Smokey Robinson 1940–
(Born William Robinson) Black American songwriter and singer.
Robinson has been critically and commercially successful for more than twenty years and is credited with having written some of the most moving songs of the 1960s. One of the first popular songwriters to receive serious critical attention, he has influenced many lyricists and is often described as a master of the romantic ballad. Robinson's lyrics express a humanistic philosophy and a faith in the power of love. He is renowned for his ability to create compelling metaphors and similes from simple language and is especially popular with critics and listeners who find his romanticism appealing in an era of increasingly unromantic, sexually-oriented popular songs. Some critics feel that Robinson has proven that it is possible to maintain high aesthetic standards and be commercially successful. He is one of the few artists whose songs of the 1960s have withstood the many changes in popular music and are expected to endure.
Robinson formed the Miracles in 1957 while its members were still in high school. Under the guidance of Motown founder Berry Gordy, he became one of the company's most prolific and successful writers. Early hit songs written by Robinson and performed by the Miracles helped to establish Motown as a strong force in the record industry. He also wrote "My Guy" for Mary Wells, "My Girl" for the Temptations, and other giant commercial successes early in his career. Robinson's work of the 1960s has received overwhelmingly favorable reviews. Of the songs written in that decade, "The Tracks of My Tears" and "The Tears of a Clown" have been the most popular and most acclaimed. Their themes are characteristic of many of Robinson's lyrics; the heartache, the fears, and uncertainties of love. "The Tears of a Clown" is perhaps the best example of his famous "pain behind the smile" motif. Critics consider both songs classics of popular music.
In 1972, Robinson left the Miracles to begin a solo career. Few of the songs he has written since have been as acclaimed as those he wrote in the 1960s but most have been well-received. Robinson has experimented with various musical forms but his themes remain fundamentally the same. As is true of his earlier work, albums like Smokey, Warm Thoughts, and Love Breeze take love as their basic subject. Although some critics feel that Robinson's work is marked by repetitiousness, most seem to see his recent songwriting as the mature reflections of a sensitive artist. His popular longevity is attributed to his ability to combine old and new musical forms with a growing lyrical perspective. It is generally believed that Robinson has made, and continues to make, significant contributions to popular music.
On first listen ["The Tears of a Clown" is] a certain smash….A circus atmosphere is established by the opening phrase that works as effectively as (but ever-more-subtly-than) the intro to James Darren's "Goodbye Cruel World." This phrase reoc-curs throughout, giving the song an air of levity that belies the misery-and-woe lyrics.
And what lyrics! Smokey Robinson may or may not be America's greatest living poet, but he is certainly its most erudite writer of soul songs. Not only would no other composer mention Pagliacci in his verses, few would understand the allusion.
It's worth noting that "Tears of a Clown" is structured precisely, more so than some of the recent stiffs that were freer in form. In this sense it is vintage Miracles and should enjoy the success of another 1967 release, "I Second That Emotion." (p. 185)
Paul Gambaccini, "Singles: 'The Tears of a Clown'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), No. 70, November 12, 1970 (and reprinted as "Soul: 'The Tears of a Clown'," in The Rolling Stone Record Review, edited by the editors of Rolling Stone, Pocket Books, 1971, pp. 184-85).
Smokey Robinson's last album, What Love Has Joined Together, was a masterpiece of polished, high-gloss soul. In a departure from established album formula, Smokey and the Miracles devoted themselves to exploring at length six songs about love. [In A Pocket Full of Miracles,] the group returns to the standard six-songs-to-a-side album and while the results vary, Smokey again proves his mastery of sophisticated soul in small, concentrated doses.
The beauty of the Miracles comes not only from Smokey Robinson's unbelievably sweet lead singing but from the just-right balance of his production work and the brilliance of his song-writing as well. So creatively does Smokey use these talents that frequently a vocal flourish, a particularly fine turn of phrase or tastey piece of orchestration will redeem, even make irresistible, what would otherwise be an unremarkable song….
