When Smokey Robinson announced his final departure from the group he had founded in 1955, it was inconceivable that the group could continue on. With a leader that was the voice and also the chief songwriter/producer of the group being so prominent, who could replace such a significant role. Along comes Billy Griffin, looking enough like Smokey as to not interrupt the group’s image. Musically, his voice was similar to Smokey’s, yet distinctive enough in its own right. “Renaissance” their first post-Smokey album was a respectable effort that offered promise. However, it produced no hits of note. The next album was in the same vein and garnered a Top 20 hit in “Do it Baby”.
But it was “City of Angels” that would define this new Miracles as a force in their own right. I have always been a sucker for concept albums. Motown had created some of the best including the masterpiece, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Smokey’s own “Quiet Storm”, “Rick James’ “Street Songs” and many of the albums Norman Whitfield created with The Temptations. In Billy Griffin, not only did The Miracles find someone who looked like Smokey, sounded similar to Smokey, but he also proved to be a good songwriter as well.
“City of Angels” begins with a gorgeous “Overture” and then proceeds to give the listener a true snapshot of what life was like in Los Angeles during that time. References to “The Free Press” dates the album a bit since that paper is now the L.A. Weekly, yet the song even name checks Ralph Nader. However, the most controversial cut on the album was “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.”. With the gay liberation in full bloom, it was still a bold move on Motown’s part to include this important aspect of the city. (The label would later make an even bolder statement with Rev. Carl Bean’s “I Was Born this Way”). Ironically, “My Name is Michael” could eerily been referencing the late, great, Michael Jackson.
The platinum certified album would come to be defined by the #1 Pop, R&B, Disco smash “Love Machine”. Other songs such as “Poor Charlotte” captures some of the more sobering sides of the city where dreams are born and lost just as fast. How many souls would be seduced by the allure of the city to be the next star only to be led into a life of substance abuse and/or the world’s oldest profession! It is the other side of the American Idol phenomena. “Smog” effectively captures the sadness and confusion that permeates from global warming. . Smog unfortunately plagues the city to this day and with this harmonic ending, “City of Angels” still declares its relevance.
One would have thought this would have ignited a new level of success for The Miracles. Alas, that was not to be. Billy Griffin would go on to create more beautiful music as a solo artist to moderate success. The remaining original members would eventually retire briefly reuniting with Smokey for “Motown 25”. “City of Angels” remains a fine testament to what the post-Miracles were able to achieve. It is one of those rare works of art that is both entertaining and informative.
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.