When it comes to complimentary superlative adjectives, Smokey Robinson enjoys a monopoly. Frankly, there not a lot left to say about the artist, writer and producer. Put simply, he’s a musical giant. Not only did he help build the Motown empire…encouraging Berry Gordy to set up the label; he gave Motown its first million seller (the infectious ‘Shop Around’); he wrote and produced the Gordy empire’s biggest early 60s pop hit (the equally catchy ‘My Guy’ by Mary Wells); his catalogue with the Miracles is matchless; his work with other Motown artists (most notably the Temptations) is also peerless; he’s enjoyed a garlanded solo career; and his songs have been covered by numerous musical legends (yes, even the Beatles!)…. … not bad for someone who at one time was considering a career as an electrical engineer!
So what’s left to do when you’re in the autumn of your career? Well, what about a duets album? It worked for people like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, so why not for Smokey? Et voila… here it is. Smokey’s called up a few old friends, contacted a few left-fielders and cajoled some young Turks to help him (and producer Randy Jackson) to re-create some of his best songs.
I desperately wanted to love this album (Smokey’s songs have been a soundtrack to my life) but it’s with a heavy heart that I have to report that ‘Smokey And Friends’ is a real mixed bag. There are moments of excellence here… but there are also several low points.
Let’s deal with those nadirs first. Well for starters there the Elton John aided version of ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’. Whatever he might think, Reg has never been a soul singer and his deep bombast just isn’t suited to the sensitive nature of the song. And why, I wonder did Randy Jackson decide to ditch the heart-rending guitar intro for an organ lead-in? Equally uninspiring is the duet with rocker, Steven Tyler on ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’. But there’s worse. There are two versions of ‘Get Ready’ (oddly sequenced together); one features Gary Barlow, the other Imelda May and without those unforgettable original Tempts’ harmonies both these new versions are little more than karaoke.
Now the good news. If you skip the cringe-worthy spoken intro, then the John Legend guested version of ‘Quiet Storm’ is superb. Here one voice complements the other and Legend, of course, understands what soul is all about. Equally the lovely Ledisi and the equally lovely Mary J Blige. They play their parts brilliantly on ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ and ‘Being With You’ respectively.
The soulandjazzandfunk jury’s still out on ‘My Girl’ (with Aloe Blacc and JC Chavez), ‘Cruisin” (featuring Jessie J… skip the spoken intro, please!), ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’) (Cee Lo Green is the partner here) and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar (duettist, James Taylor) while we’d probably find the Sheryl Crow collaboration on ‘Tears Of A Clown’, guilty… though in fairness we’ve never liked this particular song… and really that’s what ultimately saves this album. Apart from ‘Tears’, they’re all great songs and Smokey’s voice is still a thing of fragile beauty (the Botox hasn’t spoiled that!). So would I recommend ‘Smokey And Friends’? … yes, but with some reservations.