B-side of Ooo Baby Baby
B-side of Ooo Baby Baby
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Hearing Smokey Robinson on fine form, and the Miracles in full flow, is always a treat. They’d spent 1964 treading water – no proper album release, no great singles, all Smokey’s best songs given away to other people – but the Miracles returned with a vengeance in 1965, recording their finest album to date in Going To A Go-Go, packed with excellent songs.
Here’s one of them. Relegated to a B-side by the outstanding Ooo Baby Baby, but stronger than any Miracles single for a year and a half, this is a sinuous midtempo groove in the mould of I Like It Like That, only tighter and smoother. Clunky wording aside, there’s almost nothing about this I’d change.
I’ve talked on this blog before, at some length, about Smokey’s gift for lyrics, and how it went so much further than a clever turn of phrase and a few snappy quotables. He could get inside a character by finding the right singer, matching their words, the shapes of their mouths, even their breathing to the story he told, all in the cause of delivering the greatest impact.
What’s not really been mentioned yet is his similarly stunning ability as a tunesmith. Smokey was, is, a guy who always looked at the big picture, but the amount of trick plays and brilliancies he was able to sneak into his best tunes is remarkable; he was able to wrap complex and inventive themes within a more conventional setting, and net the rewards for both.
All That’s Good (that title is still grating) is a case in point. The antithesis of the A-side in tone (if not tempo or quality, Smokey again delivering an absolutely beautiful vocal), it’s overflowing with joy rather than pain, the lyrics here aren’t necessarily among Robinson’s greatest work – a straightforward run-down of how the narrator loves everything about his girlfriend, peppered with sweet little vignettes of their life together, and laden with future aphorisms (Your loving picks me up just like a cup of coffee / And when the gloom is on, you take it off me) – and yet it’s a superb record.
Without listening back to it, you’ve probably skim-read this review, looked at the big green number at the end and thought to yourself that I’m being over-generous. At worst, this is a sketch, a doodle; it’s a bouncy, slinky little midtempo number, more of a groove than a great tune, a lighthearted romp with a few fun rhymes to raise a smile (Don’t you know that if Romeo and you had ever met / There never would have been a Juliet, Smokey trills at one point), end of side one.
But play it back, and you realise just what an ambitious track this really is; the chunky wandering James Jamerson bass that opens the record goes on to absolutely dominate, ominous and spare, while the rest of the instrumentation and backing vocals are not so much pared back as they are simplified, one- or two-note bursts of minor-key organ, ominous horns and ultra-basic doo-wop harmonies, interspersed with frequent dead air stops leading to moments of complete silence.
And the middle eight, taken in isolation, seems to have been grafted in from a completely different record – let me hear you blow your horn, Smokey exhorts the sax player, who then embarks on a solo. Standard Motown practice by now, except that this solo doesn’t follow the melody line in HDH fashion, doesn’t propel the groove along a la Mickey Stevenson; in Smokey’s world, the sax is an instrument of power and mystery, and this is a proper, meandering jazz solo, straight out of some dark, smoky bar-room. In the middle of what I remembered as an inoffensive midtempo Top 40 finger-snapper, and not for one microsecond does it feel out of place, even though it manifestly actually is out of place.
A listener at the end of 1964 might well have wondered, with good reason, whether the Miracles really had a place in Motown’s brave new world of corporate greed and thundering cash registers. This pair of sides not only put such doubts to rest, but showed the Miracles to be at the vanguard of the company’s very best acts. Quite exceptional stuff.
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!)
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“Ooo Baby Baby”
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