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 being inarguable.
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.