by Kevin Burton
I have always said there is no substitute for Smokey. When you want that sound, it just can’t be found anywhere else.
Beyond that, if you love Motown, you need to understand how crucial Smokey Robinson was to the company’s success. even to the launch of it.
This is my 10th album challenge post. Today I highlight Smokey Robinson and the Miracles Greatest Hits. In honoring Smokey I am really honoring the whole of Motown.
“What made Motown Motown was Berry Gordy,” Robinson said on “The History Of Rock And Roll,” a 2004 Time-Life documentary. He may feel that way, others may agree. With all due respect to Gordy, when I think of Motown I think first of Smokey Robinson.
“Infectious” is my word for Smokey Robinson and his music.
It’s great fun to see him interviewed on the subject of Motown, soul music, music in general. He is just bursting with energy and enthusiasm. It’s all over his face, in his demeanor, in his laughter. It’s love he’s projecting.
Gordy was the founder of Motown, but it was Robinson who convinced Gordy to start the company. It happened because distributors were cheating Gordy on royalty payments. Robinson tells the story on the documentary.
“Berry would produce our records in the early days and put them out to other companies…and nobody really paid us. So I went to Berry’s office one day and he said ‘This record is so big, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to put it with because nobody’s been paying us,'” Robinson recalled.
“I said ‘Why don’t you just go national with it man?'”
“He said ‘I’m not set up to go national;.'”
“I said ‘But you can be. Nobody’s paying us anyway. If we lose money, we lose money for ourselves. Why don’t you just go national.'”
With that encouragement Gordy launched Motown. Soon after, timeless records began rolling out of “Hitsville USA” like cars off the Detroit automobile assembly lines. It started with a number one hit by the Marvellettes.
“We came out with “Please Mr. Postman” Right on the heels of “Please Mr. Postman” we came out with “Shop Around.” That’s how it happened,” Robinson said.
Robinson wrote or co-wrote a lot of the early Motown hits. He wrote “My Girl,” a song that was number one for four weeks for the Temptations.
Stevie Wonder and Henry Cosby wrote the music for “The Tears Of A Clown” in 1967, but could not write lyrics suitable for it. Wonder asked Robinson to take a crack at it. Robinson heard the calliope in the introduction and thought “circus.”
So he wrote a song telling the story of the great clown Pagliacci, personalizing it into a tale of love gone wrong.
I hear the song “Cruisin” and think how cool is that? “Let the music take your mind, just release and you will find you’re gonna fly away, glad you’re going my way..I love it when we’re cruising together.” What an irresistible message. That falsetto and vibrato Robinson is famous for never got a better workout.
“I Second That Emotion,” is another classic, along with “The Tracks Of My Tears.”
Bob Dylan once called Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.”
The Motown story is a multi-faceted American story worth recounting and understanding.
“The Motown sound was a 24-hour-a-day thing that people tried to develop and it was made out of love to help each other win,” said Duke Fakir, a founding member of the Four Tops.
This can’t be disputed. But the way the company moved to California without informing much of the so-called “family,” with just a note on the door, was a flat-out disgrace.
Also notable, Gordy at first did not put the black faces of his artists on promotional material for Motown records and tours, because he knew in much of the country, people would ignore the great songs because the singers didn’t look like them and the people in their country clubs.
But Smokey Robinson remain an American national treasure. He embodies the very best elements of Motown and that whole era of popular music.