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Posts Tagged ‘The Miracles’

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

One of pop music’s most unique and amazing properties is its ability to wrap the most heartbreaking lyrics in a bubbly, effervescent melody.

Think about it for a moment. While there are shades and degrees to consider, and this is obviously a simplification, because other types of art usually inhabit only one medium, i.e. words or images, a sad poem or a sad painting typically going to be predominately sad. I’m not saying music is the only art form to convey multiple emotions at once; that’s a ludicrous assumption. But it seems pop music does this a lot easier than most.

Few songs handle the light/dark juxtaposition as effortlessly as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1970 smash “The Tears of a Clown.” The song started out as an instrumental Stevie Wonder wrote with his producer Hank Crosby. Unsure what to do with what Wonder knew was a great track, he brought it to the Motown Christmas party in 1966 to see if Robinson had any ideas. Robinson said hear head a circus in the melody and wrote the lyrics. The finished track appeared as the final song on the Miracles 1967 release “Make It Happen.”

For three years the song lay hidden as a deep cut, ignored by both the label and the band. In 1969, Robinson announced he was tired of touring and being separated from his family. By leaving the Miracles, Robinson reasoned, he could spend more time in Detroit with his family and focus on his role as Motown’s vice president. From Robinson’s perspective, it was a sound plan. The trouble was, the Miracles were one of Motown’s biggest act in Europe and the band had delivered only one Top 10 hit over the last two years. Desperate for new material, Hitsville UK scoured the vaults and back releases and stumbled upon the long-forgotten “The Tears of a Clown.” After giving the song a new mix it was released as a single in February, 1970. The song shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fortunately for music fans everywhere, the song’s success made Robinson reconsider his decision to leave the Miracles. Motown re-released “Make It Happen” with a modified tracklisting as “Tears of a Clown” – even the cover art stayed the same – and Robinson stayed in the Miracles until 1973.

Thematically, “The Tears of a Clown” mirrors the Miracles’ 1965 hit “The Tracks of My Tears.” Both songs deal with a heartbroken lover masking his/her pain in public. The subject of both songs craves the estranged, but it too proud to share those feelings in all but the darkest, quietest places. Not happy stuff. But while it was impossible to escape the anguish of “The Tracks of My Tears,” listeners could be possibly forgiven for thinking “The Tears of Clown” was little more than a happy romp on the calliope. Wonder and Cosby’s upbeat melody is a perfect antonym for Robinson’s lyrics. One moment poignantly cuts at the heart of the song, however. The arrangement briefly pauses while Robinson confesses “when there’s no one around.” In those tender seconds, his soul is laid bare.

“The Tears of a Clown” was the Miracles biggest hit while Robinson was in the group. Unsurprisingly, several other bands wanted a taste of this success. “Clown” has been widely covered over the past 40 years. The English Beat delivered one of the best interpretations with their 1979 ska adaptation of the song. At the other end of the spectrum are the version cut by LaToya Jackson for her 1995 Motown covers album, and Enuff Z’Nuff’s hair metal reading. Somewhere in the middle lie Phil Collin’s version, included on his “Testify” album, and Petula Clark’s 2000 reading. Early ‘90s Swedish pop duo Roxette also worked the “Clown” melody into their hit “Spending My Time.”

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(Above: Marvin Gaye asks for a witness. He gets four go-go dancers.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

For the past 46 years, few have been able to see “ The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 concert film that captured early performances from the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the first major U.S. appearance of the Rolling Stones.

A tangle of legal issues sent the movie to exile almost immediately after it was sent to the theaters. The producer lost his rights and the film was never released on video rarely shown in public. For years fans would read about how incredible the “T.A.M.I. Show” was – particularly James Brown’s appearance, which Rick Rubin once said “may be the single greatest rock and roll performance ever captured on film” – without being able to see it. Thankfully this has finally been corrected. After decades of wrangling, Shout Factory has finally released the “T.A.M.I. Show” on DVD.

After a montage of all the stars arriving over one of the longest Jan and Dean songs ever, Chuck Berry takes the stage. His appearance ties the film back to “Rock Rock Rock” and the classic ‘50s rock and roll films, but halfway through “Maybelline,” the camera swings over to Gerry and the Pacemakers doing their version of the song. It’s a little disorienting at first, and doesn’t completely work, mostly because Gerry is so campy. He’s constantly playing to the camera, and the group clearly doesn’t have Berry’s talent or charisma.

