Same as ever…Who’d you think? But is it weird I had to discover it on Right Wing Radio?
Same as ever…Who’d you think? But is it weird I had to discover it on Right Wing Radio?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
Smokey Robinson (1973)
# 31 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The 35th Anniversary Collection
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.
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.
(Source: Liner notes for Jersey Beat….The Music of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, Rhino Records, 2007)
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.
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.
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.
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):
I’ve mentioned my fondness for Time Life’s old rock n’ roll collections from the eighties and nineties before. (They’ve been recycling the concepts to ever diminishing returns ever since.) They don’t exactly make up for the collapse of radio, though I suppose they might if I accumulated enough of them.
For now, I make do with what I have. Want to listen to the oldies? Be reminded why they matter, how much they still have to say about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re likely headed? Well, you could do worse.
Today, the second volume of 1965, from the “Classic Rock” series–classic rock, in this case, meaning a more or less random selection of the best top 40 music from any given year.
And, lo and behold, what develops out of not entirely thin air while I’m bopping around the den, is a kind of battle of the sexes.
The White Boy Ravers against the (mostly black) Girl Talkers.
There are other cuts that confuse the issue. Aren’t there always?
Black men crooning or pleading (Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Marvin Gaye) or at least not raving (Levi Stubbs, always in supreme control, no matter the tempo). Appropriating Girl Talk space rather than assaulting it. Like the white men harmonizing or rhapsodizing (Byrds, Beach Boys, Beau Brummels, Turtles).
But that still leaves an album’s worth of thematics: Barry McGuire’s Old Testament prophecy of doom on “Eve of Destruction” (itself a nice juxtaposition with “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Byrds’ insistent plea on behalf of the New), followed by Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me.”
The world ending in fire versus Bass playing John the Baptist to Aretha Franklin’s Jesus.
And that’s just the warm-up.
Later on, the Kinks crash through “All Day and All of the Night” only to have Martha and the Vandellas hammer out a warning on “Nowhere to Run.” Roy Head leers “Treat Her Right” like treating anybody right is strictly for suckers. The Ad Libs dream right back, the lead singer imagining “The Boy From New York City,” who sounds like the kind of guy who was born not needing Roy Head’s advice, will love her until she dies.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
And then the apocalypse. Seduction as the sound of a freight train. Try protecting your girly, intimate space from this (or anyway, try wanting to)…
And, if you think it can’t be done, that the space can’t possibly be reclaimed, you might try this, which I confess until now I never really heard for the push back it surely is…
Or this…which always sounded like it was pushing back against a lot more than Ravers invading the intimate space….
After that, the Gentrys’ “Keep On Dancing,” which sounds great in just about any other context, ain’t got a chance.
Girls win…this time. Proof of the verities: When in doubt, pull out the Shangri-Las.
Happy Memorial Day!