This was a parent so dedicated to Motown Records, by the way, that he called his son Berry and, for good measure, added Borope as a middle monicker - after the first two letters of the Miracles' names: Bobby Rodgers, Ronnie White and Pete Moore. Smokey's daughter? He dubbed her Tamla Claudette.
The firestarter returned in 1973 with his solo debut, Smokey, perhaps most memorable for the socially-conscious lyrics of 'Just My Soul Responding,' which also featured an authentic Sioux chant by Tom Bee, part of the American Indian group XIT, under contract to Motown's rock imprint, Rare Earth.
At the same time, Smokey continued to write and produce for others - such as a brace of hits for the Supremes, 'Floy Joy' and 'Automatically Sunshine' - while seeing his catalogue consistently draw attention. Such covers during the early 1970s ranged from the southern soul of Eddie Floyd's 'My Girl' and the Staple Singers' 'You've Got To Earn It' to the middle-of-the-road pop of Petula Clark's 'My Guy' and a country take on that same song, by Lynda K. Lance.
Marvin Gaye was among the Motown artists to whom Smokey was closest - he called Gaye "Dad" and whose What's Going On was "a sacred work." It was, said Robinson, "the first concept album, the first time I'd ever heard a singer multi-track his voice - answering himself, echoing himself, harmonising himself - setting a standard for us all to follow."
After a second solo turn, Pure Smokey, the singer/songwriter found a concept for his third album: "soft winds - warm breeze - a power source - a tender force - quiet storm - blowing through my life." Robinson was determined to deliver on that promise. The result was 1975's A Quiet Storm, his most popular solo project to that point, a Top Ten R&B success which also breezed around the US pop charts for the best part of a year.
"The album was a hit," said Smokey, "but, even more, it started a new radio format, actually called Quiet Storm - soft, romantic soul music with a sexy bite." He was evidently gratified that this particular spark turned into a flame, albeit a mellow blaze. To his further credit, Smokey was challenging prevailing trends in music. He had been doing a lot of listening to others, "something I never had too much opportunity to do before." And the more he listened, the more he heard "the growing emphasis on the funky thing, heavy brass, that type of thing."
A Quiet Storm is notable for at least three other reasons: 'Happy (Love Theme From "Lady Sings The Blues"),' a collaboration with film score composer Michel Legrand; 'Wedding Song,' originally crafted for the '73 marriage of Jermaine Jackson to Berry Gordy's daughter, Hazel Joy; and 'Baby That's Backatcha," the perfect embodiment of the entire album's subtle mood. What's more, the last of these songs was the first No. 1 of his solo career.
A Quiet Storm remained his best-selling LP until 1979's Where There's Smoke blew into town. In between, Robinson burned up a lot of energy and expense on Big Time, a "blaxploitation" film for which he was executive producer, as well as an animated movie, Bush Head. Fortunately, there were also several mellifluous albums: Smokey's Family Robinson, Deep In My Soul, Love Breeze and the very first live set of his solo years, Smokin'. That set was recorded at West Hollywood's Roxy nightspot in the spring of '78, and found him returning to Miracles material with gusto ('Bad Girl,' 'Mickey's Monkey,' 'The Tears Of A Clown') as well as with melancholy ('The Tracks Of My Tears,' 'Ooo Baby Baby').
The following year, Smokey returned to the righteous upper ranks of the charts with 'Cruisin',' the centrepiece of Where There's Smoke, and in 1981, 'Being With You,' the main attraction of the album of the same name. The track for 'Cruisin' ' was shaped by his longtime guitarist, Marv Tarplin, before the lyric sparked to life. And when Smokey was reminded of the Temptations' 1971 milestone, 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),' he knew he had the rightsoundfor the new song, too.
'Cruisin' ' soared to sales heights which Smokey had not experienced since 'Baby That's Backatcha.' More pleasure was to come thanks to the woman with 'Bette Davis Eyes,' Kim Carnes. If she and her record producer, George Tobin, hadn't fallen out, Kim might have cut 'Being With You' instead of Smokey.
Tobin had guided Carnes' remake of the Miracles' 'More Love,' which hit the US Top Ten in August 1980. The next month, Smokey called George to say he had another great song; it was 'Being With You.' Recalled Tobin, "He's pitching it to me for Kim, and I'm saying, 'No, this is great for you, you ought to do it.' " What's more, Tobin offered to produce the session. "Smokey was just incredible to work with, he's such a natural singer. I think we did two or three takes, and I combined the best of them."
