July rambling #1: Equality Feels Like Oppression

Smokey Robinson, a Leader of ‘a Musical Revolution,’ to Receive Gershwin Prize

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Smokey Robinson, a Leader of ‘a Musical Revolution,’ to Receive Gershwin Prize

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Smokey Robinson is 75

Interesting that two of my top three Smokey Robinson songs have the word “tears” in the title.

SmokeyUsually, when a musical artist reached the age of 70, I would indicate my favorite songs that they recorded. For some reason, though, five years ago, I listed some of my favorite songs WRITTEN by Smokey Robinson. And his legendary songwriting, and producing, are worthy of note, and absolutely VITAL to the success of Motown Records.

A bit of Motown trivia: I Heard It Through the Grapevine, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was first recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles [LISTEN], but Berry Gordy rejected it, and Marvin Gaye’s version as well. He allowed Gladys Knight and the Pips to release it, and they had a #2 hit. Then, the other versions were released, with Marvin having a massive hit.

I haven’t heard it yet, but the artist released a new album, “Smokey & Friends” on August 19, 2014, on Verve Records, a duets collection “with Contemporary and Classic Artists such as Elton John, James Taylor, Mary J. Blige, Aloe Blacc, Jessie J, Miguel, CeeLo, Ledisi and more. It was his highest-charting album in 33 years.

The “problem” with putting together this list is that I’ve far too often heard many of the songs by another artist first, before Smokey and the Miracles, and that tends to be my association. For instance, I’ll Try Something New (# 11 on the rhythm and blues/soul chart – listed as RB, #39 on the pop charts in 1962) I associate as a song by the Supremes and the Temptations on their Join album. So I’m ranking these by my favorites, as performed by Smokey, usually with the Miracles. LISTEN to all.

15. Who’s Lovin’ You (B-side of Shop Around) – I associate this more with a preternaturally old preteen Michael Jackson singing this on the Jackson 5’s first album.

14. What’s So Good About Good-by (16rb, 35 in 1962). That’s the spelling of “goodbye” in the Billboard books.

13. Baby Baby Don’t Cry (3rb, 8 in 1969)

12. Being with You (1rb for 5 weeks, 2 in 1981). Solo Smokey.

11. Got A Job (1958) a pre-Motown song recorded by Berry Gordy, an answer song to Get A Job by the Silhouettes.

10. The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage (10rb, 20 in 1967)

9. You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me (1rb, 8 in 1963). I associate this with the Beatles, specifically the Beatles’ 2nd Album on Capitol, or With the Beatles in the civilised world.

8. Special Occasion (4rb, 26 in 1968)

7. Mickey’s Monkey (3rb, 8 in 1963). Possibly my favorite hook, “Lum de lum de la ey” (or however you spell it) from Holland-Dozier-Holland.

6. Shop Around (1 rb for 8 weeks, 2 in 1961). This song always sounded like it was from the 1950s. It was the first big Motown hit.

5. Ooo Baby Baby (4rb, 16 in 1965)

4. Goin’ To A Go-Go (2rb, 11 in 1966)

3. The Tracks of My Tears (2rb, 16 in 1965). Interesting that two of my top three have the word “tears” in the title.

2. I Second That Emotion (1rb, 4 in 1968). As is true with many great pop lyrics, this came from a mistake, with Smokey and a friend at a department store. One person said something and the other meant to say, “I second the motion,” but misspoke. This song Smokey covered with the Manhattan Transfer on the Tonin’ album features other artists doing their own songs (Let’s Hang On with Frankie Valli of the 4 Seasons, Groovin’ with Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, et al.)

1. Tears of a Clown (1rb for 3 weeks, 1 for 2 weeks). From Wikipedia:

Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby wrote the music for the song, and Cosby produced the instrumental track recording. Wonder brought the instrumental track to the 1966 Motown Christmas party because he could not come up with a lyric to fit the instrumental. Wonder wanted to see what Robinson could come up with for the track. Robinson, who remarked that the song’s distinctive calliope motif “sounded like a circus,” provided lyrics that reflected his vision. In the song, his character, sad because he does not have a woman who loves him, compares himself to the characters in the opera Pagliacci, comedians/clowns who hide their hurt and anger behind empty smiles.

I’m also rather fond of the English Beat cover [LISTEN].

From Which “Grapevine” Did You Hear It?

Which iteration should be considered the original? Surely, one could make a case for the Miracles’ version. But many experts would pick the version first released, and that would be the Pips’.

I love good cover versions of songs. Came across a rather fine list from Popdose. And I so agree with the opening statement: “It’s generally agreed upon that if you don’t have any new flavor to add to the original, you shouldn’t bother doing a cover.”

Certainly can’t argue with the top two, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, originally performed by Otis Redding; and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, originally done by Bob Dylan. Both of the original artists have acknowledged the transformative nature of these covers. A previous list I saw contained songs that I had never heard of in the Top 10, which I discovered were less than six years old; seems to me these songs need to stand the test of time

But I have one nit to pick over this list, and it’s around the song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” As noted here and elsewhere, the song by Motown staff writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on August 6, 1966. And Marvin Gaye recorded his version on April 10, 1967. But Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, hated the song & vetoed the releases by both artists.

Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version* was recorded next, and was very reluctantly released by Gordy. It went to #1 on the R&B charts for six weeks, and to #2 on the pop charts for three weeks in the fall of 1967.

It was only after this point that the other two versions were released. The Miracles’ was just an album cut, but Marvin Gaye’s single was #1 for seven weeks on both the R&B and pop charts in the late fall of 1968, a Grammy Hall of Fame winner in 2001. “Gaye’s version has since become a landmark in pop music. In 2004, it ranked No.80 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On the commemorative 50th Anniversary of the Billboard Hot 100 issue of Billboard magazine in June 2008, Gaye’s version was ranked as the 65th biggest song on the chart.”

So two questions exist for me: first, which iteration should be considered the original? Surely, one could make a case for the Miracles’ version. But many experts, such as Brian Ibbott of Coverville, would pick the version first released, and that would be the Pips’.

Also, how could the panel pick the perfectly fine version of this song by Creedence Clearwater Revival* over the Marvin Gaye classic, even if the latter did get overplayed in the 1980s, around the time of the movie the Big Chill? Not so incidentally, I don’t own the Miracles’ version, but I do have CCR, Gaye, and the Pips, which is actually my favorite take.

And while I’m thinking about Marvin, I would definitely find room on that covers list for Wherever I Lay My Hat, originally done by Gaye, but covered by Paul Young.

*Link to the music

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