Essence of Motown

The arrival of the singer/songwriter phenomenon in the 1960’s seems to have contributed to the death of Tin Pan Alley and the decline of popular songwriting as a profession. While some of the singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon have consciously aspired to a place in the firmament of songwriters, the writerly workmanship even of the best singer/songwriters does not quite rise to the level set by the great American songbook.
One of the few singer/songwriters whose work seems to me to sit comfortably in the tradition is William “Smokey” Robinson. Among other attributes of his greatness, Smokey Robinson was the undiluted essence of Motown during its glory years. He was born on this date in 1940 in — where else? — Detroit.
According to Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, Robinson met Motown founder Berry Gordy in the summer of 1957 in the offices of the manager of vocalist extraordinaire Jackie Wilson. Robinson was age 17 and in the company of his vocal group the Matadors — later to emerge under Gordy’s tutelage as the Miracles. He had a notebook with a hundred songs he had written; Gordy was a writer and producer interested in adding production and distribution to his sources of income. Gordy took him under his wing.
Robinson credits Gordy with forcing him to hone his writing skills after that initial meeting. George quotes Robinson as saying, “I had songs that went all over the place. Like in the first verse I might have been talking about ‘Oh, I miss you so much now that you’re gone’ and then in the second verse I might say ‘Hey, I wish you would leave.'”
While that sounds exaggerated, Robinson added a description of himself at the time that sounds on the mark: “I was basically interested in rhyme schemes at that time. I thought if you rhymed something, that was a song. However, he straightened me out a great deal as far as writing.”
By 1961, Gordy had founded Motown and Robinson provided Gordy the Motown label’s first national hit with the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” featuring Robinson’s trademark falsetto. An uptempo song, “Shop Around” displays Robinson’s budding lyrical facility — narrative ease, realistic dialogue, a flash of humor, homespun wisdom, unobtrusve rhyme.
Robinson admired the fluid phrasing of Sarah Vaughan, and it showed in the romantic ballads that became his specialty. In “Bad Girl” “You Can Depend On Me” and “Who’s Lovin’ You,” Robinson’s falsetto shimmered with wounded sensuality. In 1962, the Miracles released Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” a pop masterpiece with a brilliant, pleading vocal. The group’s harmonies were built around the high end provided by Robinson’s high school sweetheart and wife, Claudette. Below is a photograph of the original Miracles.
To writing for and performing with the Miracles Robinson added writing and production work for other Motown staples including Mary Wells (“My Guy”), the Temptations (“My Girl”) and the Marvelletes (“Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”). He apparently did not sleep during the ’60s.
The superb ballads continued through the decade: “Choosey Beggar,” “More Love,” “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” (why? “Because love is here, standing by”), “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage.”
I saw Smokey perform in Minneapolis in the early ’80s. He introduced the utterly devastating “Ooh Baby Baby” by saying he’d run into a young lady fan in the theater lobby after his rehearsal that afternoon and she had asked him to sing this song that was special to her — here it was just for her. As we melted with the feeling of the song, he poured it on:

Mistakes, I know I’ve made a few.
But I’m only human —
You made mistakes too!
Ooh, baby baby…
I’m just about at
The end of my rope,
But I can’t stop tryin’
I can’t give up hope
‘Cause I feel
Someday I’ll hold you near,
Whisper I still love you…
Until that day is here — Ooooooh….

Awesome. I ran out and bought a “Smokey Live” album, now long out of print, whose highlight was the same song with the same patter. It was an act! The guy is an artist and he inspires his audience not only to suspend disbelief but also, like all great showmen, to believe. Many happy returns!
HINDROCKET adds: Smokey Robinson was one of the heroes of our age: singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer, businessman. He was a man of great generosity. He wrote the greatest American popular song of the 20th century–My Girl–and then gave it away to the Temptations because he thought it suited their style better than his own.
When I was fifteen years old, besotted with the music of the Temptations, the Four Tops, J.J. Jackson and others, I bought a record by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles called Away We A-Go-Go. It was a revelation–sweet, soulful, often bouncy but sad, poignant. I can still remember every song: “Come ‘Round Here (I’m the One You Need)”; “Walk On By”; “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”; “Oh Be My Love”; and many others.
I listened to Smokey on rainy afternoons while sipping scotch and gazing out our backyard window, thinking sad thoughts. Well, the scotch was imaginary. But many years later, armed with a CD version of the same record, I achieved my lifelong goal of listening to it while drinking scotch on a rainy afternoon, contemplating the sadness of life–of which, by that time, I had acquired a little experience. I’d recommend the record to anyone, even those over fifteen.


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