Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
The LIVE! Collection
***Preliminary liner notes, subject to change. ***
Sweet Harmony, go on and blow on
Stay in perfect tune through this unfamiliar song
Make the world aware that you’re still going strong
Go on and spread your joy around the world.
(Excerpt verse from the song “Sweet Harmony.” Written by Smokey Robinson in dedication to the Miracles.)
Growing up in Detroit in the sunny ‘60s, it seemed perfectly normal that we could go see the Supremes shake and shimmy at the Michigan State Fair, or hear Smokey Robinson harmonize with the Miracles at the Roostertail’s Motown Mondays.
Didn’t every city have a local guy with a silky falsetto who sang of unrequited love and made it sound like the most beautiful thing in the world?
Many of us didn’t get to see the original Miracles line-up with Claudette Robinson, Smokey’s then-wife, because Claudette had retired from performing in 1964. But a few years later I managed to see a show. To a local, listening to Smokey joke with the audience in that workaday Detroit accent, he sounded like some guy you’d overheard at the supermarket.
But suddenly, while the punchline was still hanging in the air, he’d open his mouth to sing and the regular guy would be transformed. That transcendent voice would come out, floating above the melody, above the voices of Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore and Ronnie White. It was a voice so high and pleading it could pierce your heart.
Later I learned that Smokey’s lonely, longing sound had its roots in part in Nolan Strong’s ethereal tenor. Detroiters were familiar with Strong’s Fortune Records singles like “Mind Over Matter” and “Adios, My Desert Love.”
One thing you wouldn’t see a lot of at a Smokey & The Miracles show was fancy footwork from the lead singer. While choreographer Cholly Atkins worked his magic on most of the group, after some early, failed attempts to dance onstage, Smokey had wisely given up on that.
“Smokey was not the dancer of the group,” Claudette Robinson once told me. “I mean, he can dance, he has rhythm, his timing was okay. He can slow-dance very well, but he tightens up onstage.”
In the very early days, the Miracles’ opening routine was simple. Three of them would enter from stage right and two of them from stage left. When the group met in the middle of the stage, the band would stop
playing, then the Miracles would clap for 18 bars.
“A lot of time wasted, but that was our plan,” is how Claudette summed it up. Those raw, early shows were documented on their first live album, recorded at the Apollo in 1963.
By the time the albums in this collection were recorded, things had changed quite a bit. The group that had showed up at the Apollo with the sketchiest of charts and little preparation had evolved into a smooth, practiced Motown unit, under the watchful eye of bandleader Thomas “Beans” Bowles.
Like virtually all Motown acts, the Miracles eventually had a set list and stage act that could take them from a funky Detroit bar to New York’s Copacabana with just a shuffling of songs. On the road, Bowles kept everybody on track with military precision. No more 18 bars of clapping.
Disc 1, from Detroit’s Roostertail in 1969, demonstrates how a Motown group had to be as comfortable singing standards like “Once In A Lifetime” just as their teenage hits.
But by 1972, it was enough to just be Smokey and the Miracles. When the group recorded its last concert that July, captured on Disc 2, the only cover versions included were Michael Jackson’s “Got To Be There” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” The former was presented out of admiration and for a little Motown publicity – Smokey was a company man, after all – while the latter was their current top 40 hit.
During this show, the Miracles sound upbeat despite the fact that it’s a document of a bittersweet occasion: Smokey was leaving the group to concentrate on his career as a Motown vice-president and, soon after, to forge a career as a solo artist. At the end of the set, Smokey introduces Billy Griffin as the new lead singer for the Miracles.
Because it was their last time onstage as a unit, Claudette rejoins the group, and as soon as her voice joins the mix it’s clear that the sound changed perceptively when she retired from the road. Smokey singing clever, romantic wordplay with the backup of the three male Miracles was good enough, but the contrapuntal addition of that innocent yet flirty female voice added an intriguing thread that will always set the Miracles off from other groups.
Hearing this set, you’re experiencing, in real time, one of pop music’s most agile lyricists at his vocal best, singing the kind of material that transcends genre, whether Motown or R&B or even pop music. Songs like “Tracks of My Tears” or “Ooo Baby Baby” are the hardest thing to achieve in art: at once clever and heartfelt; entertaining, yet true.
To hear Smokey singing these compositions live with his boyhood friends and childhood sweetheart, you’re getting no less than a cultural map of how timeless music was created when a man’s poetic dreams mingled with the musical soul of a city.
Susan Whitall is the author of “Women of Motown,” published by Avon Books.