William “Smokey” Robinson was not only one of the co founders of Motown with Berry Gordy. He and his group the Miracles were also key architects of the labels approach to production and songwriting. Throughout most of my life,Smokey generally came across as someone who specialized in intricately written slow to mid tempo romantic ballads. Many of these were composed in partnership with guitarist and former Miracle Marv Tarplin. At the same time,there was a side to Smokey capable of delivering some of the most powerful uptempo music. And on his birthday today,it’s that side of the man’s artistry that I wish to celebrate.
In 1975 Smokey released an album called A Quiet Storm. It’s conceptually and musically linked ballads actually helped to spawn an entire radio format,which was named for the title of that album. A year later Smokey put a new group together referred to as the Family Robinson. Key to this was Reginald Sonny Burke. The keyboardist had once been a member of Clarence Wheeler & The Enforcers. And had done session work for Bobby Womack and Wah Wah Watson. Burke’s experience with the soul to funk transition of the 70’s helped re-focus Smokey’s groove into a faster tempo. One major result,featured on the 1976 album Smokey’s Family Robinson was entitled “Open”.
A mix of live and organ rhythm box percussion starts the entire song out. Then the heavy bass line scales deep into this groove-just before the horns scale up into the mix and into the basic groove of the song. That basic groove features Tarplin’s guitar playing James Brown style rhythms along with Burke’s equally percussive and thick Clavinet riffing. The horns act as vocal lines leading the rhythm along. That also represents the chorus. The refrain,featured just after the intro,features a heavily echoed Clavinet and bass line playing in very close harmony together. The final refrains scales down several bars before fading out with the chorus.
This was by no means the first time Smokey Robinson had made a funky record. His second solo album for example contained some strong funk on it. This was however the first time he really got celebrated for doing a record that was specifically funk oriented. Sonny Burke’s added element of textured Clavinet with Tarplin’s grooving guitar gave this song the general flavor of Smokey’s equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” basically. He would focus primarily on ballads and disco for the rest of the 70’s decade. All the same,this would not be the last time that Smokey Robinson would make a powerful musical statement with funk as it’s instrumental basis.