Songwriting 101 Part 1: 10 Lessons With Smokey Robinson
Once disembarking a flight from LA to D.C. I almost had an encounter with Smokey Robinson. But I guess it was too close a brush with greatness, and that's another story.
When you look to where the modern pop song was invented, you don't have to go much further then Chuck Berry, Lennon and McCartney, and Smokey Robinson. I'm fond of saying that, and I happen to think its true. Today I'm, going to take a look at Smokey.
William "Smokey" Robinson doesn't have a patented riff he's identified by, and he didn't help alter our social fabric with a revolutionary sound. And unlike Marvin Gaye, he doesn't have a vast army of devotees. But what he does have is an incredible catalogue of over 1000 songs, written during a 62 year (and counting) career - songs of perfect structure, undeniable emotion, and phrases of beauty and simplicity that are the envy of anyone who has put pen to paper. He may well be the greatest American songwriter.
It must have been quite a neighborhood in Detroit, with Smokey, and childhood friends Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross growing up on the same block. The Temptations and the Four Tops were also in the same neighborhood. Must have been more the fluoride in the water.
Young Smokey's unsigned band, the Miracles, included Ronald White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, his future wife Claudette Rogers, and most importantly guitarist Marv Tarplin. In 1957, at a failed audition for a recording contract, they met the enterprising Berry Gordy, who was writing hits for Jackie Wilson and Etta James. Smokey had with him a notebook filled with songs he'd written, well over a hundred. By his own admission they were unfocused. each verse taking a different subject.
Gordy immediately saw the promise, and advised Smokey that each song is a like a short story, or short film, with a beginning, middle, and an end, that all tie together. From that simple lesson a well of genius erupted.
Gordy gave Smokey his first recording contract with the Miracles, eventually making him a VP at Motown. Together and separately they wrote and produced many hits, creating a template for not only black music, but for all pop music. The Beatles were listening.
Many artists went in as ingredients for the stew that became known as the Beatles' sound. But maybe chief among these, especially in the early years, was Smokey Robinson. George Harrison wrote several songs in tribute to him, Lennon tried to imitate him.
Both "When I Get Home", and especially "You Can't Do That" and "All I've Gotta Do", have a distinct resemblance to the Smokey sound. "Sexy Sadie" and ":This Boy" owe a debt to Smokey's "Ive Been Good To You". Of the latter George Harrison said it was “John trying to do Smokey.”. The "I'm crying" refrain of "I Am the Walrus" is borrowed from the same phrase in Smokey's shimmering, romantic "Ooh Ooh Baby" - repurposed by Lennon for non-romantic angst.
Years later, while recording "Woman" for his last record, Yoko commented to John that he sounded like a Beatle. He replied, “Actually I’m supposed to be Smokey Robinson at the moment, my dear, because The Beatles were always supposing that they were Smokey Robinson.”
Paul McCartney wrote many songs that could have come from Smokey's pen, particularly in his solo years. Smokey's cover of "So Bad" from the McCartney tribute record proves it could easily have been his own. His patented falsetto, and the deep emotion it regular brings to lyrics, gives this song more meaning then it carries on paper.
The subject of a Smokey Robinson song is invariably love - deep yearning for devoted love. He's found more ways to string words together in the employ of love then any other songwriter. And he positions those word within the pocket of the melody, while harnessing a harmony that supports and expands on the emotion. His songs are so solidly built you could rest a Ford truck on top of them.
And they all came with a catchy chorus and a danceable beat - the Motown template.
10. SHOP AROUND - THE MIRACLES 1961
Less then three years after meeting Gordy, the Miracles recorded this song, which was written by Smokey and Gordy. It became a huge hit, their first. Recounting a mother's advice to her son to check all the aisles before settling for a bride, it's surprisingly wordy, as are many of his lyrics. But right from the start of his career he showcases a talent for creating a rhythm with the words, here circling around on themselves, winding downward with the melody, before releasing with the song title. It's also an example of a genre of songs that Smokey is master of - the List Song, which lists things, places, emotions, etc. Captain and Tennille later covered it and had a hit of their own.
9. GOING TO A GO GO - THE MIRACLES -1965
Built on top on a tribal drum rhythm that makes it impossible to stay still, and featuring a repeating title lyric refrain, this instantly perfect dance club track is hard to resist. Under that infectious groove is a lyric celebrating music as a meeting ground for all people, the inclusiveness of a dance floor, where everyone is welcome. The Rolling Stones, in their version, added "It doesn't matter if you're black or white", which seems so perfect its hard to imagine Smokey overlooking it. Smokey visitied the king of White Soul, Daryl Hall, on his excellent show, and they did a nice cover of this track.
8. CRUISIN - SMOKEY ROBINSON 1974
The songs he wrote with others were often inspired by a guitar riff, or bit of music, that Smokey then took and crafted into gold. "Cruising'", a later Top 10 hit for Smokey, was such a song. Written with often collaboration Marv Tarplin, the Miracles guitarist, is one example. He and Tarplin combined on a number of Smokey greatest songs, and biggest hits. The lyric's topic is of course love - not just love, but ecstatic love. The melody and lyric glide on his smooth vocal. Modern day soul/R&B great D'Angelo did a great version as well.
7. THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO - ThE TEMPTATIONS 1965
Crafting hits, and sounds, for the Motown stable of stars was a labor of love for Smokey. The artists, producers, writers, and owner Berry Gordy, were on a communal mission - introducing black music to wider America, and making as many hits as possible. Smokey has stated many times that he loved creating hits for other artists on the roster as much as he did for himself. His history with the Temptations was deep and long, and it started here, with their first hit. The song started life as a humorous game between Smokey and Miracles' bandmate Buddy Rogers on one of the Motown cavalcade of stars bus tour. And it sounds like it when listening to the lyric. But Smokey recognized something in this list song, eyeing it for the Temps, and polished it imto its classic form. Fellow falstetto-ist, and one of the main lead singers for the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks, delivered on the vocals.
6. AIN"T THAT PECULIAR - MARVIN GAYE 1965
Another long relationship Smokey had at Motown was with Marvin Gaye. The power and beauty of Marvin's "What's Going On" deeply impacted him, and the singer's tragic, and senseless, murder deeply impacted him. This song, is a follow up to "I'll Be Doggone", the singer's first hit, which was also written by Smokey. The emotional flip side of song #7, this is a song about the torment that love can bring - "I know flowers go through rain, but how can love go through pain". The song was inspired by the guitar riff, which was created by Marv Tepler, and it features a sweet dose of call and response.
MY GIRL - THE TEMPTATIONS 1965
When he wrote the bright, lyrically simple and buoyant, "My Guy", for Mary Wells, he gave her the biggest hit of her career. And when he wrote "My Girl" he created one of the most evocative songs of his career, and made an instant singing star. Lead vocals for the Temptations were generally alternated between Paul Williams and Eddie Kendrick. The group was so creative with their background vocals, Smokey loved writing for them. When he heard backing vocalist David Ruffin take a lead during a Motown revue show, he instantly recognized the potential and wrote a song for that voice. Half a century later, this song, and its distinctive guitar riff, are still one of the greatest of all time. It became the group, and the label's, first ever #1 hit. When asked if he wished he'd kept for himself, he said: "[The Temptations are] the ones who brought it out of me! ... Were it not for The Temptations, I never would have written ‘My Girl," Two years later he gifted the band and label another classic when his song "Get Ready" became a hit for both the Temptations, and label mates Rare Earth.
4. I SECOND THAT EMOTION - THE MIRACLES 1965
A personal favorite of mine, this song was birthed from a malapropism by songwriter Al Cleveland (who would later cowrite "What's Going On"). He and Smokey were shopping in Detroit when Smokey saw a beautiful pair of pearls that he thought would look great on his wife, and bandmate, Claudette. "I hope she likes them," he said. "I second that emotion." Al misspoke, and they both collapsed laughing. But they quickly realized it was a great title for song, then went about creating a lyric to lift it to greatness. Another list song, its simple, and clever, couplets ("Maybe you'll wanna give me kisses sweet/But only for one night with no repeat", "Maybe you'll think that love will tie you downAnd you don't have the time to hang around"), riding one of the Miracles best grooves, were instantly memorable. The song later became a hit for the Supremes.
3. TEARS OF A CLOWN - THE MIRACLES 1970
Top three, and we're entering rarified air here. This song is nothing short of a lyrical and musical masterpiece. After hearing the bit of keyboard that Stevie Wonder gave him - which sounded to Smokey like a circus - he knew immediately he wanted to write a song about a clown, a sad clown. And he thought of Pagliacci the famous sad clown from the opera, and created a word picture whose image is etched in your mind from first listening. Berry Gordy's first songwriting advice to him was to think of the song as a short story, or short film, and this classic was the definition of that advice in practice. "But don't let my glad expression, Give you the wrong impressionReally I'm sad, oh I'm sadder than sad". The almost giddy musical motif, supports a lyric of pathos, which explains the dichotomy - "Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid. Smiling in the public eye, but in my lonely room, I cry the tears of a clown ... when there's no one around". Pure Smokey, pure genius.
2. TRACKS OF MY TEARS - THE MIRACLES 1965
"Tracks of My Tears" started life as a riff idea from Marvin Gaye. Smokey worked it for two months before bringing it into the studio, where it was recorded along with three other songs. In the same melancholy mood as "Tears Of A Clown", minus the uplifting music, it covers similar emotional terrain as the last song. The singer puts on a public show that hides the pain he feels inside. Both songs are rooted in feelings universal, which explains in part their resonance. An outsider, who found refuge in R&B and soul music in his room in urban London, became obsessed with the substitute in the song's line "She's just a substitute", and decided to build a song around that word. "Substitute" became one of the Who's biggest hits, and one of Pete Townsend's most enduring songs.
1. YOU REALLY GOT A HOLD ON ME - THE BEATLES - 1963
"I don't like you, but I love you." There aren't many better opening lines to a song then that. Like many white kids in America, I got hip to Motown, and soul music, through the Beatles. And I specifically began my relationship with Smokey's songs with this cover of his Miracles hit. I know its sacrilege in some circles, but I think this version even surpasses the original, with its toughness, Lennon's hard vocal, Paul and George in perfect girl group harmonies, and not to mention the sharp guitar and piano. The band, and particularly Lennon, were obsessed with this song, which they'd been playing in clubs since it was released. In fact, they were playing it when Smokey met them, before their appearance on Ed Sullivan, when they were still playing the Cavern. They held it in such high regard that it was the first song they recorded for their second album. Less know, but also a tough version, is the one by the Small Faces, with the great Steve Marriott bringing it on the vocal. The Beatles "smokey", and distinct version isn't available on YT, so I've attached a live audio. But if you're not familiar with the original - shame on you! Here it is.