[20 September 2006]
I’d read about the song “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles long before I ever heard it. In his novel The Wanderers, Richard Price wrote about this song in a way that’s stayed with me ever since. Like Kevin Rowland singing “This Is What She’s Like”, I can’t actually remember what Price wrote, but I can remember even today how very deeply it affected me.
And then when I heard it? Well, wow.
Skip forward a few weeks, or maybe months. Price’s book has been read and returned to the library. And my best friend’s cute sister has just finished playing me her favourite song (“I’m Still Waiting” by Diana Ross). Suddenly, before she can press “Stop” and “Rewind” on her second hand mono tape deck, this quite glorious sound emerges. Just a simple piano-led introduction, a gentle swell of instrumentation and then:
I don’t like you, but I love you
Seems that I’m always thinkin` of you
Though-oh-oh you treat me badly, I love you madly
You really got a hold on me
Everyday words taking flight on a melody, elevated by a voice unlike any other I’d ever heard. It was love at first sight. And the song wasn’t half bad either. Indeed, it was everything Richard Price had told me it would be. Music to lose your virginity to. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles have had a very special place in my heart ever since.
Touching personal anecdotes aside, William “Smokey” Robinson has a special place in musical history anyway. After all, it would hardly be stretching a point to say that without him, there would have been no Motown Records. Because after working with Berry Gordy Jr. on a couple of Miracles recordings that were licensed to other labels, it was Robinson who suggested that Gordy should maybe start his own record label. And it was Robinson who wrote such solid gold hits as “My Guy” (Mary Wells) and “My Girl” (Temptations) for other successful Motown artists, Robinson who served as Vice President of the label for almost 30 years, and Robinson who even felt so committed and connected to the label that he named his two kids Berry and Tamla.
All very impressive, yes? But not as astounding as Robinson and his Miracles at their best.
The earliest Miracles’ records were doo wop based. Examples featured on Gold such as “Bad Girl” and “You Can Depend on Me” immediately display both the purity and precision of Robinson’s vocals and the deft way he had with words and melody. Interestingly, both songs were co-written with Berry Gordy Jr, as was the even earlier single “Got a Job”, which is not included here.
From their roots in doo wop, the Miracles rapidly moved on to record good-hearted, rollocking dance classics such as “Shop Around” and “Mickey’s Monkey”, and developed a sound that became the authoritative ‘60s R&B blueprint. For dancing, the Miracles gave you “I Second That Emotion” and “Going to a Go-Go”. And then they offered you torch or smooch material with the quality of “Ooh Baby Baby” and, of course, “You Really Got a Hold on Me”.
If this was, as Gordy liked to boast, the Sound of Young America, then Young ROTW wanted in. Because Smokey Robinson was a craftsman of the highest calibre, and on numbers like “I’ll Try Something New” and “Tracks of My Tears”, his lyrics flowed with a peerless grace and beauty. Forget the hollow claims of people like KRS-1, T La Rock, and even Ini Kamoze, no one can flow quite like Smokey.
And you can count the number of songwriters who have matched his achievements on the fingers of one stump. Forgetting his work for others in the Motown clan and elsewhere, Robinson’s songs for the Miracles alone have been covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Japan, Elvis Costello and Linda Ronstadt. Indeed, no less a judge than Bob Dylan once famously described Robinson as “America’s greatest living poet”, and he probably meant it. The combination of Robinson’s song-writing, his amazing vocal prowess, and the standard-setting Tamla Motown arrangements made Smokey Robinson & The Miracles one of the decade-defining recording groups of the ‘60s. It also guaranteed that their work together would stand the test of time.
Today, more than 40 years after the Miracles recorded “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Going to a Go-Go”, the release of Gold proves this point in hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. To hear the relentless and inspirational beat of “Going to a Go-Go” followed by the high impact sweet soul drama of “(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need” is to find yourself down on your knees and worshipping in the Church of Miracles. Sho. Nuff.
Unfortunately and inevitably, this two-CD Gold collection is neither as definitive nor as wonderful as it should be. First, it omits top notch songs such as “Choosey Beggar” and “What’s So Good About Goodbye”. And then it chooses to ignore the important singles “Got a Job” and “Abraham, Martin, & John”. Of course, “Abraham, Martin, & John” wasn’t actually written by Robinson, but the Miracles version of the Dick Holler song was a big U.S. hit and no collection of their material can be considered complete if it doesn’t include both this and the band’s first ever single, “Got a Job”.
The second disc in this package, however, features just four Miracles performances and no fewer than 13 of Smokey Robinson’s solo recordings. In effect, when you do the math, this sequencing is saying that Robinson’s solo career was fully half as important as his work with the Miracles. Sadly, despite the very genuine splendour of his single “Being With You” and the arguable influence of “Quiet Storm”, this just isn’t anything like the case.