THE POET BEFORE AND AFTER (Segue of the Day: 10/22/17)

Smokey Robinson: The Solo Anthology (2001)

Smokey Robinson left the Miracles in 1972, by which time he was already fading to the nether reaches of White America’s radar.

He re-emerged seven years later with the release of “Cruisin’,” which went top five on the Pop charts. After that he hit the higher reaches of the pop charts pretty regularly for another decade or so and clinched his place on the short list for things like Kennedy Center honors and Gershwin Awards and various and sundry other well-deserved lifetime achievement recognition which he had earned before he left the Miracles and almost certainly never would have received if he had left it at that.

Black America never forgot. The extent to which they never forgot becomes evident near the end of the first disc of this fine compilation, as the seventies come to a close.

It’s not as though Smokey had exactly taken the decade off. The tracks that clinched his comeback were preceded by records as monumental as “Sweet Harmony” and “Baby That’s Backatcha,” (the closest he had come to breaking pop in the wilderness years). Beyond that, all he had done was name–and define–a radio format (Quiet Storm) and remain one of the great vocalists of the age.

But the sequence that closes the first disc is still a breathtaking blast-off back into the mainstream….it makes one wonder if the reception he got live was finally what gave him the strength to carry on until the world, however briefly, reawakened.

Because when this comes on–recorded and released a year before “Cruisin’,” with his career at its nadir–you can hear who he was to the audience who had hung with him.

To them, he was Elvis.

After which, bang…

bang…

bang…

…He was Everybody’s Poet again.

On the second disc, you can hear him go to war with the Frozen Silence.

He barely holds on. But then, he was Smokey Robinson, and you know the lesson was learned by everyone else: If we, the Suits and Machines, can do this to him, just think what we can do to you.

By the end he’s duetting with Kenny G.

I think by then the nineties had arrived. If you want to listen to all that, you’re on your own.

MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

SMOKEY GETS HIS DUE….FROM HIMSELF (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #98)

A few days ago I caught the replay of last year’s Gershwin Award ceremony. This year’s honoree was Smokey Robinson. We’ll leave aside that he was the ninth recipient. I don’t want to get into the mindset that found eight people more deserving of an award devoted to recognizing of excellence in popular songwriting.

Let’s just talk about the show.

I caught it a few minutes in. For what seemed like the next seven hours or so, I listened to a bunch of contemporary artists killing it.

Literally.

One after another, they dragged out the Greatest Living Poet’s signature tunes and ritually stomped them to death right there in front of God, Smokey and everybody. By the time CeeLo Green closed down that portion of the program, he sounded like a genius just by failing to embarrass himself.

Then Smokey’s best friend, Berry Gordy, gave a nice, short speech.

When he finished I was left seriously wondering if even Smokey–who I wasn’t sure was going to sing–could redeem the hour those other fools had stolen from my life.

What was remarkable was not that he managed it–I have learned to expect miracles from him–but that he did so even before he sang a note. By the time he finished his speech, I didn’t even think he needed to sing.

Of course, that idea only lasted until he started singing. After a luminous “Being With You” he took on “Love is Here to Stay” and proved the heartfelt tribute he linked to his childhood memories of hearing Gershwin tunes growing up in a now-vanished upwardly mobile black Detroit was not confined to words.

Then the Poet–the one music man of the rock and roll era who was among the dozen or so greatest as a vocalist, songwriter, producer, arranger, band leader and live performer–showed a talent I didn’t know he had. He turned Conductor of Souls and humanized the Beltway crowd they always have for these things.

Trust me, it’s not a quality they could ever give themselves.

GENIUS IN CONTEXT…SMOKEY FOR CHRISTMAS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #94)

Well, I’ve finally assembled the last few volumes of the Bear Family’s Street Corner Symphonies, the company’s comprehensive overview of the vocal group music made by blacks and urban immigrants between 1938 and 1963 so I’m spending Christmas Eve listening to the 1960 volume and, all of a sudden, Smokey Robinson enters the scene, not as America’s Greatest Living Poet, but as just one more street kid trying to make it with his group (a status confirmed by Bill Dahl’s characteristically comprehensive notes).

The streets the Poet was trying to make it from were in Detroit, which, from 1938 to 1959, were barely represented in the history of what would come to be called Doo Wop (a nebulous concept which the Bear Family has extended beyond its insult-embraced-by-the-pure-of-heart-as-badge-of-honor meaning, though not so far as to include, say, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” which, after hearing this set’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You,” by the Flamingos–as doo wop as doo wop got–I realize they easily could have).

After 1960, of course–more or less beginning with the Poet’s own “Shop Around”–Detroit would become so significant to the development of vocal group dynamics, it would birth its own category, in time to be called simply “Motown.”

When “Whos’ Lovin’ You”–first released as the B-side of “Shop Around”–shows up here, following a mini-set of cutting edge tracks from the Shirelles, Drifters, Coasters, it makes everything else sound reactionary. It’s as if the most exciting sounds of 1960 were already running backwards to safety and only the Poet could see around the corner.

Well, that’s why he was the Poet and why he could never have stayed just another kid trying to make it. And, of course, most of us already knew that. But it never slapped me up side the head and made me laugh quite like it did on Christmas Eve of the year Donald Trump was elected President of the current nation, while I was just sitting quietly with my book and my diet Root Beer, listening to some doo wop from the year John Kennedy was elected President of the imaginary nation Trump has promised to restore.

Time’s funny that way.

There are delusional souls, Berry Gordy among them, who believe Michael Jackson’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” is superior to Smokey’s (“He was kickin’ Smokey’s ass!” Gordy once said, whilst recalling the first time he heard Michael sing it).

Michael Jackson’s version is fine. It’s about the best version you will ever hear from a ten-year-old. Good on Michael.