Pocket Full is a fine album, not exceptional but enjoyable. If you can dig rhythm and blues without the roughness and funk, Smokey and the Miracles remain unsurpassed.
Vince Aletti, "Records: 'A Pocket Full of Miracles'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 75, February 4, 1971, p. 58.
Like all Miracles albums of the past 12 years, [One Dozen Roses is] almost all sad love songs, some fast, some slow, with a dance song or two thrown in. Smokey hits the same themes as always—illusion and disillusion, the pain behind the smile—but with greater musical maturity than ever….
What's great about "When I'm Gone," and a lot of the earlier Miracles songs like "The Tracks of My Tears" is how out in the open all the pain and bitterness is. What's exciting about "I Don't Blame You" is the tension. He never comes out and says how hurt he is. You just sense it from the way he tells her not to "hang her head," and from the insistence of his denials….
Smokey gets across his illusion-disillusion theme in a truly sublime fashion.
Russell Gersten, "Records: 'One Dozen Roses'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 96, November 25, 1971, p. 58.
[Smokey] is still virtually a ghetto singer. For some reason, we can't seem to accept and come to terms with his greatness.
That's all the more extraordinary in view of the current success of his old contemporaries, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Eight years ago, the three of them were running parallel, the top male exponents of "New Wave R & B."
Following the comparatively lean years of the late sixties, Marvin and Curtis suddenly changed tack and earned a wide measure of popularity among white fans—specifically those who wouldn't normally bother to buy Soul records.
The way was led by Isaac Hayes, who developed a style which couched the music's essential funk inside swathes of rich strings, woodwinds, harp, voices, and percussion. He also adapted the "long form" to Soul, stretching his songs out to ten minutes and more….
It worked like a charm, and became a revolution. Gaye and Mayfield quickly picked up on it, and produced their own albums in a similar style, but with a wider verbal vision. Both were still in the ghetto, but they were looking at the ghetto's problems….
Robinson, I'm sure, could have done everything they've accomplished, and far more besides. He's easily the most talented of all of them….
But he declined to enter the lists on their terms….
No, he's just carried on doing what he always did best, writing those little three-minute songs which encompass the most startling variety of feelings….
[It's] not that the feelings [Robinson] expresses are so unusual, it's his attitude to them, and the way he verbalises it. Smokey always was a big one for the metaphor and the simile … and no one in pop has been able to make such beautiful and unpredictable use of images which are superficially everyday and banal.
"The way you smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle; I'm holding you so...
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Robinson's songs are immediately identifiable by their unusual structure, their unexpected rhythmic emphases, their slowly moving, terraced chords,… and their tortuous, suffocated melancholy. They focus almost obsessively on painful and contradictory feelings, on the discrepancy between dream and reality, between mask and face. Love is a guessing game (Doggone Right). There is a need to turn dream into reality (Dreams, Dreams) or to recognize an illusion for what it is (The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage), to come to terms with the paradox that each hurt makes one's love stronger than before (Ain't That Peculiar). The victim is placed in an intolerable position of dependence (You...
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[Smokey Robinson is] possibly the most individualistic and recognizable R&B writer and performer in history. The songs this man has written are incredible…. (p. 69)
[He is] a rarity of the times, a popularly acclaimed and financially successful poet. (p. 70)
Smokey Robinson songs invariably bear his trademark, his unique ability for handling a simple melody, combined with his special gift for phrasing. His themes are never cryptic, his poetry is up front, his style unmistakable. (p. 72)
Bob Eisner, "Smokey Robinson: The Artist as Corporate Man," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1973 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights...
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A friend urged [Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: 1957/1972] on me with the recommendation that, though he was not a Miracles fan, it gave him chills….
[The] music here is superb…. The tunes are the essential ones, the trivial and the classic, and they yield a concise and accurate picture of the legendary group. From the late fifties ballad "Bad Girl" … to ‧72's "We've Come Too Far to End It Now," the style hasn't changed. It has matured intact, rising above the posturing so much soul music has engendered in its annexation to rock….
