Tragedy past and future bracketed that date. Sam Cooke had been murdered 40 days earlier; cancer-afflicted Nat “King” Cole was to die 26 days later. The contemporary poem by Conrad Kent Rivers about Cole’s passing (I disagree with a death that strikes down the makers of songs/There are so many things waiting for silence/Like the bombs waiting for doors to open) became even more poignant when LBJ began sending B-52 bombers to Vietnam that June.
Yet Smokey can be forgiven if the inauguration in Washington passed him by. Motown Records – for which he now wore a vice president’s stripes – was experiencing explosive growth. His latest production for the Temptations, ‘My Girl,’ was looming as a crossover giant. He was already working on its follow-up, while prepping for recording sessions with Marvin Gaye.
Only in his mid-twenties, Smokey had by this time been responsible for a series of memorable hits by his group, and by Mary Wells and the Temptations. These gave Motown – which Robinson had encouraged Berry Gordy Jr. to start – a firm foundation, and the promise of a bright future.
In Robinson’s past, there had been a piano. “Mama had an old upright at home,” he wrote in his 1989 autobiography, “and I’d be banging it, figuring out simple melodies and chord combinations.” He also bought songbooks, “with people like Snooky Lansen and Dean Martin on the covers, because I wanted to know the words of the current tunes that were popular. I would buy those rather than candy.”
His interest extended to R&B performers such as Billy Ward’s Dominoes, and Nolan Strong and the Diablos. Robinson cited the Dominoes’ Clyde McPhatter as a major influence; his high-pitched vocals reassured the teenager that his own falsetto singing style was worthy of pride.
Soon, young Smokey and school friends Ronnie White, Pete Moore and Bobby and Sonny Rogers formed their own group, the Matadors, singing in and around Detroit. In August 1957, they heard of a local audition being staged by Jackie Wilson’s manager to hear new talent with recording potential. Group member Sonny Rogers’ decision to join the army complicated matters, but a replacement was found in his sister, Claudette Rogers, also a singer. (In 1959, she and Smokey were to marry.)
The Matadors’ performance of several numbers at the audition failed to impress Wilson’s manager, but did attract songwriter Gordy, also present, who asked about one tune in particular, ‘Mama Done Told Me.’ Learning of Robinson’s authorship of that and dozens of other songs, the future founder of Motown Records offered the teenagers advice and work as backup vocalists on some of his independent productions.
What happened next is familiar to almost anyone with an interest in popular music of the past six decades. Gordy signed and recorded the Miracles, placed the results with several US independent labels, and then set up Tamla Records in January 1959 to take control of their own destiny. That, and to collect more than the $3.19 cheque he was sent by one indie company as earnings from the sales of a Miracles single.
In late 1960, the quintet – Smokey, Claudette, Ronnie, Bobby and Pete – made ‘Shop Around,’ their first million-seller. “We received our gold record in February 1962 at the Michigan State Fair,” remembered Claudette proudly in notes for the Miracles’ 35th Anniversary Collection, their definitive anthology. That success led to more hits: ‘What’s So Good About Goodbye,’ ‘I’ll Try Something New,’ ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,’ ‘Mickey’s Monkey.’ In each new record, Smokey’s aching falsetto seemed more soulful. In each new song, the imagery of his lyrics became more adventurous, more sophisticated.
‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ also travelled abroad, catching the ears of a young British rock band weaned on American rhythm & blues. The Beatles covered the song for their second album, and John Lennon named the Miracles as his favourite group.
The fivesome’s popularity was enhanced by participation in the Motortown Revue, Berry Gordy’s touring package – with as many as ten acts per show, with the Miracles usually the headliners – which criss-crossed America week after week, month after month in the early 1960s. The revue regularly broke attendance records, and fuelled Motown’s pursuit of the LP market with a series of Recorded Live On Stage albums. The Miracles’ in-concert album came out in May 1963, their fifth release after Hi We’re The Miracles, Cookin’ With The Miracles, I’ll Try Something New, and The Fabulous Miracles.