Fortunately, an endless parade of go-go dancers in bikinis is on hand to distract from any lulls in the music. Constantly in motion, the dancers swarm across the stage – often directly in front of the performers – and on platforms in the back. The producers discovered what MTV perfected in the ‘90s with “The Grind:” buxom, gyrating dancers will make even the most execrable music enjoyable.

The showgirls hog the camera during the first number of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ set. Fortunately, lens eventually pulls back on the second number, and the quartet delivers the first great performance of the night. Robinson drops down, jumps up and throws his entire spirit into an extended “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” That energy carries into “Mickey’s Monkey,” that has everyone onstage and in the crowd dancing. Marvin Gaye continues Motown’s strong showing with a great “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” For “Can I Get a Witness” he performs away from the band, flanked by two shimmying girls.

Director Steve Binder isn’t shy about cutting to the junior high and high school students in the audience screaming in delirium. One long shot accidentally allows a glimpse of policemen in helmets patrolling the aisles. There was clearly a hard line on the level of excitement that could be displayed.

It’s hard to believe Lesley Gore was the biggest star on the bill at the time, and that she didn’t become an even bigger star later. Gore dutifully performs her best-known songs, the No. 1 “It’s My Party” and its Top 5 sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but her poise, grace and presence suggest she should have had a much longer career. Gore It’s too bad she couldn’t keep up with the harder, psychedelic edge rock music was about to take.

Several of Gore’s songs are captured by a camera that looks like Vaseline has been smeared over the lens. In the commentary track, Binder said that was exactly what was done. He either couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to outfit the rigs with soft focus capability, so they went with this bargain basement substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like Gore is singing through a funhouse mirror.

Jan and Dean, the evening’s MCs, kick off the surf portion of the show, but they are outmatched by the Beach Boys, who follow. Jan and Dean’s harmonies seem thin and the skate-board-in-a-guitar-case trick can’t hold up to the Boys’ rich voices and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. The performance was filmed months before Wilson’s nervous breakdown forced him off the road. Here he looks completely at ease and happy.

After the movie’s initial run, the Beach Boys’ manager demanded his client’s four-song set be removed. When the inevitable “T.A.M.I. Show” bootlegs popped up, the Beach Boys were usually missing. This DVD finally restores the lush “Surfer Girl” and the freedom of “I Get Around.”

The film treads water through the Dakotas, Supremes and Barbarians until – finally – we get to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Honestly, there’s nothing he does here that wasn’t captured on the incredible “Live at the Apollo” album one year earlier. This, however, was his first major show in front of a white audience. It also gave fans the opportunity to see Brown work his magic in addition to just hearing it.

The Flames are razor-sharp as Brown kicks into “Out of Sight.” Showing his penchant for adventurous covers, Brown resuscitates Perry Como’s hit “Prisoner of Love.” He then directs the Flames into “Please, Please, Please” and the place goes nuts for the now-infamous cape routine. Brown’s pants, which were clean before the song, are scuffed and dirty at the knees from all the times he falls down (only to pop right back again.) During “Night Train” he does this crazy dance on one foot where he manages to wriggle across the stage. Not only does he not fall down, but he looks impossibly smooth.

In his commentary on the “T.A.M.I. Show” trailer, director John Landis, whose entire seventh grade class scored invites to the taping, said the Rolling Stones “were kind of boring after James Brown.” He’s right. The Stones open with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” an odd choice considering Berry was onstage earlier. They don’t start to live up to their hype and billing until the terrific “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now.”

It’s difficult to watch the early Stones without picturing the lazy spectacle they’ve become. There is a hunger in these songs and Mick Jagger is genuinely working to win the crowd’s approval. It’s odd to see Brain Jones so alive and so happy. It seems he was born with those omnipresent bags under his eyes that just grew sadder and deeper until the lids above closed forever.

But that was still several dark years off. The “T.A.M.I. Show” is a celebration that despite some dated production techniques and material still feels vibrant. It’s a peek behind a curtain to a world where artists from not only all over the world, as the song goes, but all genres, could party together on the same stage. In a way, it was a precursor to the weekend festivals that would pop up at the end of the decade and have resurfaced to dominate the summer musical landscape again today.

Keep reading:

Talking James Brown and King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Below: The Beach Boys get around.)

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Rare Earth – “Get Ready,” Pop # 4, R&B # 20

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Motown’s signing of Rare Earth in 1968 was the sign of a label attempting to spread its wings. Although Rare Earth wasn’t the first all-white rock group signed by to Motown (that would be the Messengers in 1967), it was the most successful.

