The Ultimate Collection
Centuries from now, when historians gauge the true achievements of America’s golden age (1945-2001), aside from the complete destruction of the earth’s atmosphere, I believe it will come down to soul music specifically Motown music (interesting that both trends come from Detroit). Some people like to say that jazz is America’s classical music, but has there been a single jazz song of the last fifty years other than “Take Five” which is ingrained in the public consciousness? On the other hand, scores of Motown songs, mostly from the pens of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson, continue to be a vital part of the national discourse. They’re part of the American mind just as every Italian knows Verdi, every American knows Motown. You can’t turn on the TV or walk through the mall without running into a little bit of Motown. And unlike the masturbatory navel-gazing that passes for American literature and drama, soul music propounds the verities: the agony of a lost love, and the surpassing joy of a life filled with it. (And a little bit of dancing!)
To be sure, some of the impact of Motown’s music came from the terrific singers and musicians involved (there’s a jaw-dropping tambourine performance in the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown that shows just how much creativity the instrumentalists contributed), but the career of Smokey Robinson makes the case for the songs as the truly substantial achievements. Armed with an uncharismatic (but not unimpressive) vocal style and a backing group more suited to corny Platters-style crooning than the R&B harmonies that propelled most soul music (it’s hard to believe these same Miracles went on to make “Love Machine”), Smokey nonetheless scored a string of classic hits simply because of the quality of his songs.
Robinson’s great achievement was to find that thin line between the juvenile simplicity of early rock and roll and doo-wop, and the ecstatic discharge of gospel, and walk it for a decade of inspiration. In that middle ground, a certain emotional genius lies: it’s not easy to be smooth and wild-eyed at once, or to express deep truths through groaning puns. But again and again he does. For those who value “raw honesty” it all might seem trite, but millions of us can’t resist these sweet tunes and clever lyrics.
Smokey’s melodies are simply lovely bluesy enough to avoid being saccharine, but gentle and hooky, too. Spine-chilling moments abound: “Ooh Baby Baby”’s “I’m crying” as a violin flutters over dramatic descending piano chords; the triplets at the end of the bridge in “Tracks of My Tears” followed by grace notes that repeat the pattern (“baby take a”) but lead to a dramatic high note (“look”) trailing into a despondent octave fall (“at my face”); the contrast of a rolling tom-tom line with a gossamer melody of “I’ll Try Something New”; exclamations of “Tighter!” as the drummer delivers a big fill, then the whole group delivering a satisfied chord of “Tighter…” in “You Really Got a Hold on Me.”
As fine as these tunes are, they wouldn’t be the same without Robinson’s trademark lyrics. Paradox is hardly one of the strong suits of pop songsmiths generally, but Smokey’s got it in spades: “I don’t like you but I love you” ; “a taste of honey’s worse than none at all” ; “I’m a choosey beggar”. Whole songs are devoted to the distance between appearance and reality, a theme fans of the Who should find familiar: “The Tears of a Clown”, “The Love I Saw in You is Just a Mirage”, “The Tracks of My Tears.” And any one song of Smokey’s has enough metaphor to populate an entire album by another writer, not to mention puns and cool rhymes (“I Second That Emotion”, “although she might be cute / she’s just a substitute”, “don’t matter of you go stag / every taxi that you flag / is going to a go-go”). And he’s smart enough to know when to just say it plainly: “I sit around, with my head hanging down, and I wonder who’s loving you”, sung as a mournful doo-wop, is enough to break your heart.
It’s probably not poetry, but when you throw it together with those sublime melodies, it’s something pretty close to art. These songs stand with the monuments of aesthetic achievement that every culture claims: they tickle the fancy and engage the emotions simultaneously, and touch on something universal. Keep your Goethe, I’ve got Smokey.
(Of course, any collection of Smokey Robinson’s recordings will only showcase a small segment of his genius, because many of his finest moments as a songwriter were recorded by other singers: The Temptations’ “My Girl” and “It’s Growing”, Mary Wells’ “The One Who Really Loves You”, Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone”.)
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