By 1964-65, Smokey was composing more frequently with members of the group, and with the sixth Miracle, guitarist Marv Tarplin. Robinson’s strength has always been in lyrics, and it’s arguable that the increased collaboration with others provided a better melodic foundation for that strength. Tarplin’s contribution, especially, was critical to the peerless intensity and depth of the Miracles’ work over the next several years – ‘Ooo Baby Baby,’ ‘The Tracks Of My Tears,’ ‘My Girl Has Gone,’ ‘Going To A Go-Go,’ ‘The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage’ – and the accompanying albums, Going To A Go-Go, Away We A Go-Go and Make It Happen.
Claudette Robinson gave up touring in 1965 to start a family, but continued to record with the Miracles. The third R&B No. 1 of their career, ‘I Second That Emotion,’ was the follow-up to ‘More Love,’ which Smokey wrote for his wife after the death of prematurely-born twins. Battling the blues, he went Christmas shopping in downtown Detroit with Motown colleague Al Cleveland.
At Hudson’s department store, Robinson avoided the toys and baby department, opting for the jewellery counter, selecting pearls for his wife and hoping aloud that she’d like them. “I second that emotion,” said Cleveland. The two men laughed at the verbal slip, but it stayed in Smokey’s thoughts. “That afternoon, we wrote the song,” reminisced Robinson.
‘I Second That Emotion’ was a certified smash, and Al Cleveland became a potent, if critically overlooked, partner for Smokey. The pair went on to write seven of the next eight Miracles singles, showcased in such albums as Special Occasion (1968), Time Out For Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Four In Blue (both 1969).
The group’s most popular recording was an even more unlikely tale than the slip of a tongue. In 1970, the Tamla-Motown label manager at EMI in London, John Reid, was looking for a hit. The group’s new US singles were proving unsuitable for the UK market, and their only major seller there was a 1969 reissue of ‘The Tracks Of My Tears.’
For help, Reid turned to the head of Motown’s UK fan club, Karen Spreadbury. She said he threw the Miracles’ Make It Happen LP – by that point, three years old – across his office with a challenge: find a single. Tucked away as the last track on side two was ‘The Tears Of A Clown.’ Spreadbury recalled, “It stuck out like a sore thumb because it was so different.”
Robinson originally heard the song as an instrumental track co-created by Stevie Wonder. Striving to find lyrics for the circus feel of the music, he chose a similar motif to ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’: the clown. “Everybody loves him as Pagliacci the clown, but he doesn’t have someone who loves him as a man.” Vocals for the completed song were laid down in November 1966.
Three years later, John Reid took Karen Spreadbury’s advice and shipped it as a single. By mid-September 1970, Smokey & the Miracles were clowning around at No. 1 in the British charts. In Detroit, Motown swiftly followed that lead, and netted the group’s single most successful chartrider, worldwide. Can there be an intro more recognisable in popular music than this ‘Clown’?
Until then, Robinson – tired of touring, above all – had been planning to go solo. The Miracles’ renewed popularity obliged him to delay the exit for a couple more years, but in January 1972, Smokey declared that he would quit after a summer farewell tour of the US. And leave he did, bowing out by way of 1957-1972, a double-album live package which contained many of his group’s hits.
Smokey’s subsequent solo sessions are almost as celebrated as many of the sides he cut as a Miracle. ‘Baby That’s Backatcha,’ ‘A Quiet Storm,’ ‘Cruisin’ ’ and ‘Being With You’ hardly require an introduction. The remaining Miracles had a tougher time, even with a new, young, lead vocalist, Billy Griffin, and a brace of hit tracks, ‘Do It Baby’ and ‘Love Machine.’ Their Smoke-free Motown albums Renaissance, Do It Baby and City Of Angels are still in the catalogue, deservedly.
Among other career milestones, Smokey and the Miracles have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, honoured with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and have seen ‘Shop Around,’ ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ and ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ drafted into both the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. To this day, Robinson continues to be a standard-bearer for Motown, and everything it created.
