Smokey Robinson and
his ‘60s group the Miracles made pure Motown magic.
BY RICK ALLEN
Bob Dylan once called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.”
Cynics and rock critics without souls (and soul)
have said that Dylan was being facetious. Even allowing for Dylanesque
hyperbole it’s obvious from listening to a fantastic new retrospective of his
early work with the Miracles that those folks were either not paying attention
or are extremely tin-eared.
For many, experience with the Miracles, later Smokey Robinson
and the Miracles, begins with their 1965 hits “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “Ooh
Baby Baby” or with cover versions of those tunes by other artists ranging from
Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt to Dolly Parton and Ella Fitzgerald. Beatles
fans count their version of Smokey’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” to be a
highlight of that band’s early recordings.
But the history of the Miracles goes back to the very
beginnings of the story of Motown Records or Tamla Records as it was called
when it came into being in Detroit
in 1959. The Matadors were the first act signed by Motown founder Berry Gordy.
Their name was changed to the Miracles and when signed, the group included Claudette
Rogers, the sister of original Matador Emerson Rogers – who left the group after
being drafted in 1958 – and songwriter/guitarist Marv Tarplin (who continues to
tour and write with Smokey) who had been accompanist for a group of three
teenaged Detroit girls known as the Primettes. That group later changed their
name to the Supremes and had a hit or two themselves. Claudette Rogers became
Smokey’s first wife and Smokey, on his own and in combination with Tarplin and
fellow Miracles Bobby Rogers (brother of Emerson and cousin of Claudette) Ronnie
White (who discovered Stevie Wonder and brought him to Gordy’s label) and Pete
Moore went on to write some of the best and most recorded songs in pop history.
Their songs were hits for not only the Miracles but for a
staggering list of artists including almost the entire Motown stable: The Temptations;
Mary Wells; Marvin Gaye; The Supremes; The Jackson Five; The Rolling Stones and
those mentioned above. John Lennon was a huge fan and “adapted” a few of the
lyrics to Smokey’s “I’ve Been Good To You” for his song “Sexy Sadie”. George
Harrison, a little less light-fingered – maybe due to his storied troubles with
the battle over the originality of “My Sweet Lord” – paid tribute to Robinson
in the song “Pure Smokey” for his 1976 album “Thirty Three & 1/3” and the
classic “The Tracks Of My Tears” written by Smokey, Stevie Wonder and Motown
producer Hank Cosby even survived a treatment by Phil Collins.
The new collection from Hip-O Select, Depend On Me: The Early Albums, contains five of the Miracles’
first six albums (their 1953 Christmas LP was not included) and bonus tracks
including 2 regionally released versions of “Shop Around” (the Miracles and
Motown’s first million seller).
When Rod Stewart’s solo career was blooming, some compared
his voice to that of Sam Cooke. For many, the connection was hard to make.
Listen to Smokey singing “Way Over There” and the lights come on; he sounds
like the musical bridge between the two. Good luck trying to get past “Way Over
There”, “I’ll Try Something New” or more than half the cuts in this set on just
one play. The music on these albums is sometimes almost painfully exquisite.
Smokey’s alto bordering on soprano voice was not a falsetto like the Four
Season’s Frankie Valli’s or the Temptation’s Eddie Kendrick’s. Unaffected and
comfortably in the higher registers it carries a natural tear that makes
pleading, yearning lyrics like those of his classics like “I’ll Try Something
New” or “Who’s Loving You” deliriously heartbreaking and his treatment of the
Gershwin brothers’ “Embraceable You” is a revelation .
Those hearing this music for the first time or revisiting it
after a few years will be surprised and pleased to find that the group was
originally more of an ensemble than they knew or remembered. The collection
doesn’t give credits for musicians (one of Motown’s most egregious sins) but that’s
Ronnie White taking lead vocals on “A Love That Can Never Be” and Claudette on
“After All” and “He Don’t Care About Me” and in saucy dialogue with Smokey on
their version of Gordy and Janie Bradford’s immortal “Money (That’s What I
Want”). The hugely under-sung Marv Tarplin’s guitar is/was also a huge part of
the character of the group’s sound. Tarplin’s playing, sometimes reminiscent of
Curtis Mayfield’s, is one of the elements that brings into focus the connection
classic pre-soul music vocal groups like the Platters and the Ink Spots have to
Mayfield’s Impressions, the Miracles and The Motown Sound i.e. “The Sound Of
Young America.” There is no more damning truth of the utter worthlessness of the
“honor” of being in the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than that Smokey
Robinson was not inducted until 1987 and the Miracles as a group not until the
end of the first decade of the 21st century almost fifty years after
“Shop Around” earned them and Motown Records their first certification for a
million selling single.
A personal note: For
someone who grew up in Detroit
during Motown’s glory days, the Miracles, particularly Smokey, as performers
and songwriters, hold godlike status. Every important aspect of young life,
from frustration (“Get A Job”) to celebration (“Going To A Go Go”) to love’s
promise (“More Love”) and love’s loss (pick one) had a song written or recorded
by Smokey and the Miracles to go with it. A first kiss while slow dancing with one’s
first real girlfriend at a party in a friend’s attic or basement becomes even
more entrenched in sense memory for having happened while listening to “More
Love.” An early heartbreak is soothed, though not cured, by playing the 45 of
“The Tracks Of My Tears” over and over on a cheap plastic Westinghouse record
player and, in less maudlin moments, there was the determination to learn that song’s
eternally haunting guitar lick. A new dance is learned from an older sibling or
the cute older girl who lived down the block as “the Temptations’ (not Rare Earth’s) recording of
Robinson’s “Get Ready” plays. Listening to “Cruisin'” while doing just that
along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag, during a return visit home after
having moved to some far off place, invokes all those memories -old loves, old
friends, here and gone -in relentless waves of emotion and brings visceral understanding
of the fact that the word “nostalgia” means “bittersweet pain” and is an
amalgamation of Greek words meaning “returning home” and “ache.”
But such a wonderful ache you wouldn’t trade it for all the
tea in China.
Ooh baby, baby; you really got a hold on me.