Within a few weeks of its 1981 release, 'Being With You' reacted at R&B and pop radio, and Smokey secured the single biggest hit of his solo career. Its statistics included a No. 1 triumph in the UK, where eleven years earlier, a local Motown employee had suggested an old Miracles LP track called 'The Tears Of A Clown' as a new potential single release.Â That one burned the house down, too.
Smokey even crooned 'Being With You' in Spanish ('Aqui Con Tigo') for his many Hispanic fans at home and abroad. "I've started writing new songs in Spanish," he told the Wall Street Journal recently, "because I want to do a Spanish album."
The following years yielded plenty of Smoke and fire. 'Just To See Her' and 'One Heartbeat' were back-to-back Top Ten crossover hits for the singer in the late 1980s, drawn from One Heartbeat, and 'Everything You Touch' caressed the R&B Top Five in 1990, extracted from that year's Love, Smokey. By then, Smokey's songs were burned into popular music's DNA, with new interpretations by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Tammy Wynette, from Elvis Costello to D'Angelo, from UB40 to Jerry Garcia.
To this day, William "Smokey" Robinson is combustible. His extraordinary body of work has earned him the right to do pretty much anything he wants and that's what he has done.
- Start his own label (Robso Records) with indie distribution? Check.
- Cut an album of religious songs, Food For The Spirit? Check.
- Record with friends (Joss Stone, India.Arie, Carlos Santana) of years tender and mature? Check.
- Make an album (2006's Timeless Love) of standards which he admired as a youngster? Check.
- Tweet for 67,000+ followers, and front an official Facebook page with 114,000+ "likes"? Check.
- Be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and gain a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Check.
- Personally and regularly present in Las Vegas a young Australian vocal group, Human Nature, which harmonises through the Motown songbook? Check.
- Maintain a schedule of live performances which would exhaust men half his age? Check.
- Sign a new recording deal with Verve Records, with fresh music due in the autumn of 2013? Check.
- Sing at the White House for the President of the United States? Check.
Of course, Smokey's music is also front and centre in the new Broadway smash, Motown: The Musical, from 'My Guy' to 'My Girl' and more. Look, the titles of those two songs are even emblazoned on a key ring available at the merchandise stand in the lobby! And the young actor/singer who plays Smokey in the show, Charl Brown, perfectly captured the Robinson persona - so much so that his performance was nominated for a Tony award.
"I'm so very, very blessed," Smokey told the Chicago-Sun Times not long ago, during a rare moment standing still. "I'm living in my wildest childhood dream. As a kid five or six years old, I wanted to be in show business. I didn't think it would ever be possible for me, from where I was growing up. I just didn't think that it was a possible dream, but it has come true through the grace of God."
"I loved the Beatles, because they were the first white act to come along who said, 'We were heavily influenced by Motown music, and by black music, and we love it'." Smokey Robinson
Now that you are a Motown expert, test your knowledge and earn your degree at the Classic Motown University!
The genius of William "Smokey" Robinson is immeasurable. As many of his prior songs had shaped R&B and pop music, this album would have a similar effect. The title track became the namesake for a music format. The album itself had three singles hit the charts. Arranged in an intermittent rhythm, "Baby That's Backatcha" ran up the Billboard R&B charts to number one inside 16 weeks. It was Robinson's first number one single since leaving the Miracles. The lyric of the ballad "The Agony and the Ecstasy" hit the Top Ten at number seven, and it was followed by the masterpiece "A Quiet Storm." Although it only managed to seal the Top 25, it has since made a greater impact on the music charts and music industry.
Briefly, radio mogul Cathy Hughes, owner of Radio One, was the general manager at Howard University radio WHUR during the early '70s when she created the format "the quiet storm." She used Smokey Robinson's composition as the theme song. Before long, it caught on around the country and evolved into a new market. This album also features the "Wedding Song" which was written for Hazel and Jermaine Jackson's wedding and the "Happy" theme from the movie Lady Sings the Blues.