Perhaps all that remains is to give thanks for mama’s upright piano, the childhood choice of songbooks over candy, and the Miracles’ sweet harmonies.
Now that you are a Motown expert, test your knowledge and earn your degree at the Classic Motown University!
Gathering the first two long-players credited to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, this two-fer compiles the 1965 and 1967 releases Going to a Go-Go and Away We a Go-Go. Admittedly, these are early entries into the voluminous Smokey catalog; artistically, however, both albums reflect the infinite talents of Robinson and company. Additionally, they are a testament to the cohesive, timeless, and fully developed sounds emanating from the inhabitants of Hitsville USA and the originators of the self-proclaimed Sound of Young America. Both LPs included copious hits, including "My Girl Has Gone," "Ooo Baby Baby," "Going to a Go-Go," "(Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need," and "Tracks of My Tears." However, equally enduring are the deeper album cuts that become more sharply defined when juxtaposed with the previously mentioned chart-topping and genre-defining works. "In Case You Need Love," "From Head to Toe," and "Let Me Have Some" are but a few of the up-tempo and rhythm-heavy sides that display the same "good-time" atmosphere as the title track, but became overshadowed in its wake.
While the soul rattlin' "More, More, More of Your Love," as well as the crossover hit and leadoff track, "Whole Lot of Shakin' in My Heart (Since I Met You)," are featured on Away We a Go-Go, the album contains more than a few moments of pure and achingly sublime Smokey -- following in the tradition of the classic smoldering Motown love song. The dramatic brass arrangements on "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" were obvious influences on the Thom Bell-led Philly soul revolution nearly a decade later. It is the delivery, however, that emotes this version over and beyond Dusty Springfield's more popular rendering. Likewise, the tight string arrangement on "Oh Be My Love" can directly be linked to the similar scores on sexy soul classics such as Brenda & the Tabulations' "The Touch of You" or Barbara Mason's "I'm Ready." The real star of the Motown "classic albums" series is the opulent sound. Although a majority of this material has been previously available on CD, the marked improvement in sound quality makes this rendering indispensable for Motown advocates young and old.
Words - Lindsay Planer
There isn't much of a crucial difference between this and the previous Smokey Robinson & the Miracles collection entitled Anthology, originally issued in 1973 and then on CD with minor variations in 1995. More to the point, perhaps, about 85 percent of the songs on the two-CD set Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology were also on the more plainly titled Anthology, so the differences are kind of cosmetic. Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology has all 28 of their Top 40 hits, so someone looking for the essentials, garnished by a good amount of other material that isn't as familiar, will undoubtedly be satisfied. Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology does have a small but significant edge in the inclusion of the exquisite mid-'60s mid-tempo ballad "Would I Love You," a great 1964 B-side that somehow escaped inclusion on the CD iteration of Anthology.
As far as other minor differences that will probably escape detection by the great majority of listeners, there are first-ever stereo mixes of "Whatever Makes You Happy," "I Can Take a Hint," and "Baby Don't You Go"; the first CD appearance of both "I Can Take a Hint" (from the 1963 LP The Fabulous Miracles) and a live "I've Been Good to You" (also from a 1963 LP); and new, extended stereo mixes of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Would I Love You," and "I'll Try Something New." However you slice it, it's great soul music, not much less solid than single-disc Miracles collections, though owners of the previous releases titled Anthology will not find enough extras here to merit investment.
Words - Richie Unterberger
This four-CD boxed set covers every essential track that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ever recorded, and then some -- at least a dozen never previously anthologized tracks are included here, among them the original single versions of "Way Over There" (unavailable elsewhere) and "Shop Around" (which had already been released locally in Detriot when Berry Gordy decided one night to get a session together, punch up the rhythm, and lay down a new version, which became the hit). Even better is the remastering, which runs circles around any previous edition of the Miracles' work, and the annotation -- including an essay by Claudette Robinson -- that gives credit to all of the participants, including the backup musicians who were seldom if ever mentioned during Motown's heyday. The Smokey Robinson & the Miracles Anthology is a fine collection, but this set is the definitive history, and irreplaceable for anyone who genuinely loves the group.