On no day of his tortured life was he Smokey Robinson.

Merry Christmas ya’ll.

HEY, NOBODY’S PERFECT…

…Certainly not the Nobel Prize committees, including the one that picks winners for “literature.”

But, for once, somebody deserving has won something, namely Robert Zimmerman, the now and again Poet Laureate of Hibbing, Minnesota, Greenwich Village, and Enlightened People Everywhere.

Kinda weird in one way, though, because even Bob Dylan knows who America’s “greatest living poet,” is.

Lest we forget…

…or some member of the illuminati wants to be useful for once and start a campaign for next year.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Smokey Robinson Up)

“Sweet Harmony”
Smokey Robinson (1973)
#48 Billboard
# 31 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The 35th Anniversary Collection

smokey1 smokey2

When Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” I think the general assumption was that he was referring to Smokey’s way with words and hence being modest in granting the title to someone else that so many had, rather justifiably, bestowed upon him.

And were it only a matter of words, I suppose there still might be an argument. I wouldn’t want to say a wordsmith responsible for, say, “Tracks of My Tears” or “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage” ever had to take a back seat to anyone.

But words were only a fraction of what the words “Smokey Robinson” meant. If by “poet” one assumes the totality of an artist–in Robinson’s case, artistry that included words, melodies, arrangements, productions (of his own records and many others), vocals, iconography, performances (both live and in studios), assignations with the Cosmos, generosity of the spirit–then one does not need to reckon with Dylan’s modesty or his tendency to play mind games. The phrase “America’s greatest living poet” becomes literal enough and true almost to the point of inarguability.

All of that was well established by the time Smokey decided to quit the Miracles in 1973. Within a couple of years, he would define, and name, Quiet Storm, a new approach to adult ballad singing that would become the last important classic R&B radio format. Sort of what poets do.

In between, though, he released “Sweet Harmony” as his first solo single.

It should have been a natural smash: The most beautiful song ever written by the guy who had written so many of the era’s other “most”-whatever songs, sung to both break and lift the heart, as a tribute to his best friends.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The reason I recommend encountering it on the box set I linked above is that it means something different bleeding out of the fifteen years of  genius and sweat that preceded it. It’s gorgeous in any context, almost unbearably so in that one, where, more than ever, it sounds both a tribute to the entire era of soul music, just then beginning to pass into the night, and an attempt to heal the new divisions rising within, divisions that rend us still.

Those southern soul horn charts from the master of Motown couldn’t be there by accident. Not when the master was our greatest living poet they couldn’t.

 

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW…BROOKLYN, NEW YORK: 1962 (Great Quotations)

In 1962 I was 18 with the hits “Halfway to Paradise” and “Bless You” under my belt. I’ll never forget doing a big “Murray the K” show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater….Before the show Murray called the artists together and said that a new group, The 4 Seasons, would be closing the show with the song “Sherry.” “Make sure,” he said, “that you give them a nice welcome.” I had never heard of the group or the song. When the moment arrived, I was in the wings, alongside Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson. I had never seen an audience respond like that, and I don’t think I ever have since. The stomping almost took the balcony down. The Seasons destroyed the theater in one song.

Tony Orlando

(Source: Liner notes for Jersey Beat….The Music of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, Rhino Records, 2007)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

THE TEMPTATIONS SCATTER…BECOME PROPHETS IN THE WILDERNESS (The Rising: Third Memo)

TEMPTS1BY1

 

The Temptations were one of those miracles only Berry Gordy could have wrought. At least three guys who were good enough to be stars in their own right ended up in the same vocal group with a couple of sterling backup singers (including a world class bass-man) and the cream of the Motown machine devoted to their success. Nothing quite like it ever happened before or has certainly ever happened since. Naturally it had to end some time and likely well before its time.

It did.

David Ruffin started the unraveling when he insisted on going solo in 1969 (evidently after Gordy, supported by the other Tempts, refused to give him the name billing Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were by then enjoying with the Supremes and the Miracles.

It might have been a ploy for solo-dom on Ruffin’s part anyway, but in any case he got it (to be replaced by Dennis Edwards) and over the next few years, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams followed suit. Some years later, Edwards gave it a try as well.

There were varying degrees of success with Kendricks enjoying the most, Ruffin a distant second and the others having little luck at all.

Back in 1996, Gordy’s ongoing Corporation put together a double CD comp of the four singers’ solo work which by all rights should be about as inspired as that cover up there.

But time does change some things.

Four decades on from when most of this music was recorded, and two decades on from the comp being released, the shadow of what each man did inside the Temptations, mighty though it remains. doesn’t fall quite so heavy. It has become possible, almost imperative, for their solo efforts to be heard as what they are–further attempts by these superstars of Black America (whose names aren’t nearly so well known in White America, especially to later generations) to build some kind of bridge between their own ambitions and what the world was going through.

Heard in that context, these aren’t just honorable records, they’re illuminating. Especially since, as I may have mentioned before on here, we haven’t learned much in those interceding decades.

I always knew The Rising ran deep and the cost of ignoring it was and is steep.

Put simply, these men should have been much bigger stars. They should have achieved the kind of stardom worthy of men who were good enough to step out in front of the Temptations. There are a hundred reasons why they didn’t, not all of them avoidable. But we’re all the poorer for it just the same and while I mostly lament what used to get on the radio and no longer does, it’s also worth remembering what used to not get on the radio because one of those hundred reasons I mentioned is that the competition was incredibly fierce…Still:

And, oh yeah, all of it–the pleading, the preaching and the ignoring–was implied in the beginning, in David Ruffin’s first and biggest hit, which might as well have been sung to the audience he was about to be cut off from (sadly enough, by Berry Gordy himself, if nobody else stepped up to the plate…proving once again that no one is without sin):