The Miracles' spartan fidelity to the form and content of R & B is but the slightest reason for their greatness. There's also their...
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No artist ever deserved the showcase of a solo album more than Smokey Robinson….
Yet there's a temptation, on first listening to ["Smokey"] to murmur silently that the only thing it lacks is Messrs Moore, White, Rodgers, and Tamplin—in other words, the Miracles…. Prolonged familiarity, however, banishes such uneasiness, which was always falsely rooted….
Of Smokey's new material, the most immediately appealing are "Sweet Harmony", parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow benediction to his former colleagues, and "A Silent Partner In A Three-Way Love Affair", based on a lyric concept worthy of his very best songs, maintaining the tension between the mask and the reality explored in...
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Smokey Robinson, whose crystalline falsetto has been synonymous with late-night party boogeying and backyard barbeque funkiness ever since way back when, shows with his solo, Smokey, just where all that energy comes from.
Smokey's album is just as personally crafted as [Stevie Wonder's Innervisions]…. Along with the expected (and solidly hit-bound) love-and/or-heartache ballads …, Smokey spills out some of his more recent personal experience….
[The] most interesting and exciting cut on this lp is … the soul-documentary number, "Just My Soul Responding." It deals with the same themes as Wonder's "Living for the City"—even...
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There are certain rare occasions when I hear records that make my toes turn up and my body feel that it's in total levitation—everything becomes wonderfully unreal. And it happens whenever Smokey's around—it really does. If I play I don't blame you at all [on Greatest Hits Vol. 2] and hear Smokey soaring over those breaks, or move on to even the first few bars of the closing We've come too far to end it all, I know I shall head for astral planes again….
Fred Dellar, "Miracles and Other Happenings" (© Link House Publications Ltd, 1973; reprinted by permission of the author), in Hi-Fi News & Record Review, Vol. 18, No. 10, October, 1973, p....
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I could hardly do anything less than swoon over [Smokey,] … Robinson's first solo album…. ["Holly"] is a melodramatic "Lucy in the Sky," and "Just My Soul Responding," only more Motown current-affairs "relevance," but these are petty complaints. "Holly" glows in spite of its daytime TV story and "Just My Soul Responding" has the strength and conviction to overcome lines like, "Now I'm on a reservation livin' in a state of degradation." No one but Smokey can make a song based around astrological signs ("The Family Song," about his own family) or yet another my-girl-and-my-best-friend song ("Silent Partner in a Three-Way Love Affair") work so well…. ["Wanna Know My Mind"] is another Robinson gem, frothy but...
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[Smokey consists of] good-natured, obliging performances by someone who lives up to his name. Smokey is the best possible description of Mr. Robinson's singing; it wafts. Exactly at the moment when you think he has come upon a musical idea or is about to really say something, vapor sets in. Sweet Harmony ought to be a good song, and perhaps it is, but Robinson shrouds it in spun sugar. I didn't mind a bit of it, as I listened, but then I didn't think very much about it afterward either.
Peter Reilly, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Smokey'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1974 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 32, No. 2, February, 1974, p. 96....
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Although it falls short of the magic of the Miracles, [Pure Smoke] is an interesting album…. [Robinson] now deals with subjects that include a mother in her 30s whose turn it is to live, a divorced parent clinging to his visiting rights, and the father of a knocked-up teenager. Such songs plus two sweet ballads should boost Smokey's somewhat disappointing solo career. Unfortunately, a few tracks are trivial … and the album lacks a striking single.
Ken Emerson, "Records: 'Pure Smoke'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 161, May 23, 1974, p. 79.
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It was, perhaps, a sad commentary on certain features of today's music scene that one could predict with almost complete accuracy the erroneous hatchet jobs which passed for "critiques" of "Smokey," Robinson's first solo album since splitting with the Miracles.
