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