Forget about The Big Chill for a minute; the songs of Motown are not considered classics just because of the nostalgia of baby boomers. I’m too young for them to have a major place in my childhood memories, yet they hit me as hard as any music I know of. The songs of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, in particular, have that certain something that cuts right to your core. It’s in the singing and writing, the way Robinson gets right to the heart of the matter through a simple lyric, phrased beautifully. It’s in the songs’ directness about the sadness of love, in the way that his voice, which has a sublime purity about it, conveys longing and sadness with one note.
Smokey Robinson is one of the true poets of love, someone who writes about emotions in such an articulate way. While he’s had a long career, one that’s still going, his best songs come from his time with the Miracles, particularly the decade from 1958 to 1968. Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology covers that decade and the four years of the Miracles that came after it, until their breakup in 1972. If it seems like the Motown collections never stop, the steady stream of Smokey and the Miracles collections over the years serve as good evidence of that.
The two-disc Ooo Baby Baby is almost exactly the same as the 1995 two-disc Anthology, which itself was the CD release of the 1973 Anthology. Ooo Baby Baby and Anthology even share the exact same liner notes, an essay by David Ritz which quickly takes us through the history of the group. And since both collections go through the group’s history in chronological order, at first glance the song listings are almost identical. Yet Ooo Baby Baby is a slight improvement in that area, as there are two more tracks than on Anthology and about five so-so tracks from Anthology, including a few “previously unreleased demos” that took the quality level down a few notches, have been removed and replaced with better songs. All of the added songs are worthwhile, and at least one is outstanding: the lush love ballad “Would I Love You”. Ooo Baby Baby also sounds better than Anthology, with several of the tracks appearing in new stereo mixes.
Ooo Ooo Baby is more like an improvement on a previous collection than something new and essential. All of my thoughts about how this release compares to others slip away, however, as soon as the first song on the first CD starts to play. These songs are so good that they could be endlessly repackaged and I wouldn’t be that offended. If with each release there’s a chance of more people hearing these songs, then perhaps it’s worth it.
With 52 tracks, Ooo Ooo Baby includes all of the group’s hits (“The Tracks of My Tears”, “I Second that Emotion”, the title track, etc.) and plenty of b-sides that are nearly as good. While the chronological nature of the collection makes it stunningly obvious how the group’s songs decreased in quality over the last four years of the group’s career (perhaps not counting the hit “The Tears of a Clown”, which still is most notable for its Stevie Wonder-penned music), even the most subpar songs on this section have their pleasures. Even Robinson’s version of one of my least favorite songs of all time, Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John”, is memorable for the way he injects it with the energy of gospel music.
While the early singles like “Got a Job” and “Shop Around” are infectious displays of the seamless way that the Miracles worked together, the most emotionally affecting songs come in the middle of this collection. This is where you realize that Robinson’s forte was at capturing the bittersweet side of romance. His songs almost all deal with love, but rarely is it love that’s been realized. Either the girl has just left him or she was never really his in the first place. If they did meet and fell in love, something inevitably went wrong. “My Girl Has Gone”, “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”, “What’s So Good About Goodbye” these are exquisite encapsulations of heartbreak, as is the group’s famous one-two punch from March and June of 1965: “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Tracks of My Tears”. Entire books could be devoted to breaking down the brilliant elements of those two songs. Each has focused moments of sheer power that just stay with you. In “Ooo Baby Baby”, for example, there’s the open confession of the first words (“I did you wrong”), the way he sings “I’m cry-ing”, the way the strings rise up in an almost dissonant way at one point after he sings it, the way the backing vocals sound like calmed reassurances for Smokey’s bruised heart, the way his voice rises when he sings “I feel”, and the sincere pauses he inserts in “baby ba-by”, near the song’s end. Likewise, the opening guitar part of “The Tracks of My Tears” is enough to get tears flowing. It alone conveys the song’s sadness in a sublime way.
Even the songs that seem like sweet love songs are usually directed toward someone who isn’t paying any attention. In “More Love”, he sings of a love so sound it’d “take a hundred lifetimes to love it down”, yet the implication is that this is how love will be if the woman of his affection will ever “open her heart” to him. “I Second That Emotion” comes with the conditional “if you feel like loving me”, suggesting right now she doesn’t feel like doing so. In the gorgeous “Choosey Beggar”, he’s chosen her as his true love, but will she choose him back? She hasn’t done so yet, as he sings of “waiting around” her. The upbeat, horn-inflected “If You Can Want” starts, “You may not love me now, but I’m staying around in case you want my company”. In song after song, Smokey plays the devoted lover, standing across the street serenading someone who couldn’t care less.
There are songs that have a more optimistic aura about them, like the energetic “Whole Lot of Shakin’ in My Heart (Since I Met You)”, but they’re often the songs written by other composers besides Robinson. One exception is his “Special Occasion”, a sweet ode to the specialness of small moments when you’re in love. For the most part, though, his love goes unrequited. And there’s some songs that offer an even more complicated view of love, with the state of infatuation seeming like a trap. There’s the famous opening line of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”: “I don’t like you, but I love you, seems that I’m always thinking of you / Though you treat me badly, I love you madly”. There’s also this conundrum, in “Whatever Makes You Happy”: “If my sadness brought you gladness, I’d be glad to be sad / If my feeling bad made you feel good, I would always feel bad”.
Besides the in-depth way that the songs of Smokey and the Miracles probe into the human heart and its sadness, there’s also the sheer joyfulness that the group exudes in the more dance-oriented songs like “Come on Do the Jerk” and “Mickey’s Monkey”. The synthesis of that sadness and joy comes in a song with one of the most delightfully obvious and heartbreaking titles ever, “I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying”. For that song alone, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles should be legends. Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology offers scores of support for their status as legends. To put it simply, this collection contains some of the best pop songs ever written.