That album had nine tracks. Two were not written by Smokey and thus not wholly his meat. Of the other seven "Just My Soul Responding," "Holly" "Sweet Harmony," "A Silent Partner in A Three-Way Love Affair" and "Baby Come Close" were as good as most of the stuff he recorded previously. That sort of success ratio doesn't make an album a stinker. "Pure Smokey" is Robinson's second solo shot and is a disappointment after the promise of "Smokey."...
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[The] sensuality of its lyrics and the loose, improvisational feel of the backup suggest that [the title tune of A Quiet Storm] is going to be Robinson's What's Going On or Innervisions, a formula-defying statement of both personal and social import. But Robinson is moved neither by Marvin Gaye's macho sensibilities nor by Stevie Wonder's semimystical mental images…. [He] naturally passes over both self-celebration and prophecy in favor of love and happiness. And his instincts for the perfect hook, the well-placed quaver and the arresting turn of phrase mean that even his seven-minute songs ("Storm," "Happy") retain the thematic compactness and lustrous patina of Motown singles…. "Wedding...
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[A Quiet Storm is] a beautifully produced and recorded album by Smokey Robinson. He performs, with his usual pliant ease, another collection of his own songs, and there is some entertainment to be found in Happy and Love Letters. The main problem with Robinson's work is that he has a broad streak of marshmallow sentimentality which, while it may be genuine on his part, eventually seizes me in the kind of clammy embrace that means turn-off. (p. 80)
Peter Reilly, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'A Quiet Storm'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 35, No. 2, August, 1975, p. 80.
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The Temptations had been around Motown in one form or another for a couple of years, but it wasn't until 1963 that they settle on the line-up of Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin as lead voices. Their immediate importance was to provide a new medium for Smokey Robinson and a series of beautiful love songs—"The Way You Do The Things You Do", "My Girl", "It's Growing", "Since I Lost My Baby", and many more…. Partly Smokey was inspired by the Temptations' own abilities—Eddie Kendricks, for example, whose falsetto was usually used as first lead, had a tougher voice than Smokey's own, without losing a whit of tenderness; partly, with [Motown staff composers Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland] taking care...
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The influence of sixties' rock on its black counterpart is more often overestimated than underestimated. With events occurring on the scale of the Watts riots, the murder of Martin Luther King and the rise of militant groups such as the Panthers, the nature of black Americans' social self-awareness was changing rapidly and profoundly. A new audience, in effect, was emerging that demanded an appropriate perspective in the songs provided for it by its musician-spokesmen. (p. 199)
In general, increased attention began to be paid by black songwriters to developing the kind of literary techniques that had previously tended to remain the province of white balladeers. Smokey Robinson was the master in this...
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Smokey's Family Robinson is hardly a concept album in the more labored sense of the term. But it makes sense as a whole, the songs linked by musical style and thematic associations, flowing seamlessly together with thought paid to contrast and balance….
Smokey's Family Robinson might seem to be plunging headlong into disco, except that Robinson, with his patented, light-footed control, never sacrifices his own individuality and ends the album with two ballads that count among the finest things he's ever done….
Robinson's deepest gift has always lain in the sexually charged, achingly erotic love ballad…. Robinson's lyrics, in fast and slow songs alike, are almost...
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The early years of Tamla-Motown belonged to Smokey Robinson, whose Miracles not only established the company as a major force (with "Shop Around") but musically set the succession of styles to be embellished in later administrations. [He was as] delicate a writer as he was a performer…. Between 1960 and the emergence of the Supremes four years later, he accounted for a majority of Motown's success, working with the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and the Temptations, as well as boosting the Miracles to becoming one of the most visible and prolific attractions in the pop market.
Robinson wrote with intelligence and sophistication, underplaying his lyrical hand to separate the contradictions...
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I can find nothing to suggest that "Love Breeze" expands the Robinson legend.
To be blunter still, I'm damned if I can find more than one track that lodges in my memory.
The exception is "Shoe Soul," a trickily constructed midtempo pop song carrying a lyric rich in mischievous metaphor and a lilting hook ideally suited to a falsetto voice. If the album is to yield a bona fide hit single, then I reckon that will be it….
"Love So Fine" is perhaps the most interesting production of the eight. In a way, it's Smokey's "Sir Duke," pop/jazz that calls upon some blowsy horns, what seems to be an upright bass and a sprightly piano as assistance to a swinging...
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The very first song on [Love Breeze,] Smokey Robinson's best album since his quitting the Miracles, makes you restless while you dance, blue when you kiss. Since Robinson's previous outings as a soloist have been at best incidental music to a public relations campaign for love, who was expecting him suddenly to serve up lyrics and music as eloquent as "Tracks of My Tears"? No PR here…. This is Al Green's map of love: something that makes you do right, do wrong.
Like Green on The Belle Album, Smokey on Love Breeze finds the search for love lonely and wearying….
But where Green paces out the space between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Robinson measures an...
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Whatever Smokey Robinson's faults and failures, he's always sounded like no-one else, and on "Where There's Smoke …" at least he has the courage to pursue and renew his own clichés.
The album's centrepiece is, inevitably, his own bid for 1979 disco prominence, a remake of his old classic for the Temptations, "Get Ready." You might say that this extended, bass-propelled version exposes the creeping decadence of popular music, when juxtaposed with the miniaturist tautness of the 1966 original….
Longtime Smokey fans will prefer the throwaway romance of "Share It," with its … shiver-down-the-spine spoken asides, and—particularly—"Cruisin'," a vintage collaboration between...
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Perhaps I was spoiled by "Smokin'"…, Smokey Robinson's last live album. It was a treasure trove of all the aged-in-soul songs that made him the dean of rhythm-and-blues writers back in the early Sixties when Motown was synonymous with the vibrant sound of an emerging urban generation. It would be difficult even for Smokey to produce another gem comparable to Ooh, Baby Baby, but if he could, it isn't on ["Where There's Smoke"]. Of course, these songs are new and haven't had a chance to imbed themselves in our minds to the point where the lyrics seem like old friends, but in their freshness and consistent quality they are nevertheless a pleasure to hear.
The range of the material is relatively...
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["Let Me Be Your Clock" is] closely tied to Smokey's Sixties idiom. Cast in the beseeching slow-drag mould of "The Tracks Of My Tears" and "Swept For You Baby", it's firmly in the line of his metaphor songs: "Let me be the pendulum that strikes your chime / For the very first time" surely harks back to the era of "I'm holding you so tight / You know you could've been a handle" and "You're like a broom / I'm like dust in the room"….
The rest of ["Warm Thoughts"], his ninth solo album since leaving the Miracles in 1972, is typically spotty. There's a heavy-handed dance tune ("Heavy On Pride") …; there's a collaboration with Stevie Wonder ("Melody Man") ruined by impossibly twee words; there's a...
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Robinson's Warm Thoughts, an album of reflective love ballads, is so far beyond anything he's done before that it makes me wonder if he's only been half-trying all these years.
With a talent like Robinson's, of course, half-trying has produced a lot of classic pop, most of it recorded in the '60s with the Miracles before he went solo. Of the six solo albums Robinson made prior to Warm Thoughts, only the diaphanous, moody A Quiet Storm (1975) worked as a whole. With disco then on the rise, however, A Quite Storm didn't make the impact it should have. Now, with the post-disco ballad revival upon us, Robinson has seized his moment….
For all of A Quiet...
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Though he has been one of the anchormen of vocal soul music for over twenty years, William "Smokey" Robinson manages to sing with the warmth, sincerity, and emotional involvement of a very young man still anticipating life's greater and yet-untasted pleasures. There is no hint of flagging enthusiasm, no sign that he has lost any of his customary purity of sound or style. Many musical modes have come and gone in the two decades he has been before the public, but he continues to rely on the same effective cool-sweet approach, the essence of "laid back" long before that term came into popular over-use. (pp. 73-4)
"Warm Thoughts" contains eight selections that bear all the familiar characteristics of...
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Smokey Robinson is one of those perennials whose creativity and staying power contradicts the notion that pop music, and especially the pop music of the rock-and-roll era, is necessarily ephemeral….
