The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):
Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.
There’s no argument about #1.
Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.
Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.
Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.
“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.
“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).
“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.
“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.
“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.
“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.
“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.
“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.
“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.
“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?
Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.
Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.