Motown had been credited with being a great singles label. However, Marvin Gaye successfully changed the album game at the label, when the world heard, ‘What’s Going On’. Stevie Wonder prepared for his brilliant artistic run, beginning with ‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Music of My Mind’. He then finally hit the goldrush with ‘Talking Book’. Diana Ross had successfully transformed her career as a pop singer, with more than credible jazz interpretations on the soundtrack to Lady Sings the Blues. The Temptations, under the guidance of Norman Whitfield, created three back to back minor R&B/Pop masterpieces with, ‘Sky’s the Limit’, ‘Solid Rock’ and then ‘All Directions’. The label’s superstars entered the ‘70s fully loaded with classic albums. But where was Smokey Robinson? His farewell tour with The Miracles lasted a year. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles achieved their final #1 pop/r&b single with “Tears of a Clown” (1970) exactly a decade after their first #1, “Shop Around” (1960).
Stevie was well into his creative album nirvana by 1973, having not only released ‘Music of My Mind’ and ‘Talking Book’, but also his 2nd Grammy-winning Pop Album of the Year, ‘Innervisions’. Marvin had delivered ‘What’s Going On’ and the equally powerful, but, carnal ‘Let’s Get It On’, along with the soundtrack to Trouble Man. Diana had won an Oscar nod and a Golden Globe for her #1 Pop Album ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, returning to contemporary recording with the Grammy- nominated ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ album. The year 1973 would also see the vocal talents of Diana & Marvin united in the now classic album of the same name.
William “Smokey” Robinson had made the decision to take on a full time role as Head of Motown’s A&R Department. His executive responsibilities would keep him away from the studio as a solo recording artist until 1973. Considering that Motown had successfully made the transition from Detroit to Los Angeles, his duties as Head of A&R were indisputable. Finally secure that the Motown Mount Rushmore of Superstars was commercially and critically acclaimed, Smokey was now ready to return to the studio and ignite his solo career.
That long-awaited debut, resulted in the self-titled, only slightly more understated ‘Smokey’ (1973). “Holly”, the lead track on Smokey’s debut, tells a mournful tale of a young girl impatiently wanting to express her independence. It was a story that could easily have been an extension of “Love Child”. Holly was a young woman anxious to embrace adulthood, only to have her dreams sideswiped by drugs. In the tradition of classic Smokey, the dreaminess of the track coupled with his passionate vocals, could have easily been mistaken for a typical love song. But a typical love song, it was not. And while it may not have been as bold as Marvin’s “Flying High in the Friendly Sky” or Stevie’s “Too High”, it was just as effective. It worked also because it still retained the beauty of a great Smokey Robinson ballad.
The first single, “Sweet Harmony” was a sentimental salute to his tenure as part of The Miracles. The song takes a minute to get into your system, but, when it does, it possesses the musical endurance to match some of his best work. That single was followed by the equally beautiful, “Baby Come Close”. In fact, “Baby Come Close” is classic Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, in the tradition of “Oooh Baby, Baby”, “Tracks of My Tears” and/or “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry”. It personifies sensuality as only Smokey can. Urban radio embraced it and his path to solo superstardom had been laid. It became his first Top Ten R&B solo hit, peaking at a more than respectable, #7.
While Marvin and Stevie dug deeper into their psyches as they lamented about social ills of the day, Smokey’s focus remained on matters of the heart. There were clever twists on infidelity captured in “A Silent Partner In A Three-Way Love Affair”. Again, the strength of Smokey’s ability to tell a great story in less than 4 minutes, prevailed. And that beautiful falsetto is at once romantic, then reflective and then sad. The first half of the album (or back in the day, side 1) closes out with another song reflecting social ills of the day, “Just My Soul Responding”. This time, “Just My Soul Responding” addressed the plight of the Native American Indians. XIT, a Native American group, signed to Motown’s rock label, Rare Earth Records, makes a guest appearance adding in unique, but aptly appropriate, traditional Indian chants. It was one of the more daring tracks on his solo debut.