“Get Ready” was the Earth’s second and biggest single. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1966 when it rose to No. 29. It was written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles. When the Temptations version of “Get Ready” failed to chart high enough, Robinson passed production reigns of the group over to Norman Whitfield.

But that was four years ago, before the psychedelic movement and power trios started stretching songs to fill an entire album side. Which is exactly what Rare Earth did to “Get Ready.” Modeled after their show-closing performances, the song reached more than 21 minutes and packed the entire second side of their Motown debut.

The quintet lobbied label honcho Berry Gordy to release the song as a single, but given the song’s length he balked at the proposition. Finally, a three-minute edit was released in February, 1970 and the song shot up the chart.

Despite the genre transplant, “Get Ready” emerged relatively unaltered. The horn line was replaced with electric guitar, and faux crowd noise was added. The biggest change was Pete Rivera’s gritty white soul vocals replacing Eddie Kendricks’ tough falsetto. A saxophone solo by Gil Bridges closes the number.

The song became a staple not only for Rare Earth and the Tempts, but was a sort of label warhorse. It was included on albums by the Supremes, Miracles, Smokey Robinson on his own, and again by the Temptations in 1991.”Get Ready” was also covered by pop-punk band Ash, the Scottish folk band the Proclaimers and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas, who later turned it into a full-blown cover for their singer Fergie on her solo album.

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry,” Pop # 8, R&B # 3

By Joel Francis

“Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” ended the Miracles streak of seven consecutive Top 10 R&B hits and was the group’s fourth and final hit of 1968.

At four minutes, the song was one of Motown’s longest singles to date, but Smokey Robinson and Motown staff writers Al Clevelend and Terry Johnson made the most of every second. As a singer and arranger in 1950s doo wop group the Flamingos, Johnson wrote the arrangement for “I Only Have Eyes for You” and other genre classic. Recruited to Motown by Robinson in 1964, the pair turned in some of their finest work on this number.

“Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” starts on the piano, but gives way to Miracle Marv Tarplin’s immortal guitar line. A full orchestra stealthily enters after the third stanza and explodes on the chorus. Again, Robinson and Johnson apply a deft touch to the score as the horns punch lightly and the string soar. For the spoken interlude, the song scales back to guitar, bass and drums, but never loses its warmth and fullness. On the last verse, the song shifts gears again, as the key changes and the bass and organ lean on the throttle.

Rare among Motown hits, the Funk Brothers are completely absent on this recording. Strings and horns aside, the Miracles play all the instruments on this album, with Robinson’s wife Claudette’s distinct voice sitting atop the vocal arrangement.

Robinson’s singing performance on “Baby” is one of the best in his career. His voice aches with pain and sympathy, but is strong and encouraging at the same time. This is a man who clearly knows the sting of lost love and the warmth of new romance. It’s impossible to deny Robinson and the Miracles evocation that “love is here, standing by.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone improving or adding anything new to these four minutes of perfection, and for once the rest of the industry agreed. “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” is a rare Motown hit that hasn’t been covered.

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Second Emotion

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson was Christmas shopping with fellow Motown songwriter Al Cleveland when Cleveland let slip the malapropism “I second that emotion.” Intrigued, Robinson penned a lyric about a man disinterested in flirting, fishing for long-term love. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of every Kiss song ever.

The arrangement and delivery is relaxed and easy. Never a forceful singer, Robinson lets the horns punctuate his pleas. His vocals are soft and comforting as a pillow, while Miracle Marv Tarplin’s guitar pulls the song over the unusually subdued percussion. There’s no climax or resolution to the number – the horn breakdown in the final moment is as close as we get. It’s almost like Robinson is auditioning the idea.

The song fades before we learn the woman’s reaction, but audiences were delighted, sending “I Second That Emotion” into the Top 5 and earning the Miracles their sixth million-selling single.

Less than two years later, Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations teamed up for a television special and album. “Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptations” featured their interpretation of “I Second that Emotion,” which was a Top 20 UK hit (the single was not released in America). The album marked the debut of new Temp Dennis Edwards, who replaced the troubled David Ruffin. Miracle guitarist Tarplin reprised his role for the all-star revision. The song has a diverse cover life, with performances issued by Jerry Garcia, ‘80s synth band Japan, and “Stand By Your Man” country singer Tammy Wynette.

