Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Doesn't Smokey Robinson Get More Love?

I know what you're thinking: What am I talking about? Smokey gets plenty of love!

Of course, he does. But only for one thing (singing), when he's so good at two (singing and songwriting).

When pop pundits start naming the all-time great songwriters of the rock & roll era, how likely are they to list him right up where he belongs, alongside John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Goffin and Carole King, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, Billy Joel?

If any great songwriter, dead or alive, deserves more love, it's Smokey.

I realized this while watching American Idol last season during the Music of Motor City week featuring 73-year-old Smokey as the mentor, when the Top 11 contestants took on classics by Detroit-reared artists. Two of them -- "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Shop Around" -- were songs written by Robinson, who was there in audience cheering on the young performers tackling them.

But where was the fanfare? If it had been Paul McCartney, the producers would have rolled out the red carpet leading to the stage, where he no doubt would have been invited to perform a song or two. Robinson got respect but hardly the hero's welcome that should greet someone who has contributed so much to pop history.

Several years ago, when Smokey made a guest appearance on Days of Our Lives, I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. I mean, I love Deirdre Hall and everything (she and John were serenaded by Smokey onscreen after the singer ran into Hall's Marlena, who was lost in the woods), and lately Days has been on fire, but really, was the daytime soap the best gig his agent could land him? There weren't any openings on Lost? Would McCartney have settled for anything less?

To a certain degree, race plays into it. First as the lead singer of The Miracles and later as a solo artist, Robinson has spent most of his career linked to one label, Motown Records, a hit factory that is mostly associated with black artists, who, aside from Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, never permeated white consciousness the way the Beatles and the Stones, Elvis Presley, and other leading white acts of its '60s heyday did.

The label always has been best known for the stars and songs it produced, not the architects of those hits. Norman Whitfield, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland are hardly household names, and if Smokey hadn't saved some of his best material for himself, he probably wouldn't be either.

Which brings me to the second part of why Smokey is undervalued as a great songwriter: his own talent. He's most highly regarded in the pop consensus as the man whose sweet tenor powered such classics as "Shop Around," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "The Tracks of My Tears," "I Second That Emotion," "Cruisin'" and "Being with You," not the guy who wrote them. When Martin Fry sang ABC's biggest hit, "When Smokey Sings," a No. 5 single in 1987, he was paying homage to what people think Smokey did and does best? (Ironically, while "When Smokey Sings" was in the Top 10, so was Smokey, singing "One Heartbeat," one of his rare hits that he didn't write.)

How wrong could they (the pop consensus and ABC) be about what Smokey does best? As the aforementioned partial hit list proves, he is the author of some of the most elegant, sophisticated and durable songs in the pop canon. Yes, the subject is often love, but with complex lyrical conceits and interesting, unexpected twists. Consider The Marvelette's "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game," in which he uses a hunting metaphor to outline the love story of a playboy (or girl) who finally meets his (or her) match and gets the artillery turned, or "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," a love song with one of the most unlikely opening couplets imaginable:

"I don't like you
But I love you"

On his 1984 solo non-hit "And I Don't Love You," Smokey spends five minutes proving the opposite is true by listing all the impossibilities that are as unlikely as the title. His lyrics here are among his most accomplished and poetic, not only overcoming the dated '80s production but classing it up, too.

"When morning comes in evening
And day becomes nightly
Or even if your love for me slackens up slightly
I doubt if I ever could take your love lightly
I could never take your love lightly"

Smokey's most ardent fans, the ones who are fully aware of his songwriting prowess and also would be familiar with an obscure single like "And I Don't Love You," though it never charted on Billboard's Hot 100 and only got as high as No. 33 on the R&B singles chart, know exactly how he feels. For them, he inspires a similarly unwavering devotion. He's every bit a towering icon as every songwriter who came before and who's come after him. May the rest of the world eventually catch up.

Five Excellent Covers of Smokey Robinson Compositions by Non-Motown Artists

"Shop Around" Captain & Tennille A massive hit for the husband and wife duo (No. 4, 1976) that was even bigger for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (No. 2, 1960), becoming the first of the band's many crossover hits when Smokey was barely out of his teens.

"Ooo Baby Baby" Linda Ronstadt A Top 10 single from Ronstadt's 1978 Living in the U.S.A. album, whose iconic cover photo of Ronstadt on roller skates, arms outstretched holding onto the walls, came about, she once told me, because she was a terrible skater who didn't know how else to stop herself.

"More Love" Kim Carnes If you consider Carnes to be a one-Top 10 hit wonder (via 1981's No. 1 smash "Bette Davis Eyes"), think again. This No. 10 single preceded her signature song by one year.

"Who's Lovin' You" Terence Trent D'Arby The 1960 classic that launched a million talent-show auditions (it was the B-side to The Miracles' "Shop Around"), not to mention EnVogue's 1990 breakthrough hit "Hold On." Astonishingly, although it was the B-side of the Miracles hit and nine years later, the flipside of "I Want You Back," The Jackson Five's debut single and first No. 1, "Who's Lovin' You" has never gotten higher on its own than No. 66 on Billboard's Hot 100, a summit it achieved via Brenda & The Tabulations 1967 cover. Of all the covers I've heard, TTD's, the closing track on his 1987 debut Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, is my favorite.

"Cruisin'" D'Angelo Years ago, I saw D'Angelo perform his 1995 cover of Smokey's 1979 No. 4 single during an MTV Unplugged rehearsal, and I'm still not sure how I resisted the urge to rip off my clothes right in front of that stage.

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