Words - Craig Lytle
Hip-O Select’s 2010 release The Solo Albums, Vol. 1 combines Smokey Robinson’s first two post-Miracles albums - 1973’s Smokey and its 1974 sequel, Pure Smokey -- on one CD. Arriving between Smokey’s glorious late-period singles with the Miracles and 1975’s trend-setting Quiet Storm, these two LPs tend to get overlooked in the grand scheme of things -- particularly because they didn’t burn up the charts, producing no big hit singles -- but this disc proves they’re compelling transitional albums, records where Robinson finds his solo voice while coming to terms with the shifting sounds of the time. Of the two, Smokey is a tentative step forward, carrying clear remnants of his latter-day music with the Miracles, which shouldn’t come as a great surprise considering that it’s anchored by “Sweet Harmony,” a tune he wrote about and for the Miracles but was persuaded by Motown A&R’s Suzanne de Passe to keep for himself.
From there, Robinson built a full LP, using Willie Hutch as his co-producer and writing a clutch of songs with Marvin Tarplin, his co-author on several Miracles hits. Certainly, the rich, gorgeous harmonies of “Sweet Harmony” consciously evoke the Miracles but the group is heard elsewhere too, in the bright bounce of “Wanna Know My Mind” and in its covers of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and a medley of “Never My Love/Never Can Say Goodbye,” both bringing to mind Motown’s habit of recycling contemporary hits. These echoes of the past are comforting, particularly because they’re surrounded by modernity, thanks in part to Hutch’s lush, layered production but also Smokey’s willingness to embrace the shifting times, naturally favoring smooth soul to gritty funk, letting it escalate to an almost cinematic scale and, more importantly, not shying away from subjects he’d never tackle during the ‘60s whether it’s his family or the saga of a teenage runaway. It’s not a bold break into maturity on the level of What’s Going On or Music of My Mind but rather a transitional album, and a fascinating one at that, suggesting the path he would take going forward.
Pure Smokey consolidates Smokey Robinson’s progressions on Smokey, retaining the adventurous maturity of subject matter -- in particular, Robinson remains fixated on family, paying tribute to the sister who raised him on “It’s Her Turn to Live,” noting the passing generations on “She’s Only a Baby Herself,” and expressing “The Love Between Me and My Kids” -- but moving firmly into the present with his music. Apart from the closing “A Tattoo,” which was co-produced by Hutch, Pure Smokey is helmed by Smokey himself and he creates a seamless blend of smoothed-out disco and gorgeous soft soul, the former firmly within the commercial realm of 1974 and the latter creating the sound he would coin Quiet Storm on his next LP. Here, Smokey favors lively beats over slow sways -- even the midtempo numbers carry a bounce to their rhythm -- yet these insistent, danceable rhythms convey an element of seduction thanks to Smokey’s velvet delivery, a smoothness that’s undeniable in his vocals and arrangements. So smooth is Pure Smokey that it’s easy to overlook its subtle innovations in subject and music, but that’s what makes it a rich, enduring LP: it goes down easy but pays back greater dividends upon close listening.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
"Also known as Quiet Storm/Smokey’s Family Robinson these two albums of solo work from the great man demonstrates his great range and influences.
From the title track of ‘Quiet Storm’ to ‘Happy’ the love theme fro Lady Sings The Blues and the emotive ‘Love Letters’ Smokey’s vocals excel.
Smokey’s Family Robinson features ‘When You Came’ and the outstanding ‘Do Like I Do’ plus a rare bonus track’An Old Fashioned Man’ a soundtrack single originally released in 1976 and on CD for the first time."
These two solo albums from Smokey Big Soul and the original soundtrack to Big Time. Deep in My Soul featured the hit singles ‘There Will Come A Day (I’m Gonna Happen To You) and Vitamin U. Big Time was a soundtrack to a nearly forgotten movie however included the cool ‘Hip Trip’ and “Theme From The Big Time’ a top 20 Disco hit a remains a rarity.