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grapevine
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 2, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Unlike nearly every other soul singer at the time, Gladys Knight didn’t want to go to Motown. She was (rightly) worried she and her group, the Pips, would end up playing second fiddle to Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the Pips were a democracy. When the rest of the group voted to migrate to Hitsville, Knight reluctantly acquiesced.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a thrice-heated leftover when Norman Whitfield presented his song to the group in 1967. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles cut a version the previous year that didn’t make it out of Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. A second Miracles recording of “Grapevine” was buried as an album cut on 1968’s “Special Occasion” LP.  The Isley Brothers were rumored to have recorded a version during their brief stint on the label, but no recording has surfaced to date. Several Motown scholars believe a recording session with the Isleys to cut “Grapevine” was scheduled, but then cancelled.

This is likely the case. In 2005, Motown released the two-disc clearinghouse “Motown Sings Motown Treasures.” This incredible and enlightening collection presented many recordings – Kim Weston performing “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Supremes doing “Can IGet A Witness,” and the Miracles original, unissued version of “Grapevine,” among others – previously locked in the vaults. It seems unlikely that the Isley Bros. version of “Grapevine,” if it exists, would have been omitted from this collection.

Although it wouldn’t be released for another year, Marvin Gaye had also cut his reading of “Grapevine” by the time the Pips were hearing Whitfield’s pitch.

Whitfield’s latest “Grapevine” arrangement was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Whitfield’s desire to “out-funk” Franklin. It’s clear from the great snare-and-cymbal intro that Whitfield was on to something new. Motown had been a lot of things until that point, but it had rarely been so overtly funky. In the coming years, Whitfield would help place Hitsville at the epicenter of psychedelic soul. This recording was one of the first steps down that path.

Whitfield’s attempt to out-do the Memphis soul sound Aretha was getting from Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler was buoyed by Knight’s singing. The gospel background isn’t as obvious in Knight’s delivery, and her voice is a little earthier than Franklin’s, but Knight’s vocals can soar just as high. In fact, the song is little more than drums, piano and Knight’s powerful voice until a scratch guitar enters during the first chorus.

Stealing a page from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production book, the tambourine is mixed front and center. The instrument serves as a tractor, dragging the entire song it its wake. The signature organ line that introduces Gaye’s chart-topping “Grapevine” makes a cameo on the piano about a minute into the song. The saxophone solo bisecting the song is a straight-up homage to King Curtis, the Memphis soul legend. Even the juiciest gossip is rarely this much fun.

The fourth time was the charm for Whitfield, as the Pips’ powerful “Grapevine” finally made it past Gordy’s Quality Control meeting. That didn’t guarantee label support, though, as Knight was forced to rely on her DJ connections to promote the song. When “Grapevine” finally caught on, it caught fire holding the top spot on the R&B chart for six weeks and stalling behind the Monkee’s “Daydream Believer” at No. 2 on the pop chart. Although it was Motown’s best-selling single to date, the “Grapevine” story was far from over.

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “More Love,” Pop # 23, R&B # 5

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson has penned dozens of gorgeous love songs throughout his career, but few are affecting as “More Love.” The reassuring lyrics speak to the tragedies the couple suffered as a result of life on the road. Between 1957 and 1964, Claudette Robinson had eight miscarriages. This heartbreaking back story adds to the romance of the chorus:

“More love, more joy,
|Than age or time could ever destroy.
My love will be so sound,
It would take about a hundred lifetimes
To live it down, wear it down, tear it down.”

The song opens with some gospel chords on the piano before the gently insistent bassline enters. Robinson’s voice appears on a pillow of strings, as the arrangement slowly builds underneath. After Robinson delivers the chorus a second time, the performance pulls back to that great bassline before reaching a climax that sustains through the rest of the song.

Foreshadowing Motown’s cross-country relocation, the track was performed by Los Angeles session musicians before the Miracles – including Claudette – overdubbed their voices in Detroit. It’s unclear why Robinson, who also produced the cut,  bypassed the Funk Brothers, but the public didn’t seem to mind. The song was wedged near the top of both the pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1967.

Foreshadowing another Motown move, “More Love” was the second single credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.” Berry’s decision to give Robinson top billing started the avalanche that benefitted Diana Ross and Martha Reeves but doomed David Ruffin and the Temptations.

Smokey and Claudette eventually had two children, both named in tribute to Motown. Son Berry Robinson was the namesake of label founder Berry Gordy, and daughter Tamla Robinson was named after the Hitsville subsidiary.

Former New Christy Minstrels singer Kim Carnes had a No. 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1980 with her reading of “More Love.” The song was her biggest hit until “Bette Davis Eyes” hit No. 1 the following year. “More Love” has also been covered by Paul Young, Barbara McNair and the 5th Dimension.

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