In 1972, 32-year-old Bill Robinson – known simply as ‘Smokey’ to family, friends and a multitude of fans – shocked the music world by announcing his decision to quit The Miracles, the Motown group whose music and countless hits he’d masterminded since 1957. Not only that but Robinson was adamant that he wasn’t going to record again and was going to focus, instead, on working behind the scenes at Motown. Indeed, Robinson had been promoted by the company’s boss, Berry Gordy, to the role of Vice President – a job offer that was intended as a sweetener by Gordy to soften the blow of leaving Detroit for Los Angeles, a move that Robinson evidently didn’t want to make.
Despite his new duties, Robinson penned and recorded a song called ‘Sweet Harmony,’ which he intended as a morale-boosting personal musical message to the remaining Miracles, who were soldiering on with Billy Griffin as a replacement. Although originally intended for the Miracles ears only, the liner notes to Hip-O Select’s new reissue of the singer/songwriter’s first two Motown solo offerings reveals that Motown exec Suzanne de Pass pressurised – even cajoled – Robinson to release the song as a 45. Reluctantly, he agreed, the song became a hit (the first solo one of his career) and then, of course, Motown needed a parent album. And that’s how Smokey Robinson’s solo album career was birthed.
His debut Motown set was 1973’s ‘Smokey,’ a set that was markedly different from albums he’d done with The Miracles. Sure, the voice was as floatingly ethereal and wispy as ever but material-wise, Robinson didn’t confine himself to waxing lyrical about the vicissitudes of love and romance. On ‘Just My Soul Responding,’ for example – which was a Top 40 UK hit in the UK in 1974 – he offers a very trenchant slice of socio-political commentary, with his lyrics exploring racism and poverty in America. Also striking is ‘A Silent Partner In A Three-Way Love Affair,’ which describes a tortured ménage a trois. The music, too, is less upbeat than on many of the Miracles’ records – this is a new, hitherto unseen, Smokey Robinson, musing on themes and ideas that being in the Miracles seemingly prevented him from articulating. The album’s mellowness is personified by the closing cut, ‘Baby Come Close,’ a sensuous slow groove featuring organ, strings and mellifluous flute flourishes. Musically it’s radically different from what Robinson was doing in the ’60s with the Miracles and reflects the input of Willie Hutch, who was Robinson’s co-producer.
Hutch was also involved in Robinson’s second solo long player, 1974’s ‘Pure Smokey.’ It kicks off with ‘It’s Her Turn To Live,’ a song with a driving groove and insistent refrain penned by Robinson in tribute to his elder sister, who brought the singer/songwriter up after his mother died. The family theme is continued on ‘The Love Between Me And My Kids,’ a song that explores the difficulties of parent-child separation after a divorce and whose chorus is slightly reminiscent of ‘I Second That Emotion.’ Robinson’s views as an anguished parent are also reflected in ‘She’s Only A Baby Herself,’ a song about his 16-year-old daughter – his ‘baby’ – and the unsettling fact that she’s pregnant. Heavy stuff, you might think, but Robinson handles his material with maturity and sensitivity. Those qualities are apparent too on the set’s most controversial tune, ‘Virgin Man,’ a funky groove which boasts the refrain “can you love a virgin man?” Its focus is men that lie about their sexual conquests and pretend to be sexually experienced when they’re not.
Like ‘Smokey,’ ‘Pure Smokey’ is a well-rounded album with an autobiographical emphasis that offers an intimate, deeply personal glimpse into Smokey Robinson’s world. Both sets established the stylistic and aesthetic template that would be refined and crystallised into 1975’s groundbreaking, ‘A Quiet Storm,’ which is due for reissue later in the year by Hip-O Select. Highly recommended.