Words - Bruce Eder
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles turn their hands to a Christmas album with a difference. Yes, there are all the traditional favourites given the Miracles treatment such as 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,' 'Let It Snow,' Noel' and 'The Christmas Song. However, Smokey writes two of his own festive songs with "I Believe In Christmas Eve' and 'Christmas Everyday.' The Miracles fabulous crafted harmonies give the album a a unique uplifting quality.
While Robinson's solo work pales in comparison to his hits with the Miracles, this 17-track collection of Motown singles uncovers such gems as "Baby Come Close," "I Am I Am," "Cruisin'," "Let Me Be," "The Clock," "Tell Me Tomorrow," "I've Made Love to You a Thousand Times," "One Heartbeat," "Just to See Her," "Everything You Touch," "Baby That's Backatcha," "The Agony and the Ecstacy" and "Open."
Words - Jason Ankeny
The Millennium Collection: The Best of Smokey Robinson collects the highlights of Robinson's career after the Miracles, including "Quiet Storm," "Being With You," "One Heartbeat," and "Cruisin'." "Let Me Be the Clock," "Baby Come Close," and a live version of "Ooo Baby Baby" round out this portrait of Robinson's sweet, sensual, maturing style.
Words - Heather Phares
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
The first disc in this collection set takes place in 1969 at Detroit's Roostertail, as close as Motown would ever come to having its own club. The association goes back to the mid-Sixties, when the company sponsored a series of gigs there called Motown Mondays; Smokey and Company were frequent visitors to the Roostertail, and felt comfortable within its walls. The album, first issued late in the year, features some of their most sophisticated harmonies and a live band that takes no prisoners. (Be awed by the onstage bass line in "I Second That Emotion.").
The second disc of the set was recorded in a very different type of setting: Washington DC's Carter Barron Amphitheatre, a 3750-seat outdoor venue in Rock Creek Park. It was also setting the stage for Robinson's departure from the band he'd co-founded 15 years earlier. At the end of the latter disc's set, Smokey introduces Billy Griffin as the new lead singer for the Miracles. Because it was their last time onstage as a unit, Smokey's then-wife Claudette Robinson - who had left the road in the mid-Sixties - rejoined the group, and her impact is perceptible. Her innocent yet flirty female voice added an intriguing thread that will always set the Miracles off from their colleagues and peers. Only four songs overlap the two sets; how could they perform a concert without "Going To A Go Go" and "Ooo Baby Baby"? But the concert surprises, such as Burt Bacharach/Hal David's "Walk On By," and their hit cover of Dion's hit "Abraham, Martin And John," demonstrate the breadth of the band's musical talent. The Miracles also reach back, singing requests of old chestnuts like "Bad Girl."
This 18 Track compilation released in 2009 features a great selection of the groups finest work and captures the vocal harmonies and broad range of styles. Most of their major hits are to be found here from their very first 'Shop Around' to the iconic 'The Tracks Of My Tears,'I Second That Emotion,' 'Tears Of A Clown' and the dance hits of 'Going To A Go Go' and 'Mickey's Monkey.' The Definitive Collection is a fine introduction one of the most dominant forces to emerge from the Motown label.
This 20 Track collection released in 2012 recaptures the prime time of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles career. Throughout the late sixties and early seventies the group were one of the Motown labels torchbearers producing hit after hit. 'I Second That Emotion,' More Love,'(Come Round Here) You're The One I Need,' 'The Tracks Of My Tears' and the album's title track are only some of them included on this album. Also featured are some of their dance floor fillers 'Going To A Go Go,'Shop Around' and the questioning 'Show Me You Can Dance'. Altogether a quality representation of this legendary vocal group.