b/w I Can’t Believe
If the Miracles had found it difficult to recapture the commercial success of their million-selling breakthrough Shop Around, as Motown might have hoped, they’d nonetheless had a consistent series of minor Top 50 pop hits since then.
Both of their follow-up singles, Ain’t It Baby and Mighty Good Lovin’, had scraped the outer reaches of the top fifty on the Billboard charts, and this new single followed that path, climbing to the dizzy heights of number 52. Not spectacular, but solid and dependable; the group had a fanbase and could be counted on to sell decent numbers of records. If it wasn’t the superstardom Berry Gordy had been hoping to see, it was still a respectable commercial performance which kept the Motown name in the trade papers.
If the sales weren’t getting markedly better, though, the records definitely were. This single – another product of the group’s endless recording sessions throughout the summer and autumn of 1961 which would go on to form their second album Cookin’ With The Miracles that November – is yet again leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors, showing the remarkable rate of development of both Smokey Robinson the songwriter and Smokey Robinson the vocalist. In short, it’s excellent.
More than anything, it sounds like an update of the wonderful Way Over There, as though a long-dropped thread had suddenly been picked up again. It’s no pointless rewrite, though. Rather, it’s the first real indication of just where the Miracles were headed, a fun, sweet and touching midtempo R&B pop number with a great tune, and featuring Smokey’s best lead vocal performance so far.
Drenched in the best strings heard thus far on a Motown record (arranged, at no small expense, by Gordy’s newest recruit, Argo/Chess conductor/arranger Riley C. Hampton – the first time an external arranger was credited on a Motown release), Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues was also the most complicated of Smokey’s songs to date. Co-written by bandmate Ronald White (of “Ron & Bill”, er, “fame”), it’s so far advanced from the duo’s dreadful 1959 novelty single It that despite the fact only two years had elapsed since that mis-step, it actually sounds more like twenty.
Whereas with Way Over There, a double helping of strings had been grafted on to a previously-recorded song, here the strings are an integral part of the whole record. Opening with a brief burst of violins and drums to the exact tempo pattern of Ravel’s Bolero, Smokey gives a staccato vocal intro, starting out by reciting his lyrics at high speed in something almost resembling a sea chantey – If ever I have a son in life, I’ll call him in one day / And sit him down upon my knee, and here is what I’ll say – as the music slowly grinds to a halt and then abruptly stops, and with a daring and well-executed change in tempo, the song proper begins.
The verses take the same basic shape as those of Way Over There, with the same time signature and brushed drum patterns, but instead of that song’s endless, self-reinforcing loop of rhythm, Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues has a lot more going on. Highlights include frequent drum stops and fills after each chorus to keep the listener riveted; a great call-and-response bit at 1:22 with Smokey challenging the Miracles to match his melismatic “whoas” and “yeah-yeah-yeahs” (unmistakeable shades of Mickey’s Monkey a year and a half later); and a quite startling ending section from 2:32 on, where the rest of the Miracles take up a chanted incantation of dues, got to pay some dues, got to pay some dues on backing vocals, while Smokey speeds up and starts spooling his lines out without breaking for breath, almost freestyling as he runs the words into one another: “no-matter-what-you-do-or-say-y-there-is-gonna-come-a-day-y-when-you’re-gonna-have-to-pay-y-can’t-nobody-get-away-y”.
(When I talk about other Motown records from the era being forgettable, or not sticking in the memory, it’s because this is the sort of standard I’m holding them to. Unfair, perhaps, to penalise other records because they weren’t made by Smokey Robinson – but then this is Motown we’re talking about here, where “good enough” isn’t good enough. I want pop records to be outstanding. And this one is outstanding.)
Anyway, the effect is wonderful; the Miracles are on better form than ever before, carrying off a deceptively complicated multi-part harmony in perfect unison with the strings, and Smokey matches them throughout, giving his paternal advice with a confident and assured delivery that belies his youth (he was still only 21). It’s hard to listen to this one – or, indeed, any of the Miracles’ early singles – without thinking about where they were headed, a future this Smokey and these Miracles didn’t know lay ahead of them. In September 1961, Smokey Robinson was a promising songwriter with one big hit (and a few novelty songs) under his belt as a performer, and it must have seemed as though there was every chance that’s how it would remain.
This is one of the best singles of the early years of Motown (and one of the least-heralded, if the rest of the Internet is anything to go by), and it really should have been a bigger hit. Nonetheless, anyone who listened to it would have been put on notice that far from being a one-hit wonder or novelty act, this group really was something special.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“I Can’t Believe”