Monday, October 3, 2011

A Pleasant Exhange on Smokey Robinson's Timeless Love


Thanks! I love Smokey – whether solo or with the Miracles. I listened to some samples on Amazon. From that limited aural window, I thought, wow, great voice (mebbe a little thinner and lower than in his youth, but great all the same), but at the same time, “Why, Smokey?” In singing jazz standards, it’s tough to set oneself up to be inevitably compared against the iconic, definitive performances of those songs by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman, etc. I had the same fish-out-of-water/singer-out-of-genre reaction to Willie Nelson’s Stardust album or to Cindi Lauper’s Memphis Blues. It’s not that it can’t happen - Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington successfully switch hit between jazz (where they started) and pop (where they ended), but there aren’t many, and I’m not sure Smokey is one of them. But then again, compared to Rod Stewart, Smokey’s a veritable Johnny Hartman.


Here’s a story.

About 15 years ago my wife and I and our kids, then about 20 and 18, went to the Ottawa Blues Festival where Smokey solo headlined. His show was in a huge park—LeBreton Flats—and I’d estimate 20,000-30,000 came. He started slowly but got to doing a great show. At one point he ran an imaginary line down the middle of the crowd and had side 1 singing off against side 2. We were sitting close to the stage and he made my eldest daughter “captain” of side 1—“Aviva’s team”, he called it. It was a lot of fun and one of the best family outings we ever had. He put on as I say a great show. In his realm, as you note, he's a terrific singer and song writer. I wouldn’t call him a singer/songwriter because that to my mind emasculates what he does.

I guess I’d answer you, “Why not, Smokey?” He can’t, for sure, compare to some of the non pareils you name but I’d argue he holds his own and imparts something Smokeyingly unique to the songs. His phrasing is interesting and his singing diction is superb especially his full "Ls" though I had a problem with his tremolo, which cuts against his adult reading of the songs. I think a better producer might have toned his tremolo down some. His voice is of course unique and it works wonderfully here for my money adding to what is breath-taking to me: his bringing such a uniquely passionate reading to the lyrics, like an intense yearning that is indescribably sensual, whereas, say, Marvin Gaye is sexual. I have a lot of time for this record.

Anyway that’s my position and I’m sticking with it.


I’m going to backtrack. You make an excellent point - I should appreciate his versions on their own merits. Which brought to mind a line I heard from Roy Romanow in an Saskatchewan election debate. His opponents were (naturally) and rather witheringly highlighting his peccadilloes and shortcomings. Romanow agreed that he wasn’t perfect. Far from it. But he said that shouldn’t be compared against perfection, but rather against the alternative. Good answer.

In this case, the alternative would have been no performance at all. Notwithstanding my snobbish initial take, the universe is a better universe for Smokey having recorded these standards. I’m going to seek out the full meal deals of his performances on this album rather than snippet

BTW, I loved your observation “..his bringing such a uniquely passionate reading to the lyrics, like an intense yearning that is indescribably sensual, whereas, say, Marvin Gaye is sexual.” Oh yes. It brought to mind the contrast between Smokey’s Being With You and Marvin’s “Sexual Healing.”.

No comments:

Post a Comment