer. Talent Extraordinairre.
It’s wonderful to sing well. It’s even more meaningful to write a great and enduring song.
Both talents were bestowed on young William “Smokey” Robinson, long before he helped to start Motown Records in Detroit in the early 1960s, with his friend Berry Gordy.
Gordy had the business acumen; Smokey had the musical chops. By the time he was in his early 20s, Smokey was writing, recording and arranging a stream of hit tunes for this landmark record company, which blended bluesy soulfulness with sleek arrangements and killer hooks. He also was a terrific talent scout, cultivating the musical gifts of the kids he grew up with in Motor City.
As an entertainer, Smokey’s still terrific — I saw him recently, and in his late 60s he’s not only still in great voice (one of the best pop falsettos ever) but he’s still sexy, romantic and full of joy.
But while I’ve found a lot of great performances on video of Smokey, with his hit-making crewT he Miracles and after he went solo, Part I of this tribute considers some Smokey tunes especially wrote (and produced) for other Motown masters.
What makes Smokey’s songs so memorable? The lyrics, though inevitably about boyfriend-girlfriend passions, are so clever that Bob Dylan once called Robinson one of his favorite poets, and John Lennon and George Harrison also gave him props.
Smokey knows how to twist a phrase to make it fresh every one of his songs tells a compelling story, and there are indeed poetic images in a lot of his tunes, along with real wit. But it’s also the arrangements he worked up with the fabulous Funk Brothers (Motown’s brilliant house musicians), including the miraculous James Jamerson on bass, that make the best of the tunes he produced instantly unforgettable. Listen to the baselines — a symphony in themselves! And there’s a perfect layering of percussion, piano, vocals, guitar, bass and backup voices (augmented sometimes by horns and violins).
But Smokey’s been a huge fan of many kinds of music his entire life — from opera to Cole Porter to modern jazz. A grouchy Boomer like me wants to encourage this in young artists: listen, listen, listen to all the greats, and absorb!
So from the more than 1,000 tunes in Smokey’s songbag, I’m picking out some gems. (Later, I’ll play tribute to Smokey doing his own material, with and without the fab Miracles.)
Let’s start with the suave, magical Temptations, since Smokey wrote their break-through hits. Here are some rare live versions (sometimes with lipsynching, which was what some people did on TV at the time) with the ultra-suave Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin singing leads. Do check out the choreography, created by such legendary jazz-tappers as Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles. It’s a total delight.
First comes “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” with a lyric led by Eddie that’s full of charming similes (“You got a smile so bright/You know you could’ve been a candle….”)
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” — The Temptations (rare live on a NY TV show)
Another Temps classic. Picture a little blurry, but the guys look so great, and move so hot:
“Get Ready” — The Temptations
If you ever go see the Temps, and some incarnation of them is still out there touring, this is the tune they turn into a huge audience sing-along. And who doesn’t know “My Girl”?? The song is in our collective bloodstream. David Ruffin does the lead honors this time:
“ My Girl” — The Temptations
The other “My Girl” rendition that brings a different vibe and some rough-edged soul to the song is this live version by the incomparable Otis Redding, the Love Man. ‘Nuff said.
“My Girl” — Otis Redding (with his great band, The Bar-Keys, live in England)
As a kind of book-end to “My Girl,” Smokey also conconcocted “My Guy” for Motown solo artist, Mary Wells. With its jaunty beat, witty internal rhymes (“Nothing you can buy can make me tell a lie to my guy”), and that ultra-cool vocal by Mary, another favorite of the Beatles, it was another big-selling classic:
“My Guy” — Mary Wells
The Smoke (as pal Stevie Wonder calls him) also took a strong interest in shaping the musical style of The Marvelettes, who toured with the Beatles on their U.S. tour. Talk about sexy, these girls were HOT, and I prefer them to the Supremes (shown here briefly). Here’s one of the treasures Smokey wrote for them, featuring the sultry Wanda Rogers on lead — one of the great “hands off, ladies!” tunes of all time. And love their moves:
“Don’t Mess With Bill“
Finally, we have another Motown genius, Marvin Gaye, who was like a brother to Smokey. The ebullient Gaye started out at Motown as a session drummer, but that skill was soon eclipsed by his mounting fame as a smooth, sexy, utterly distinctive vocalist. Marvin is one of my soul gods! And these are his early classics, tailor-made for him by his pal:
“Ain’t That Peculiar” — Marvin
Another from Marvelous Marvin — what can I say? I’m a sucker for a guy who looks this cool in a tux! :
— Take This Heart of Mine — Marvin
Finally, a little novelty from the Smokey annals, first done by the Contours and later the J. Geils Band. It’s a tongue-in-cheek tune about being a gold-digger, the lyrics are a hoot:
“First I Look at the Purse” — The Contours