Vol. 4 of Hip-O Select's ongoing Smokey Robinson solo album reissue series contains 1978's Love Breeze and its 1979 sequel, Where There's Smoke.... On the whole, Love Breeze is sprightlier than Smokey's records since Quiet Storm, betraying a distinct disco influence not only in its quicker moments but also on the smoother, slower numbers, a move that helped freshen his quiet storm routine. It was a welcome transition that Robinson perfected on Where There's Smoke..., a record that was his biggest hit in a decade, a success ushered in by the smash hit "Cruisin'," an easy-rolling piece of seduction, but the entirety of the album finds Smokey in peak form, expertly navigating disco, following Marvin Gaye's lead and steering it toward pop while never losing sight of his signature smooth touch. This two-fer illustrates that even if Smokey wasn't setting trends in the late '70s, he was smooth enough to not be behind the curve.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Vol. 5 of Hip-O Select's ongoing Smokey Robinson solo album reissue series is a straight-up reissue of the 1978 live album Smokin'. Although this opens with "The Tracks of My Tears," this isn't an oldie revue heavy on hits with the Miracles. Instead, this double album is very much of its time, relying heavily on recent hits with everything, even the classic '60s sides, given a bit of a disco makeover. While these new arrangements hardly trump the originals, they make for a better overall experience: perhaps this isn't Smokey at his absolute peak, but it is a reflection of a legend working hard to build upon his legacy without living in the past.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Vol. 6 of Smokey Robinson's solo albums pairs 1980's Warm Thoughts with Being with You. Arriving on the heels of the very successful Where There's Smoke..., Warm Thoughts follows the same blueprint, perhaps muting the cheerful tempos just slightly, letting itself drift toward ballads with an elongated pulse, but there's still plenty of cheerful disco and bright pop here, making it easy to enjoy.
Being with You expands upon the sound of Warm Thoughts by borrowing some of Quincy Jones' enthusiastic innovations, threading in some new wave synths for good measure. Some of the record is a little thin -- its closing "I Hear the Children Singing" is quite sappy -- but it is anchored by the immortal quiet storm title track, and such moments as "Can't Fight Love" illustrate that Smokey was still adept at shaping the styles to his sound.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Intimate rarely shifts past first gear, but that's where you want Smokey anyway, as he's long past his "Mickey's Monkey" and "Whole Lot of Shakin'" days. Producer Michael Stokes collaborates with Smokey on a few tunes, but except for "Sleeping In," the results are merely adequate. Contains mostly slow ballads, with only a few exceptions: the midtempo number, stalking "Intimate," and a couple of pop items, including "I'm the One." While Intimate doesn't rate with his '70s albums, it's superior to his last album Double Good Everything, and is a fine comeback by Mr. Motown.
Words - Andrew Hamilton
Smokey Robinson hasn't had much use for making records since his records stopped selling in significant numbers, which happened as of the early '90s; after that, his only regular album has been 1999's Intimate. But Universal Music's New Door imprint exists for the purpose of making new recordings with veteran artists for whom the major label is the repository for the bulk of their catalogs (think Joe Cocker, Nanci Griffith), and Robinson fits that criterion perfectly, since Universal controls the Motown library. But instead of making an album of new, original songs, Robinson has opted for the hoary concept of "aging rock-era pop star sings pre-rock standards," an idea that was never good to begin with and that should have been buried with the final entry in Rod Stewart's series of atrocities. Happily, Robinson's version turns out to be not half bad.
One reason for this is that, unlike Stewart et al., his model is not Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, but rather some of the jazz singers who also essayed the work of Cole Porter and other pre-1950 songwriters. Robinson seems to have first heard these songs as sung by Ella Fitzgerald (his primary influence), Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday, among others. When he sings "I'm in the Mood for Love," he throws in some of the King Pleasure vocalese on James Moody's jazz interpretation of the song, "Moody's Mood for Love." Robinson is no stranger to the material; he first recorded Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" and Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" with the Miracles in 1962, and now as a 66-year-old he isn't afraid to take these songs where he wants to take them, i.e., in the direction of his '80s "quiet storm" hits. They are all the better for it. As of 2006, Robinson was spending his time playing the concert halls in the many hotel/casinos around the country; his versions of these standards would be as likely to drawn appreciation in such venues as his old hits.
Words - William Ruhlmann
The time that has flown is Smokey's 50 years in the business, but it could just as well refer to the number of years since Robinson has released a smooth soul album: almost 20 full years! Smokey, of course, has stayed active during the interim, both on-stage and on record, but Time Flies When You're Having Fun marks a return to the coolly simmering quiet storm that was his stock in trade during the '70s and '80s.
Apart from production techniques, not much has changed in Smokey's music during the time off, either: this is still smooth, unhurried soul that vacillates between elegance and supper-club classiness. Of course, since these are two sides of the same coin, they fit together seamlessly, with the only question being whether the immaculately polished music veers toward the corny, but whenever it does, Smokey's impeccably tailored vocals steer it back to toward the sweetly romantic. After all these years, Smokey still makes it all seem easy -- so easy that it's puzzling why he hasn't made a record like this in so long, because as this comforting, velvety album proves, nobody does it better than he.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine