We end the Motown Series with the folks who put the Mo in Motown.
In 1960, The Miracles’ “Shop Around” hit the record stores, eventually becoming the first million-selling hit for a tiny Detroit label called Tamla, one of what would become several subsidiary labels of Motown Records. Throughout the 14-year run with the “classic lineup,” The Miracles scored twenty-six top 40 hits and became Motown’s most covered group of all time. They paved the way for all the great names who followed them, and their influence on artists in multiple genres is enormous.
The general consensus is that The Miracles were the best of the Motown groups—on another plane entirely. When they went on the road to do the Motown Revues along with the entire stable of Motown artists, The Miracles closed the show. Quincy Jones called the group “The Beethovens of the 20th Century” for their unique songwriting talents. It was unique that they wrote songs at all. Most of the other artists relied on Motown staff writers for their material; The Miracles composed most of their own.
The Definitive Collection does a good job of covering the peak period in chronological order. The Ultimate Collection has seven more tracks but thoroughly mangles the sequence. Buy whichever tickles your fancy: it’s impossible to go wrong with The Miracles, especially with the classic lineup of Smokey Robinson, Claudette Robinson, Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore and guitarist Marv Tarplin. Backed largely by The Funk Brothers, The Miracles combined their gifts to produce some of the most distinctive songs in soul music history.
The group formed as The Five Chimes way back in 1955, changed their name to The Matadors (!) a year later, and finally settled on The Miracles in 1958. They had a couple of singles slip into the lower reaches of the Billboard 100, but real success eluded them until . . .
“Shop Around”: Released a few weeks before JFK’s election, this iconic hit was actually a remake of a version released in the Detroit area that drew quite a following. The rougher, rawer original is in a slightly slower tempo and the sax solo is more full-throated, like what you hear in early rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds marvelous after listening to the classic version, though I can understand how Berry Gordy felt the need to polish the edges for the general public. In the familiar version, Smokey’s lead vocal maintains its high-spirited enthusiasm but is a tad smoother; The Miracles’ vocal support is a bit clearer and Mama’s advice seems more accessible. This is one of those great moments in history comparable to when George Martin told The Beatles to speed up “Please, Please Me.” The Miracles sound like a group who knows they’ve made their breakthrough hit: the performance bubbles with excitement.
“I’ll Try Something New”: Motown was still far from the smooth-running machine of its peak years, so The Miracles didn’t have a follow-up hit in the tape box ready to go. They released five singles after “Shop Around” that failed to make the top 30; this was the last of the bunch. The harp in the intro does not bode well for those hoping for something soulful, and what we have here is a rather limp Latinesque love song notable only because it shows Smokey’s early passion for simile play, which he would again display in his composition, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” The Temptations’ first real hit. At this point the listening audience had to be wondering whether or not The Miracles would flame out and join the ranks of one-hit wonders who died while swimming towards the mainstream. Fortunately, Smokey recovered his mojo just in time, thanks to Sam Cooke.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”: Smokey heard Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” while on a trip to New York and, suitably and immediately inspired, wrote this song in his hotel room. With a stunning lack of foresight, this song became the B-side for a single led by “Happy Landing,” a song that could have easily been one of Sam Cooke’s happy-go-lucky tunes. The nation’s DJs staged a revolution and started playing “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” making it The Miracles’ second gold record.
Wow. Out of all the songs I’ve listened to during the Motown series, I played this one the most: I’d start my three-times-through bit and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” always got in the way of my progress. I’d go back and play this one song three, four, five times in a row to try to figure out exactly what they did to create a musical experience as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. You have to begin with the decision to perform the song as a duet, with Smokey taking the high-register melody and Bobby Rogers the low-register harmony. That brilliant decision reinforced the complexity of the opposing emotions expressed in the lyrics by giving them two distinct voices: one soaring and hopeful; the other gritty and realistic. The laid-back arrangement disguises a fascinating complexity where Marv Tarplin’s guitar extends the melodic line beyond the written melody while subtly dropping in repetitions of the motif; meanwhile, the horns extend the melodic line vertically in between their blues-tinged growls. The Miracles’ harmonies support Smokey’s amazing melodic path through the “I love you and all I want you to do” line and it all comes together like a set of magic threads. Smokey’s flowing vocal, marked by the glissandi expressing the shivering desire to be held, is dramatically mesmerizing; the effect of bursts of emotion expressed by the insertion of the please-squeeze responses is stunning and climactic. In the end, all of these choices combine to give us a song so unforgettably compelling that it’s no wonder that so many other singers simply had to cover it. Double wow.
“Mickey’s Monkey”: Dance crazes dominated the early 60’s, and given America’s rising obesity rates, it might be a good idea to bring them back. The Twist is great for getting rid of those love handles, guys! And ladies, The Mashed Potatoes can increase your ankle strength so you can wear those 4″ stilettos without falling on your face! I’ve always found the music to most dance songs really boring, with the exception of Little Eva’s “Locomotion” and this contribution from Holland-Dozier-Holland. I don’t know why anyone would want to do a dance that requires you to look like a monkey holding two bananas; perhaps it was an early form of penis envy. What I love about the song is the party atmosphere, greatly enhanced by the guest list of performers: Martha & The Vandellas, Mary Wilson, The Temptations and The Marvelettes. Smokey does a great job as host, and The Miracles actually don’t sound silly at all singing “Lum de lum de la aye!”
“I Like It Like That”: One of the 60’s fad phrases resulted in two songs with the same title: the one by Chris Kenner popularized by the Dave Clark Five, and this top 30 squeaker by The Miracles. At a much slower tempo than “Mickey’s Monkey,” the opening exhortation to get everybody to clap their hands doesn’t quite ring true. The song has more of a gospel feel than a get-up-and-shake-your-fanny feel, which may explain its weak showing on the charts: the balloon deflates too quickly.
“Ooo Baby Baby”: There are slow dance numbers and then there is “Ooh Baby Baby.” My partner and I tried this out a few times and always wound up extending our gyrations to the bedroom (okay, we are a pair of horny bitches, but hey, we’re not sex maniacs!). The tempo almost forces you into someone’s arms and the sweet harmonies of The Miracles bring out all the tenderness you feel for your sweetie. When you’re holding your honey oh-so-close, you don’t care a fig for the lyrics until they get to the chorus: ooo baby baby. What else is there to say when the scent of your lover sends chills up and down your spine and you feel yourself melting into the other’s body, so warm and so responsive to your every move? Ooo baby baby!
“The Tracks of My Tears”: Smokey liked opening songs with a little taste of guitar from Marv Tarplin, and I adore Marv’s brief thematic intro here: so gently played, so disarmingly subdued. As it turns out, what we’re hearing is the match that lit the flame for Smokey Robinson; the song that follows was inspired by Marv’s ear-catching little riff. I also cherish the doo-wop harmonies that follow, especially when Claudette Robinson comes in with remarkable clarity. This is the first of two “Pagliacci songs” in this collection, where Smokey places himself in the role of clown, the archetype of façade; the man with the painted smile to disguise his inner sadness. Smokey plays his part perfectly, his voice expressing both deep longing and the knowledge that the woman he wants will always remain just beyond his reach. I’ve always believed that his greatest lyrical gift was his refusal to settle for an “okay” word to complete a rhyme. Smokey, like Flaubert, was in constant search of le mot juste, but in his case his criteria demanded that he find the word that fit best into the story and blended best with the melodic line. You hear this most remarkably in the ringing internal and ending rhymes in the last verse:
Outside I’m masquerading inside my hope is fading
I’m just a clown since you put me down
My smile is my make up
I wear since my break-up with you
Despite its obvious brilliance, it took two years for the record to achieve gold status. “The Tracks of My Tears” is a marvelously constructed song enhanced by a deliberate and focused arrangement that amplifies the emotional impact. Unforgettable!
“My Girl Has Gone”: Marv cues the group with a lovely intro on a 12-string that turns into a gentle counterpoint pattern to guide The Miracles through one of their best collective vocal performances. Claudette’s voice is especially pretty, and the solid, consistent bottom support from the men has a rather soothing, comforting effect. As good as Marv and The Funk Brothers were, I would love to hear an a cappella version of this track—Pete Moore apparently designed most of the group’s vocal arrangements, and it would be cool to study his choices in more detail. The intensely collaborative nature of this recording also stems from the act of creation: Smokey, Pete, Marv and Ronald White all get songwriting credit. This one’s often missed in recounting The Miracles’ list of contributions, but this is one of the great vocal performances by any group, anywhere, any time.
“Going to a Go-Go”: I love songs with a strong bottom, and the combination of Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass delivers the goods big time. One frequent Jamerson technique involved the use of two basses: an acoustic on the “ensemble” track and then a Precision Bass on a different track to add presence and depth. His personal precision was so extreme that you can’t spot the overdub, and on an instrument like the bass, where the low frequencies can expand like a mushroom cloud, that is one hell of a difficult feat. Of all The Miracle’s party songs, this one is my favorite—that relentless rhythm is so strongly punctuated that you can’t help but shake to the groove. The feel is almost as sexy as The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and you all know how that song shatters my innate qualities of self-possession and decorum.
“(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need”: Well, nobody’s perfect. Either Smokey’s pants were too tight or he was trying too hard to make this song work. His vocal defines the word histrionic: he is so over the emotional edge here that I find it painful to listen to this track. Fortunately for his reputation, he did not write this turkey: Holland-Dozier-Holland proved they weren’t perfect either.
“More Love”: They are now officially Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and appropriately enough, Smokey Robinson wrote a song that only he could have written: a deeply personal expression of love for his wife Claudette within the context of unimaginably tragic circumstances. Claudette Robinson had stopped touring with the group in 1964 after a series of miscarriages; eventually, she would have eight miscarriages, including a set of stillborn twins. Repeating that extreme cycle of hope and crushing disappointment once would be more than enough for any human being, but eight times . . . I don’t think I could have survived it, emotionally or physically. After one of the miscarriages, Claudette apologized to Smokey for letting him down, and he wrote this song for her to free her from any guilt and express his unconditional love for her. Smokey delivers the vocal with what I can only describe as sweet urgency: his voice expresses a deep concern that Claudette could ever feel that way and he is insistent on filling her soul with healing love. “More Love” is a beautiful expression of genuine concern for another, and Smokey Robinson’s ability to transform a personal tragedy into a song that speaks to our higher natures is deeply appreciated.
“The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”: Marv opens this first single under the new moniker in a guitar style that sounds more folk rock than soul. The soul elements appear as the song proceeds, but Marv is there in the background and supplying the fills to give this track a special feel and flavor. The Miracles’ spot harmonies are gentle and very pleasing to the ear, and Smokey negotiates the melody with understated brilliance. One of the more melancholy songs in their catalog, it’s also one of the loveliest, more of a golden autumn song than a pink-blossom spring song.
“I Second That Emotion”: Smokey had a gift for turning cliché phrases into catchy hooks, and when combined with a flowing melody with great vertical movement, a nice, easy groove and The Miracles’ spot-on harmonies, you have one of the strongest and most memorable songs in their catalog. Jamerson is all over the fretboard on this song, as is guitarist Marv Taplin, and the combination counterpoint is simply fabulous. The punctuated moment of syncopation that breaks up the chorus is one of those intuitive-emotional choices that may not fit the strict logic of a tune but heightens the interest and the excitement. Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks later teamed up for their own version of this song, but their version fell far short of the original.
“Yester Love”: In contrast to his work with The Supremes, James Jamerson’s work with The Miracles is generally more inventive and exciting, and this relatively minor song in the catalog would have made a great audition tape for Jamerson (not that he ever needed one, given his reputation in the music business). Marv Tarplin could have used his performance in a similar way, filling the space with quick and nimbly played fills with a blues flavor. Smokey’s love of wordplay is evident in the title, and I’m a little surprised that this song didn’t do any better than #31. The Miracles are great as usual, the song moves very well . . . hell, I can’t explain it.
“Special Occasion”: Smokey creates a cornucopia of similes as he searches for the perfect analogy to the experience of a constantly exciting lover. Actually, I think his best lines in this song are metaphor-free:
. . . and it’s hard to explain
How the same old touch from the same old hand
Can make me feel like a different man
I just can’t understand
But every time you touch me
It’s a real special occasion
The song is competently played but the arrangement is a bit too celebratory and the joyful feel of the song sucks the sexiness out of the lyrics.
“Baby, Baby Don’t Cry”: I’m immediately turned off by the spoken word intro, but I grit my teeth and appreciate James Jamerson’s superb bass or Marv’s more noticeable guitar licks . . . then Smokey starts speaking again. I’ve never liked that maneuver; it always feels like an interruption to me, and the truth is, most popular vocalists don’t have the acting skills to pull off the intended dramatic effect. Apparently the listening public didn’t mind the intrusions, as the song was a top 10 hit. Doesn’t do dick for me.
“Doggone Right”: At this point in his career, Smokey is seriously considering retirement, longing to become a family man and have a regular commute for a change. Here he follows a typical pattern of making a cliché phrase the basis of a pop song and the effort falls flat. It feels like he’s thinking of putting his feet up on that big VP desk of his and shouting a few orders into the dictaphone. A competent performance, but lacks fire.
“The Tears of a Clown”: There are several instances in popular music history when a song that was ignored on release becomes a hit after the performers have forgotten all about it. “Time of the Season” is a good example (The Zombies had broken up by the time it made its splash); another is the resurrection of “Got To Get You into My Life” during the disco era, ten years after Revolver. “Tears of a Clown” was a Stevie Wonder-Hank Cosby musical composition to which Smokey added the lyrics. The song made its way into obscurity on the 1967 album Make It Happen. The story is that Motown England (you can never control those overseas operations, as I know all too well, being the uncontrollable one!) was short of material, pulled it out of the scrapheap of history and made it a UK single. BOOM! #1! Motown America followed suit and BOOM! #1! Smokey then delayed his retirement for another two years and The Miracles hit the road in support of their unexpected success.
If you’re befuddled that the song languished in obscurity in the first place, join the club. This is clearly one of The Miracles’ best efforts, one of Smokey’s best set of lyrics (partially borrowed from a previous composition, “My Smile Is Just a Frown”) and one of the most exciting and innovative arrangements in their catalog. James Jamerson’s bass work here is pure magic, beautifully alternating between almost harmonic runs and single-note picking to intensify the builds. Adding the horribly neglected bassoon to the mix gives the track a one-of-a-kind flavor, and the punctuation in the groove seems closer to rock ‘n’ roll than soul. Nothing like ending a compilation on a strong note!
My everlasting impression of The Miracles is that when it came time to make music, they were the ultimate pros. They took great care with every arrangement and each executed their parts with commitment and professionalism. In a world where some elitists consider sloppily played, melodically-challenged records an advanced art form, it’s so wonderful to spend some time listening to genuine musicians who refused to settle for sloppy. The discipline they displayed did not drain the life, emotion or excitement from their work, but made it possible to play with intentionality and bring those spirit-lifting facets of music to the fore. The Miracles were simply too good, too professional, too committed to their music to make excuses and go sloppy. Whatever happens to music in the future, people will always return to groups like The Miracles to hear how real professionals make real music.