Category Archives: Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson on Anatomy of THE Groove Part 3: “The Only Game In Town

Smokey Robinson had a hugely successful run with his 1981 album Being With You. He followed this up a year later with the album Yes It’s You Lady. The album was the exact opposite in terms of popular success. Of course that’s to say nothing for the quality of the music on a creative level. Could probably give this album a very strong review on the basis that the general musical mode of the album is funk based. That’s saying a lot for an artist whose been ballad oriented most of his career during the post disco radio freeze out. Still creative flexibility is vital no matter what the musical climate happens to be.  And this was an album that always kept it’s eyes squarely on the groove.

In the late 90’s,I had a CD compilation of Smokey Robinson solo hits called the Ultimate Collection. It included the song “Tell Me Tomorrow”,which is included on this 1982 album as well. It was a favorite of mine on that CD collection. And since compilations of that era usually mentioned what songs came from what albums, it was easy enough to crate dig looking for vinyl copies of what was then (and often still isn’t) in print on CD or digital formats. The vinyl I found of this is in excellent condition-both the jacket and the actual record. Again it was the opener of side 2 which caught my funk seeking ears on this album-a tune called “The Only Game In Town”.

The song opens with an unaccompanied Dyno-My-Piano Fender Rhodes solo. Then the drums kick in. And those drums stay on the one with thick hand claps and phat slap bass popping. A round synthesizer or very processed rhythm guitar allows the refrains to chug along with fan faring horn charts showing up strongly on the choruses,which turn out to be the main theme that opens the song itself. There’s a second refrain too. This one gets very powerfully funky-with a scaling down bass line and the rhythm guitar chugging tightly like a runaway freight train. On the final choruses of the song, songwriter/guitarist Mike Piccirillo sings the vocal harmonies with Smokey on his guitar’s talk box.

In many ways,this might be one of the heaviest straight up funk stomps Smokey Robinson ever made during his early 80’s run. The tempo is relatively slow,as it the case with much funk so I’m finding. The horns and keyboards maintain a maximum groove factor throughout the song. And the bass/guitar interaction on this song is some of the thickest I’ve heard on any 80’s Motown number.  One of the main things I appreciate about early 80’s Smokey is how he ventured to find a new musical voice through a more uptempo groove. Especially in terms of the funk. And that is the ethic he pursued with a lot of vitality on this song.

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Filed under 1980's, drums, Dyno-My-Piano, Fender Rhodes, Motown, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Smokey Robinson, synthesizer, Uncategorized, Vinyl

Smokey Robinson on Anatomy of THE Groove Part 2: “Can’t Fight Love”

Somehow or other I remember being five years old and thinking the song “Being With You” was sung by a woman. Had no clue who Smokey Robinson was then,what a high male voice was,or for that matter how to sing well. Still loved the song though. What I didn’t know until much later was that it was the title song of a 1981 album that was part of a huge musical comeback. That title song was a huge hit for him. It was also his first new album to be issued on the CD format if I heard it right. From song to song if this album were a baseball game,it would have a high batting average in terms of quality. Still there was one song that really stood out for me.

As with many albums in my collection, I first had this on vinyl. And eventually tracked it down as part of a 1980’s Motown CD twofer packaged with Smokey’s 1979 album Where There’s Smoke. Because this early 80’s entry into his catalog had a different kind of production sleekness due to advances in recording during the time, there was actually something a bit lost on the scratchy vinyl of this that I had when compared to the digital version on the CD. This really bought out one song that really stuck out at me on this album from the moment I first heard it. Originally it opened up the second side of the vinyl. And it’s entitled “Can’t Fight Love”.

A fast Afro Latin percussion rhythm opens the song with a round,bouncing drum acting as popping metronome. A conga drum introduces the main body of the song. It’s a thick,brittle and fast paced rhythm guitar and bass line. This is accented by a Clavinet-like synthesizer line along with a string like synthesizer counter melody. Hard horn charts blast in and out of the chorus heavy song. The bridge of the song returns back to the percussion based intro-with Harry Kim playing a Herb Alpert style trumpet solo. Suddenly the drum comes back to the mix where Kim’s horn solo is supplemented by an alternately slippery and brittle bass synth before returning to the chorus until the groove fades.

The thing that really makes this song such a strong groove aside from it’s thick bass/guitar interaction is the entire musical structure. Basically it’s melody has the Brazilian vibe of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” with a more steady disco era 4/4 funk beat plus percussion accents. What really does it with this song for me is that it works a wonderfully arranged sophistifunk groove in with a song that’s composed in Smokey’s classic 60’s style-full of choruses sung at varying speeds and loaded with his soulful lyrical wordplay.  Though it’s an album track,it showcases just how powerful Smokey’s uptempo music can be.

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Filed under 1980's, bass guitar, Brazil, CD's, disco funk, drums, Motown, percussion, rhythm guitar, Smokey Robinson, Uncategorized

Smokey Robinson on Anatomy of THE Groove Part 1: “Open”

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.

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Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, Funk, Marv Tarplin, Motown, percussion, rhythm guitar, Smokey Robinson, Sonny Burke, Uncategorized