Why Doesn’t Smokey Robinson Get More Love?
He may not have the pop-culture cachet of Stevie and Aretha, but he’s earned it.
I know what you’re probably thinking: What is he talking about? Smokey Robinson gets plenty of love!
Of course, he does. But for someone with such towering talent and a long list of creative achievements, it’s never felt like enough. Although Smokey was among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s second induction class (in 1987), The Miracles, the group with which he launched his career, had to wait until 2012. And while his contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder have a truckload of Grammys to their names (18 and 22, respectively), Smokey has just five nominations and didn’t win until 1988 (Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Just to See Her”). It remains the only competitive Grammy in his award collection.
When pop pundits start naming the all-time great songwriters of the rock & roll era, how likely are they to name-drop him alongside legendary (and White) pop and rock poets like 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, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen? Where’s his major-label tribute album?
If any great songwriter, dead or alive, deserves more love, it’s Smokey. If you blinked, you probably missed the fanfare surrounding his 80th birthday last February 19. He didn’t even get his own BET special. Meanwhile, it seems like we’ve been celebrating John Lennon’s 80th, which is on October 9, all year. And get ready for 12 months of tributes to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Neil Diamond in 2021, as all three hit the octogenarian mark.
Smokey was also given the afterthought treatment last year by the Recording Academy, which underscored its historical under-appreciation at the Grammys. During the 60th anniversary Motown tribute, the man who, alongside Berry Gordy, built one of the most significant labels in the history of recorded music from the ground up, had to cede the spotlight to Jennifer Lopez.
Loyalty and, to a certain degree, race probably play into the underwhelming level of deification he receives. First as the lead singer of The Miracles and later as a solo artist, Robinson spent his most commercially successful years linked to one label, Motown Records, a hit factory whose biggest star was always Motown Records.
Their heaviest hitters during the ’60s had to disassociate themselves in some way during the ’70s to leave an indelible imprint on White pop culture. Diana Ross became a movie star. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder dropped the glossy Motown formula and turned to bracing political and social commentary. Michael Jackson jumped ship to Epic Records.
The architects of Motown’s biggest ’60s hits had a tougher time matching the Q Scores of the their White pop counterparts. Songwriter-producers like Norman Whitfield, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Lamont Dozier, and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland didn’t quite become household names (at least not in White households), and it took Smokey awhile to get there. In an episode of the ’70s game show Match Game, when someone suggested “Smokey Robinson” in response to “Blank Robinson,” celeb panelist Brett Somers exclaimed, “Who in hell is Smokey Robinson?!”
Even after Smokey started to forge his own performing identity away from The Miracles, as a solo hitmaker, he was never as consistent as former Supreme Diana Ross or ex-Commodore Lionel Richie. He was like Jermaine Jackson to their Michael Jackson. Brett Somers’ cluelessness shouldn’t be all that surprising. He didn’t even get a solo on “We Are the World”!
Those who do know Smokey’s name might not even be aware of the breadth of his talent. He’s most highly regarded by the pop cognoscenti 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, too.
When ABC’s Martin Fry sang “He soothes it right, makes it out of sight” on the British band’s biggest hit, “When Smokey Sings,” a number-five single on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1987, he was paying homage to what many people think Smokey does best. (Ironically, while “When Smokey Sings” was in the pop top 10, so was Smokey, singing “One Heartbeat,” one of his rare hits that he didn’t write.)
As formidable as Smokey is when he sings, when Smokey writes he’s even more so. He’s the author of some of the most elegant, sophisticated, and durable songs in the pop canon, the closest thing Black Americans have to our own Cole Porter. The subject may be almost always love, but he incorporates complex lyrical conceits and interesting, unexpected twists.
Consider The Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” in which he used 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”
He wrote (or co-wrote) and produced all four of Mary Wells’s top 10 pop hits, including, “My Guy,” the fourth and biggest one, which hit number one in the thick of The Beatles-led British invasion. What makes the others — especially “The One Who Really Loves You” and “Two Lovers” — just as special is that they don’t take the normal route down lovers lane.
The latter, for instance, spends most of its 2:45 running time setting up what seems like a standard love triangle before dropping a bomb at the end: Her two lovers are the different sides of the same guy. Take away the music, and a Smokey composition — from the hits he wrote for Wells to The Temptations’ “My Girl” to his 1984 solo single “I Can’t Find” — could pass as poetry or literature.
On his 1984 solo single “And I Don’t Love You” (from the 1984 album, Essar, named for the phonetic pronunciation of his initials), Smokey spends five minutes proving the opposite is true by listing impossibilities that are as unlikely as the title. His lyrics here, among the most clever ones in his arsenal, class up the dated ’80s production.
“The whippoorwill whippoor-won’t
The weeping willows laughing
Sunday is moonlight
All wrong is alright
And I don’t love you”
Smokey’s most ardent fans, the ones who are fully aware of his songwriting prowess and 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 number 33 on the R&B singles chart), know exactly how he feels. He inspires similarly unwavering devotion in them. May the rest of the universe eventually catch up.
Five Excellent Covers of Smokey Compositions by Non-Motown Artists
“Shop Around” Captain & Tennille
A massive hit for the husband and wife duo (number four, 1976) that was even bigger for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (number two, 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. The Miracles’ original recording of it peaked at number 16 in 1965.
“More Love” Kim Carnes
If you consider Carnes to be a one-top 10 hit wonder (via 1981’s number-one smash “Bette Davis Eyes”), think again. This number 10 single, a cover of a 1967 Miracles A-side, preceded her signature song by one year. Robinson loved Carnes’s remake so much that he wrote “Being with You” for her but was convinced to record it himself. Ironically, it ended up getting stuck at number two for three weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 behind Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes,” which spent nine non-consecutive weeks at the top.
“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 number one, “Who’s Lovin’ You” has never gotten higher on its own than number 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.
Years ago, I saw D’Angelo perform his 1995 cover of Smokey’s 1979 number-four 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.