‘Smokey’ would have possibly been more critically acclaimed had he sequenced the album a little differently. Possibly grouping the three songs together that clearly focused in on social ills, “Holly”, “Just My Soul Responding” and “Family Song” would have offered more artistic clarity. Instead, the album seems to have been assembled more around moods and tempos rather than lyrical content. ‘Smokey’ is not a brilliant album. But it does have moments of brilliance. ‘Pure Smokey’ focuses almost exclusively on stories of love and life, avoiding the inclusion of two distinctly different themes. It does beg the question, however, what is ‘Pure Smokey’? Is it that beautiful falsetto wrapped in gorgeous romantic chords? That would be the easiest answer. The album opens up with a subtle, uplifting inspirational song, “I Am I Am”. A closer look at the lyrics in this song reveals a different side of Smokey. In the lyrics of “I Am I Am”, a tremendously talented young man gives his gratitude to a higher power that undoubtedly has fueled his multi-faceted career. The song has a definite spiritual vibe.
With a central theme of love, ‘Pure Smokey’ lyrically flows more consistently. The range of topics include a song about a “Virgin Man” that musically sounds great, though again odd to hear from an artist of his stature. “Can you love a virgin man?” It is one difficult song to reconcile. On one hand, the lyrics might be appropriate, say if Justin Bieber was making his bid for a breakthrough mature endeavor. However, Smokey had, long since, passed that heartthrob era of his career. It was definitely a part of his past. Set against a very nice jazzy rhythm, it really could stump you. The groove takes you away, but, the lyrics, coming from Smokey at this point in his career, continue to mystify. Considering who is asking the question, the response would, of course be a unanimous affirmation. A lot of the songs are written in the third person, not directly referring to Smokey. He demonstrated an uncanny ability as a good songwriter. In a heartbeat, the album switches gears to the melodic, “Virgin Man”. Still, it is a little perplexing to have an artist, long celebrated as a romantic sex symbol, writing and singing a song called “Virgin Man”. And no one can argue about his talent in that regard. He then switches gears and sings “It’s Her Turn to Live” celebrating the freedom a mother deserves to experience after raising her children. It is not like these themes have gone unexplored in music. One only wonders what propelled Smokey to write songs of this nature, especially at that stage in his career.
One of the strongest moments on the album is “Just Passing Through”, when he sings “Darlin’ tonight with such heavenly bliss, we have never known such tender kiss”; the moment is pure bliss. It is the kind of lyric that years ago compelled Bob Dylan to call Smokey one of our great poets. The song has a wonderful flute interlude that gives it yet a lighter, capricious air. Marv Tarplin’s unique touch was in evidence and that beautiful falsetto was engaging as ever. It is the infectious highlight of the album. So while ‘Pure Smokey’ may not resonate as personally as one might have hoped, it still entertains and possesses all the qualities that made him so special.
Motown’s move to California would somehow liberate the core artists to express their art even more profoundly. Partly due to the times, partly due to the maturation of the label into a full entertainment conglomerate, Berry Gordy’s superstars would experience exponential growth artistically and commercially. The label that had built its success on “the single” in the ‘60s, would prove, at the beginning of the ‘70s, their ability to also create great albums.
Marvin dug deep into his soul with the personal ‘What’s Going On’. Stevie would do the same with Music of My Mind’ and ‘Talking Book’. Diana embodied the essence of Billie Holiday with ‘Lady Sings the Blues’. Smokey would explore love from deeper, varied dimensions with his first two solo albums, the self-titled debut and its follow-up ‘Pure Smokey’. Both albums produced Top 10 R&B singles in “Baby Come Close” and “I Am I Am” respectively. It was an extremely exciting era in the label’s history. But, there was still more to come. Marvin would explore themes of love and lust with the same degree of passion that he approached world events. Stevie would continue his amazing creative streak with one mini-masterpiece after the other. Diana would add actress to her list of accomplishments. The Jackson 5 would emerge as a modern day version of “Beatlemania, in chocolate” as former Motown exec Suzanne de Passe would declare. The Temptations would have three #1 R&B albums in a row. And Smokey still had not hit the pinnacle of his solo success. Still to come, was an album that single-handedly created a radio format. He would, at least, momentarily revive the lagging career of the “post-Diana” Supremes, producing the entire ‘Floy Joy’ album. On the horizon, that would become his first #1 R&B album.
In the meantime, his first two solo albums do indeed “Fulfill Your Need”, as he so wistfully and sensually stated on one of the more beautiful selections from ‘Pure Smokey’.
Rating: “Smokey” 7 “Pure Smokey” 8
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.