Bob Dylan once called Mr. Robinson "America's greatest living poet," and the remark wasn't at all ludicrous. His work will surely endure….
If Mr. Robinson's songs have one overriding concern, it is quiet but intense pain—the heartache behind the smile, the tears of the clown.
Robert Palmer, "Pop: Smokey Robinson Moves with the Times," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 27, 1980,...
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William "Smokey" Robinson was blessed at birth with an extraordinary poetic vision: God stepped down from His lofty perch and kissed the newborn's brow. Since then, Smokey … has made us swoon, massaging our hearts with a romantic lyricism that justly earned him the title of World's Greatest Living Poet….
Warm Thoughts … is the Motown Symbolist's most vital effort at keeping the embers of love burning since One Dozen Roses, his '71 twilight masterpiece with the Miracles. His lyrics still rely upon the turned around phrase ("Into Each Rain Some Life Must Fall")—a sure sign of an intrinsic faith in language—but more than that, they reflect the poetic maturation of an artist no...
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Most of Motown's roster consisted of Detroit acts unearthed at local talent shows; here as elsewhere, Smokey Robinson's Miracles set the pattern. When Robinson first approached Gordy late in 1957, most of the group was still in high school; three years later, when "Shop Around" hit, the Miracles' oldest member was barely 21.
During the next ten years, however, the Miracles became a seasoned troupe, while Robinson became one of the most prolific and popular producer/songwriters in the Motown stable. In person, the Miracles' performances were erratic, depending on the state of Smokey's fragile falsetto…. In the studio, on the other hand, Robinson knew few rivals, composing and producing … torchy...
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Smokey certainly isn't the consistently stunning writer he was in the Sixties. His bitter-sweet love songs have lost their sharpness but he's matured as a composer with considerable dignity and has occasionally responded to the challenge of writing interesting lyrics about home, family and more adult topics which superceded those in the older songs of teenage love.
Consequently, his recent albums have been professionally done affairs with one or two tracks retaining the grace and appeal of his best work.
Since splitting with the Miracles in 1972 I can think of only one Robinson solo album, "Smokey's Family Robinson" in 1976, that was a total disappointment. On the four albums since...
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Smokey Robinson is that rare pop singer whose rhapsodic lyricism hasn't diminished with approaching middle age. Indeed, time has added a metaphysical depth to his art. The postadolescent Romeo who created "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Ooh, Baby Baby" exudes the same sweetness today he did fifteen years ago…. Smokey Robinson's faith in the redemptive power of erotic love continues unabated. In Robinson's musical world, sexual happiness isn't the product of spiritual equilibrium but its source….
[Again] and again on Being with You, Smokey Robinson performs unassuming aesthetic miracles. In contrast to last year's Warm Thoughts (which, with A Quiet Storm is the pinnacle of...
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A more rhythmic vocalist can bump in sexy syncopation off a complement of polyrhythms, but Smokey is all melodic caress; his cool, aching lyricism must float free and uncomplicated. Being with You, by all means a pop triumph, allows him that simplicity and generates more potential hitpower than any of his previous solo outings. In fact, the title cut sounds better on the radio (and spends more time there) than any post-Miracles tune in his catalogue….
Less viable is the reggae imitation "Food for Thought," not because the steel drum riff doesn't generate the Caribbean breeze it's supposed to, but because it has nothing to do with the protest-for-the-hell-of-it of Robinson's lyric, which...
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Being With You is marked with the rapturous possibilities and elegance of expression that characterized the finest 60's work of the Miracles. Three of the four Robinson originals—the title song, "You Are Forever," and "If You Wanna Make Love (Come 'Round Here)"—are temperamentally and lyrically akin to such indestructible songs as "I'll Try Something New," "More Love," and "If You Can Want."…
[In the past] Smokey Robinson's songs were built on clever metaphorical conceits….
What they're up to now is an extension. Even when they're saying almost the same thing, the difference is in the approach….
Robinson produced only one song on Being With...
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