FEATURE: I Second That Emotion: Smokey Robinson at Seventy-Nine: The Essential Playlist




I Second That Emotion


IN THIS PHOTO: Smokey Robinson/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Smokey Robinson at Seventy-Nine: The Essential Playlist


THERE are few artists who are as iconic...

and tremendous as Smokey Robinson! In terms of songwriting, I cannot think of many who have penned so many great hits. Whether as a solo artist or part of The Miracles, the man is responsible for some of the most memorable songs ever. I first encountered Robinson as a child and tracks such as I Second That Emotion and The Tracks of My Tears (with The Miracles); Cruisin’ and Being with You (solo). It is hard to say which period of his life is the best in terms of material and power - but I would say his stuff with The Miracles just takes the edge. Maybe it is the combination of voices or the particular time period. In any case, Robinson has been crafting wonderful songs since 1955. It is amazing to think his work spans seven decades – let’s hope the man is not done singing and writing! It is incredible to think that a man who is so close to being eighty is still active in music. Robinson recently performed at the Grammys and, one suspects, will put out more material soon enough. It is those childhood memories and experiences that still resonate. I have fond memories of being driven to my aunt’s and hearing classic Smokey Robinson/Smokey Robinson & The Miracles tracks being played out. Yesterday was the man’s seventy-ninth birthday – I didn’t have time to publish anything then… – and many paid tribute to him.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles/PHOTO CREDIT: REX

I do wonder whether anyone has enjoyed such a vast and successful songwriting career – apart from legends like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan – and made such an impact! This feature from uDiscoverMusic talks about Robinson as a pioneer; how there was a song in his cannon for pretty much anyone!

Don’t worry, we’re not going to repeat the Bob Dylan quote about Smokey Robinson. We know you are sick of it being trotted out at every opportunity, and if you don’t know it, it’s not hard to find. Smokey doesn’t need another songwriter to confirm his greatness. His work speaks for itself: he’s got the write stuff. Our job here is to chart a course through some of the musical miracles he created for Motown, whether written to perform himself or with The Miracles, or for other artists blessed by the gift of his songs.

Smokey Robinson was a pioneer. Many statements have been made to the effect that Motown’s artists began to wrest control of their careers at the start of the 70s by writing their own material, but Smokey began doing it in the late 50s. Every word, every melody he dreams up has soul, and there’s a Smokey song for everyone. What follows will give you a taste of his greatness...

The start of his career was not as hot and successful as one would have expected.

The man, even at a young age, was churning out songs but, as the article continues, there was one tough critic who was only willing to accept the best from Robinson…

Miracle of creation

It’s said that Smokey Robinson wrote 100 songs before Berry Gordy, Motown’s boss, declared one to be worth recording. Chances are it was more than that, as Smokey, who was born on 19 February 1940, composed a song for a school play when he was seven, and from an early age he bought Hit Parader, a magazine which printed the lyrics of chart songs, to study them closely and decipher how they worked. In this instance, practice made perfect. On the advice of Gordy, who had written several hits for R&B star Jackie Wilson, Smokey began to think more about the structure in his songs and to give their stories continuity. By 1960, after a couple of well-received singles with The Miracles, Smokey’s first major writing success arrived with ʻShop Around’, which took parental love advice to No.2 in the US pop charts....


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Things did change and, when he found that golden touch, the demand was overwhelming. Just like the biggest Motown artists of the time, Smokey Robinson was vastly popular and in no shortage of demand. He proved he was able to write in a variety of situations and convey a wide array of emotions:

As was the way at Motown, Smokey Robinson found himself in great demand among the company’s other singers, all seeking a sprinkle of his songwriting stardust. Smokey returned to hard-headed love advice when writing ʻFirst I Look At The Purse’ for The Contours (1965). He was more romantic on ʻMy Guy’, a smash hit for Mary Wells (1964) and a song he answered himself with ʻMy Girl’ (1965), a mega-hit for both The Temptations and Otis Redding, and generously provided the Tempts with ʻThe Way You Do The Things You Do’, ʻIt’s Growing’, ʻGet Ready’ and an entire album’s worth of gems on The Temptations Sing Smokey.

Often considered masters of the ballad, thanks to the likes of the majestic ʻOoo Baby Baby’ (1965) and the heartbreaking ʻTracks Of My Tears’ (1965), The Miracles could also kick up a rumpus on tunes such as ʻGoing To A Go-Go’ (1965) and ʻThe Tears Of A Clown’ (1970). These songs are well remembered today, but Smokey and The Miracles’ brilliance still oozed from album tracks and B-sides. Songs which are heard far less today have remarkable depths. ʻSave Me’, the B-side of ʻGoing To A Go-Go’, opens like a twee ditty, with tidy piano and ticking bongo drums”.


The great Smokey Robinson is often considered – quite rightly – one of the greatest songwriters ever…but there were collaborators who helped bring these magical songs to life:

Smokey did not usually write alone. Among his closest collaborators was Marv Tarplin, The Miracles’ guitarist, who broke a rare writing block for Smokey when the two wrote ʻCruisin’’ together. Additionally, various members of The Miracles contributed to many of the group’s hits, such as Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers and Ronald White. Motown house songwriter Al Cleveland co-created many late-60s wonders with Smokey, including the much-loved ʻI Second That Emotion’. ʻThe Tears Of A Clown’ was co-authored by another Motown giant, Stevie Wonder, with Wonder’s regular co-conspirator, Hank Cosby. And Motown boss Berry Gordy shaped and rewrote some of The Miracles’ earliest successes, including ʻShop Around’. Genius works with genius”.


A great feature on hotpress.com - published yesterday – revisited an interview Smokey Robinson conducted in 2007 (with the publication/website) where he talked about Motown and meeting The Beatles:

But Smokey (William) Robinson will always be inextricably linked to Motown, arguably the greatest music label in the history of pop music. As songwriter, producer, performer, talent scout and later vice-president, he was at the very heart of the company that styled itself as “the sound of young America”. He was taken under the wing of Motown founder Berry Gordy and together they forged the unique sound that was Motown...


“Man, I wish I’d known at the time we were making history, not just making music,” he laughs, down the phone line from LA. “We’d decided from very early on that we were not going to make black music, we were going to make music that everyone could enjoy. Time has proved that we did the right thing. It was quality music.”

He recalls his delight at hearing the early Beatles were big fans of Motown. “I had met them before they became popular and I liked them even then, so it was a joy to hear them do my song,” he says. “I still love that version and I’m glad I played some part in their careers”.

The dust has settled from the seventy-ninth birthday celebrations but the music will live on and, since the 1950s, the amazing Smokey Robinson has bewitched and inspired the world! I hope, genuinely, we get many more years of his gold – there will never be anyone like him in music. As I sign off and tip my hat to him, I think it is a good idea to end with the essential...


SMOKEY Robinson playlist.