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When Smokey Sings

Motown's greatest artist hits Stax country.

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If you were to poll music fans today, particularly younger ones, about who the greatest soul artists were, I fear it'd take a while for the name Smokey Robinson to come up. In fact, I bet he wouldn't even be one of the first Motown artists mentioned. These days the soul music of the '70s is, unfortunately, a lot more fashionable than that of the '60s, and the current generation of soul singers, as well as their fans, are understandably more likely to cite Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as influences. Those Motown colleagues had both more commercial and artistic success during the '70s than Robinson, whose work during that decade must, by comparison, sound a little square to younger listeners.

Then there's the issue of Motown itself. Though unquestionably one of the most glorious ouevres in all of American pop, Motown's "Sound of Young America" isn't quite so cool anymore. The music's constant use in boomer-oriented films and TV shows -- most notably The Big Chill -- has rendered it nostalgia music for middle-class, middle-aged white folks to many young listeners. Indeed, the sheer pop accessibility of the music hurts its credibility among a certain stratum of rock fan. And, in this regard, the label's reputation was probably done a disservice by Peter Guralnick's technically defensible but still overly flip dismissal in his otherwise definitive genre history Sweet Soul Music.

But regardless of the man's reputation today, history will confirm his true stature: Smokey Robinson is simply one of the true giants of American music. If, other than the Beatles, Motown was the definitive pop music of its era, then it is Robinson, rather than founder Berry Gordy, who stands as the label's greatest figure. Robinson, with his vocal group the Miracles, was the label's first major artist, hitting number 2 on the pop charts in 1960 with the uptempo, post-doo-wop "Shop Around." Robinson was made a vice president of the company soon after and, in addition to the staggering string of hits he created with the Miracles, became the label's most important songwriter and producer of other artists, penning classics for the Temptations ("My Girl," "The Way You Do The Things You Do"), Marvin Gaye ("I'll Be Doggone," "Ain't That Peculiar"), and Mary Wells ("My Guy").

Bob Dylan once called Robinson, only half-facetiously, America's greatest living poet, and Robinson may well be the greatest lyricist that soul and R&B have ever known. There's an effortless quality to the construction of Robinson's lyrics that makes them sing on the page more than almost any other songwriter. As far as pop poetry, if not content, Robinson's best stuff is on par with Chuck Berry and Leiber and Stoller: There's the lyrical rush of "I Second That Emotion" -- "Maybe you wanna give me kisses sweet/But only for one night with no repeat/And maybe you'll go away and never call/And a taste of honey is worse than none at all."

There's the careful craft of "Tracks of My Tears," one of pop music's perfect creations, from Marvin Taplin's delicate opening guitar figure to the final, soaring chorus on the fadeout. I cherish the end rhyme of "cute" and "substitute" midway through -- "Since you left me, if you see me with another girl/Seeming like I'm having fun/Though she may be cute/She's just a substitute/Because you're the permanent one" -- but the great moment comes later, a series of call-and-response exchanges setting up the climactic "My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you."

Those songs may be pop creations and Robinson may not have the strongest voice in a genre that boasts the likes of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, but there are other Robinson songs that anyone looking to exclude Motown from "soul music" has to deal with. "Ooo Baby Baby" is the epic ballad of a man largely associated with the form, Robinson's early shout of "I'm crying" followed by a descending bass and drum part that imitate tears rolling down the cheek. And then there's "You've Really Got a Hold On Me," perhaps Motown's most gospel-oriented single, with churchy piano chords and earthy call-and-response vocals putting across a refrain -- "I don't like you/But I love you" -- that cut deep during those early years of the civil rights movement. This is soul music by even the strictest definitions.

Robinson's solo work in the '70s is a steep drop-off but is still significant in its own right. The boho soul stars of today may be children of Gaye and Al Green, but the smooth falsetto that dominated Robinson's '70s work may have been the key influence on most of the '80s' finest soul artists, from the sticky-sweet DeBarge to the just-plain-sticky Prince.

At the time, Robinson's solo work was influential enough to spawn an entire genre and radio format -- Quiet Storm, a brand of jazzy, urbane, romantic slow jams born on Robinson's 1975 album and single of the same title. But the best of Robinson's solo work came later -- with the great 1979 hit "Cruisin'" and the worthy 1981 follow-up "Being With You."

You can probably expect to hear all those songs and more when Robinson plays Tunica this week. Though it's been more than a decade since Robinson's last significant hit (1987's too-slick but still lovely "One Heartbeat"), one guesses that age hasn't diminished his voice much. And one thing's certain -- outside a few major country stars, you won't be seeing anyone else who matches Robinson's stature down at the casinos or anywhere else, for that matter. n

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

Smokey Robinson

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Friday, September 28th

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