The arrival of the singer/songwriter phenomenon in the 1960’s contributed to the death of Tin Pan Alley and the decline of popular songwriting as a profession. While some of the singer/songwriters such as 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 rise to the level set by the composers of 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 17 and in the company of his vocal group the Matadors — later to emerge under Gordy’s tutelage as the Miracles. Robinson 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: “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 took on a hurt sensuality. In 1962, the Miracles released Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” a pop masterpiece with a brilliant, pleading vocal (to which John Lennon paid the sincerest form of flattery on the Beatles’ second album). 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.
In addition to writing for and performing with the Miracles, Robinson added writing and production work for other Motown acts including Mary Wells (“My Guy”), the Temptations (“My Girl”) and the Marvelletes (“Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”). He apparently didn’t pause to take a breath 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 “Ooh Baby Baby” (my favorite, video above) by saying he’d run into a young lady 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, he said, just for her. As we succumbed to 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! He is an artist who inspires his audience not only to suspend disbelief but also, like all great showmen, to believe.
Four years ago Smokey returned with a new recording of inspirational songs and an expanded line of Smokey Robinson Foods cuisine. He also revealed his struggles with drugs and his successful recovery:
He began using drugs during the 1980s, and what started out as recreation with friends eventually overtook him for a two-year period.
“I was dead,” he told The Associated Press. “I was ashamed of myself because it wasn’t like (drug addiction) happened to me as a teenager or a young man. I was a full-fledged adult and my life was going exactly as I would have written it, but drugs don’t care who you are or what you’re doing.”
After his close friend Leon Issac Kennedy took Robinson one day to a storefront church in Los Angeles, Robinson says he quit cold turkey after the service. “I turned it over to God,” he said of his recovery. “I never went to rehab or a doctor or psychotherapy. The Lord freed me that night and when I came out of there, I was healed.”
The devastation wrought by drugs is a story that many need to hear and that cannot be told too often. Smokey has not only turned his life back to productive purposes, he has regularly shared his story of triumph over drug addiction at churches, rehabilitation facilities, gang meetings and juvenile detention centers. It is a sobering story in more ways than one.
In 2006 Smokey turned for the first time in his career to the Great American Songbook in “Timeless Love,” his most recent release. Today Smokey turns 68 and “timeless” seems like the fitting adjective for his work as well. (I first posted an earlier version of this tribute in February 2004.)