b/w All That’s Good
b/w All That’s Good
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
For all the fabulous records Smokey Robinson had written and produced for other people in 1964 – of which million-selling classics My Guy and My Girl, which bookended the year, were only the tip of the iceberg – his own group, the Miracles, had been through something of a quiet twelve months.
Of the four singles the Miracles had released in ’64, none had been a big hit; the understated but lovely I Like It Like That had only managed to scrape the pop Top 30, and the public had been underwhelmed by the rest of the group’s efforts, with good reason; Smokey’s star was in the ascendant as a writer-producer, but his career as a performer had yielded three decidedly sub-par non-classics (You Can’t Let The Boy Overpower The Man In You, That’s What Love Is Made Of and Come On Do The Jerk) that no-one would be putting in the Smithsonian any time soon.
But that was then, and this is now. After an unusually low-key start to the new year, the early spring of 1965 saw Motown pack the schedules with hot new 7″ releases from its big guns, on both sides of the glass. Both Smokey and Holland-Dozier-Holland were well-represented in the run, which presented listeners with Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere To Run, the Supremes’ Stop! In The Name of Love, Marvin Gaye’s I’ll Be Doggone, and new 45s from the Temptations and Stevie Wonder just round the corner, all within five weeks of each other. Talk about your Golden Age right here.
As a writer and producer, Smokey’s position in the “A” crowd was safer than ever; but as a performer, he must have known the Miracles would have to up their game to remain part of that conversation. He’d have noticed the Marvelettes, the company’s first stars, not being included in the new wave of releases by the supposed top-drawer acts (in fact, they’d have to wait seven long months between singles, and we won’t be meeting them until we get to May), while Mary Wells, wracked with TB, couldn’t buy a hit over at Fox. If the Miracles were to avoid the dreaded fate of – whisper it, blasphemer! – irrelevance, they’d have to cut a song as strong as the ones Smokey had been so readily giving away.
They called it Ooo Baby Baby, and it’s magnificent.
I CAN’T GIVE UP HOPE
Considering Smokey Robinson’s place in history was already assured, that he’d not want for work again even if he never stepped up to another mic in his life, it’s exceedingly lucky for us that he still felt the need to do more as a singer, that he apparently either loved to sing or had a point to prove. It’s lucky because Motown – heck, because the world – had precious few vocalists as talented as Smokey. Here, he gives probably his best performance to date, a textbook exercise in how to do howling pain when you can’t actually howl, keeping his beautiful falsetto, well, beautiful.
The “quiet storm” label wasn’t applied to Robinson’s work for several years, but it surely applies here; never possessed of a thousand-megawatt voice, he learned at an early age to use his high, soft, trembling tone to more devastating effect, building tension and then landing the killer blow – and this is surely his greatest vocal so far. As a writer and producer, he’d pioneered the matching of not only tone but also metre and scansion to the individual strengths of his artists’ voices; now, he sits down and thinks what he’d do with himself, how he’d react if 25-year-old pop singer Smokey Robinson walked into his own studio. What song would he write for that voice?
The results are nothing short of spectacular, and they nail me right in the heart every single time. Words are elongated, stretched, twisted, smeared together, the boundaries between lines are blurred and sometimes even completely painted over. Without ever sounding as though he’s lost control, without ever relaxing his grip, he throws open curtains, lets the light flow through windows we didn’t even know were there before. What he’s doing here is new, as though he’s suddenly discovered some vast, hitherto-unexplored territory between lead vocal and harmony, between singing the lyrics and singing a scale, and the highlights are many and thrilling.
I can’t possibly pick my favourite moment from the record – the leap of faith on “I’m just a-BOUT-at / the END of my… rope”, maybe? ‘Cos I-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i be-LIEVE, one day…, with the “I” panelbeaten into some bizarre and unexpected shape? Or possibly the genuinely astonishing pre-chorus refrain: when Smokey sings I’m crying, there’s a tiny rick in his voice – a hiccup, a teardrop caught in the throat, bouncing right up his range during the syllable “cry”, not on the syllable but during it – before the bow-legged descent to finish the line ready for the first Ooo. Remarkable enough the first time I heard it, before I even realised John Lennon had copied it directly for I Am The Walrus.
At a Q&A event in a high school classroom later in the year, Berry Gordy was asked by one of the students: “How do you find guys like Smokey Robinson?” His reply was curt: “You don’t find guys like Smokey Robinson.”
If it’s most unlike Smokey for him to have written a song with an onomatopaeic title, using a word that isn’t really a word, well, it’s entirely appropriate in this instance, because nothing could better represent this song than that little string of O’s.
With the departure of Singin’ Sammy Ward from the Motown roster, and before we meet Marv Johnson again, the Miracles were now the sole survivors from Motown’s earliest days, the days of scrounging around for work and money, sleeping in cars, eating cheap food, delivering records to stores by hand; the days before Hitsville was even Hitsville. They survived not only because of Smokey, but because they were a great vocal group in their own right, the company’s only real mixed-gender vocal act until the arrival of the Elgins (although the Four Tops and their longstanding partnership with the Andantes should really be counted too).
Claudette, Ronnie, Pete and Bobby were capable of bringing the house down with or without Smokey; with him, they sounded like nobody else at Motown or anywhere, a kind of residual echo of the space-age doo-wop sound of 1961 that had somehow soaked into the very walls of the studio when the Miracles sang together, infusing every Smokey vocal with the spirit of those hardscrabble early days, or rather the purity and desperation of hope from the time when the biggest challenge at Motown was keeping the lights on.
For the group to use that here as an instrument in its own right – on a song featuring none of Smokey’s usual trademark wordplay, a song that just carves away the flesh and leaves the heart exposed – is just another sign of the talent we’re dealing with; a throwback to the days of doo-wop, but with a sound so bang up-to-date that many people have found the whole thing so sensual, so sexy, as to be irresistible, despite it being a self-loathing plea made from a desperate place. It’s never struck me like that, the pain is too close to the surface, but I can see how this could have soundtracked any number of dimly-lit parties and bedroom encounters over the years, provided people were dazzled by the beautiful hooks and didn’t accidentally listen to the lyrics.
Here, the biggest vocal hook isn’t a word at all, it’s a sound. In what feels like a million different configurations, Smokey and the Miracles find ways to turn an ooooh into an overture, a rhythm bed, a plaintive cry for help, a rueful, ruminative sigh, and a sexy, gasping caress, all using just one letter of the alphabet.
That’s some songwriting alright. Smokey (and Pete, who cops a co-write here following his similar turn on the storming but lyrically-wretched I’ll Be Doggone) do their best MacGyver job: armed only with a noise and two back-to-back repetitions of the most hackneyed, overused word in pop music, their strange alchemy takes that distinctly unpromising base metal and turns it into gold. I’m not sure anyone else could have done that. Not with these ingredients.
It can’t get a ten, because those are only given out to my agonisingly-chosen and set-in-stone Top 50, and this is quite literally number 51 on the list; there are Miracles songs that, deep down, I like better than this one, and eventually, through countless, endless whittlings-down of the final fifty picks, in the end Ooo Baby Baby proved less painful to eject this from the playlist than some of my 10s. (You may be spluttering with rage depending on your opinion of those which have already been awarded at this one’s expense). But if you were to argue this was the Miracles’ best record, never mind your favourite? I couldn’t really put up much of an argument.
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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“You’ve Been A Long Time Coming”
“All That’s Good”
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