Everybody Sings Smokey: Motown’s Poet Laureate 50 times Over

b9626f495dc0b5c9a65d7355416724d6It wouldn’t be Motown’s 60th Anniversary without visiting their premiere singer, songwriter and producer. As legend goes, Smokey Robinson met Berry Gordy with a notebook of songs, of which maybe one or two Gordy considered viable, yet he was impressed with the teenager’s moxie. So goes the template of who Gordy accepted into the fold, from a bold Mary Wells to the persistent Primettes. From there, the two formed one of the most honored and respected arts meets business relationships to grave popular music.

Of course, there’s so much more to the story of William Robinson Jr than that. Realistically a lot of his early friend-family relationships in Detroit formed the birth of soul that were Motor City proud long before the actual label came to be. Neighborhood friends included Aretha, Diana, Levi and the other Four Tops among others. Save Aretha, they all weren’t especially destined to become entertainers, yet, something about the brew of those born between the beginning of the second World War and the start of the Baby Boom ended up representing the best that America had to offer in terms of the art of song.

There were blocks after blocks of singers in 1950’s Detroit, and teenage “Smokey” was one of them. I don’t think Gordy or Robinson knew what they were actually working towards when they started leasing Miracles records to decent sales but no financial returns, I’m sure Smokey laughs and laughs and probably has been laughing for the better part of 3 decades about telling Berry to cut out the middle man and go into business for himself.

miracles-on-ready-steady-go-set-1Realistically, Smokey, like a host of creatives of that generation, just wanted to create. And Create Smokey really did. I don’t know if there’s as much of a distinctive style, and stylistic periods to Smokey’s efforts as one would say are distinctly the products of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Smokey was an architect of the early Motown Sound, however before he really developed arrangement experience, you hear quite a bit of influence from both Berry Gordy and Chicago arranger Riley C. Hampton. Hampton’s influence especially on The Miracles string rich output of late 1961 through early 1962 sounds far more like outtakes from Etta James’s At Last LP that it seems related to Smokey’s own breakthrough work with Mary Wells at the beginning of 1962.

0b3638c43c640e3eaae23c1e7a705316Smokey Robinson also was Motown’s love poet. Where Holland-Dozier-Holland excelled at surprisingly dark emotion in their uptempo jaunts, or Mickey Stevenson wanted you to dance first think of the consequences later, or Sylvia Moy tried her damndest to infuse her writing with class and or feminist politics, Smokey wrote about the topic of love in such an kite in the sky way, in nuances that you’d never expect the human psyche to go. Where some of his rivals at Motown didn’t always see their storylines on vinyl resolve on some sort of “love is worth it” not, 9 times out of 10, Smokey rewards listeners to his 3 minute movies with the theme that love conquers all.

Perhaps, that’s one reason his songs are among the first that we think of when we think of Motown Chestnuts. From “My Guy” to “My Girl” to making “Peculiarity” an actual commonly said word. It’s appropriate that in a world of disconnect, we still seek out inherent truths in the intricate tales he spun over the course of the last 60+ years.

With that, It’s the typical format when I look over Motown writers catalogs. Motown itself prided itself on not needing to access outside material, so there’s a wealth of familiar and not so familiar Motown names conquering obscure Motown material, while some of the chestnuts (….says I actually like The Mamas & The Papas version of “My Girl” more than The Temptations original and runs out of the room) are handled by cover interpretations.

It’s a Valentine’s Day gift to you from Smokey to you, via a little curation from me (to cleanse the palate of Jennifer Lopez we’re all dealing with to be very quite honest). I hope this overview brings you closer in appreciation with one of our greatest living artists.

  1. Barrett Strong – Yes, No, Maybe So
  2. Sherri Taylor & Singin’ Sammy Ward – Oh Lover
  3. Mary Wells – Shop Around
  4. Debbie Dean – Don’t Let Him Shop Around
  5. The Marvelettes – Way Over There
  6. The Temptations – Slow Down Heart
  7. Marv Johnson – Don’t Leave Me
  8. Wade Jones – Insane
  9. The Orlons – Bad Boy
  10. Bobby Rydell – The One Who Really Loves You
  11. Connie Van Dyke – Oh Freddie
  12. LaBrenda Ben – Better Unsaid
  13. Eddie Holland – Twin Brother
  14. Louise Cordet – Two Lovers
  15. The Miracles – The Day You Take One (You’re Gonna Have To Take The Other)
  16. The Supremes – Long Gone Lover
  17. Helen Shapiro – You’re My Remedy
  18. Julie Grant – As Long As I Know He’s Mine
  19. Lee Castle & The Barons – A Love She Can Count On
  20. Clara Wilson – My Guy
  21. John Leyton & The LeRoys – I Want A Love I Can See
  22. The Velvelettes – Something’s Happening
  23. Chris Clark – Mighty Good Lovin’
  24. Ramsey Lewis – Ain’t That Peculiar
  25. The Contours – First I Look In The Purse
  26. Brenda Holloway – After All That You’ve Done
  27. Stevie Wonder – I Gave Up Quality For Quantity
  28. Sonny & Cher – You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me
  29. Connie Haines – What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One
  30. Len Barry – Would I Love You?
  31. Tommy Good – I’ve Got To Get Away
  32. Martha & The Vandellas – The Tracks Of My Tears
  33. Tammi Terrell – My Heart
  34. Gladys Knight & The Pips – Your Old Standby
  35. The Temptations – Now That You’ve Won Me
  36. Barbara McNair – Oh Be My Love
  37. The Mamas & The Papas – My Girl
  38. Patti Drew – He’s The One I Love
  39. The Isley Brothers – It’s Out Of The Question
  40. Chuck Jackson – Girls, Girls, Girls
  41. Diana Ross & The Supremes – Loving You Is Better Than Ever
  42. Joe Bataan – More Love
  43. The Myddle Class – Don’t Look Back
  44. Donnie Elbert – Get Ready
  45. The Temptations – Fan The Flame
  46. Spanky Wilson – Don’t Mess With Bill
  47. The Supremes – Now The Bitter, Now The Sweet
  48. The Fuzz – Ooh, Baby Baby
  49. Bobby Darin – Happy
  50. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – The Composer

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