(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Since we last caught up with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on this blog, Marv Tarplin, the Miracles’ legendary guitarist and a largely unheralded songwriting talent, has sadly passed away. Motown Junkies extends its condolences to Marv’s family and friends.
It’s strangely appropriate that we pay tribute to Marv when discussing I Like It Like That, a very different proposition to the Miracles’ previous single, the rather underwhelming (You Can’t Let The Boy Overpower) The Man In You; not only did Mr Tarplin co-write this one, picking up the second Motown single songwriting credit of his career, but I Like It Like That also features Marv’s guitar more prominently than any Miracles record since You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.
That’s evident right from the start; the record opens with a warm, melodious guitar riff courtesy of Mr Tarplin, the same few notes plucked out over and over, forming a rolling loop that runs throughout the song. For the first few bars, Marv’s left naked, his guitar work left to stand alone – a trick Smokey would remember when he next came to write a new single for the Temptations. Then, Robinson arrives at the same time as the drums – Clap your hands now, everybody / We’re gonna have some fun tonight – and a small crowd starts to whistle and cheer.
That’s right: Smokey the producer makes the interesting decision to reintroduce the faux-live “party” atmosphere featured in the Miracles’ two recent Holland-Dozier-Holland-crafted singles, the so-so Mickey’s Monkey and its superior follow-up I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying. It has to be said, though, that in spite of the whoops, hollers and cheers that rise and fall throughout, this is far from a party record – or if it is, it’s a different kind of party than the one featured on those HDH-penned singles. This is no raucous hootenanny, it’s more of an after hours “everyone back to mine” affair: collars undone, shoes off, smoke in the air and people sat on window-ledges or lounging around in chairs.
That atmosphere is the most important thing about this record, which might otherwise have come across as too neatly-constructed. After Marv’s guitar, Smokey’s vocals and the drums, new musical elements are added one by one, almost mechanically, every eight bars. When it’s time for James Jamerson’s bass to make an appearance, Smokey hangs a bell on it by Now that the bass man starts to playing / He’s gonna come in right on time, just in case anyone hadn’t spotted the joins as each successive building block was pasted into place. The effect is still good – the driving horns, the bebop piano and the softly supportive backing vocals are all excellent – but it might have all come over as a touch precise, an inadvertent coldness diminishing the effect of Marv’s lovely, melodious guitar figure.
But Smokey wasn’t renowned as Motown’s best writer-producer for nothing. He knows exactly what the song needs: less precision, less clarity, more instinct, more fuzziness. The gentle, almost imperceptible hiss at the start of the record when Marv first starts picking, presumably a tape error that couldn’t be cleaned up, turns out to be a precursor for the rest of the song. To muss things up a little, Smokey not only has a cast of slightly drunken-sounding patrons murmur, whoop and cheer at opportune moments throughout, he confers that same air of mild but friendly intoxication upon the whole record, giving it a shuffling, almost (but not quite) stumbling gait.
Smokey’s narrator is a charming, avuncular host for this late-night gathering, the sort of guy who’ll put his arm round your shoulders after everyone’s had a couple of drinks – enough to lower some barriers – and give you some welcome reassurance before he shows you where the bathroom is.
He gives a meta-textual commentary on proceedings, including the band’s performance – the “that” he likes in the title begins as a mark of approval towards the record itself – but his words are never really about what’s happening at the party, instead using the evening’s events as a jumping-off point for a more general reflection on romance. His repeated insistence that Everything’s gonna be alright… Everything’s gonna work out fine is an early clue – he’s not talking about Marv’s fingerwork or the partygoers’ dancing. By the time of the final verse, he’s telling a personal story:
Now I know why my mama
Taught me to be true
She must have known one day
That you would come my way
And I would fall in love with you…
…and suddenly the narrator is Smokey, and he’s singing directly to Claudette, and everyone at this party smiles kindly as the host kisses his wife and tells us not to worry, we’ll all find the same happiness soon enough if we haven’t already. Cheers, Smokey. Can I borrow this book?
Not even the most die-hard Miracles fan would say this was the big-ticket hit single to return them to the top, but it’s a lovely, warm-hearted record, impossible to dislike, and it was a deserved if relatively small hit. Perhaps most importantly, it helped in bringing Smokey Robinson the songwriter – who’d been giving his best work of late to other people while neglecting his own group – back towards his best with the Miracles. All it took was a spark from Marv Tarplin.
A minor work in the Miracles canon, for sure, but a really enjoyable one all the same. You don’t have to aim for the stars every time; it’s sometimes enough just to have some friends round, have a few drinks, shoot the breeze, and enjoy the evening.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“If My Heart Could Sing”
“You’re So Fine And Sweet”