Riffs: Motown believes in Miracles

Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 12:49am

From the first time Motown’s offices officially opened through the company’s glory years, William “Smokey” Robinson was a label mainstay.

Robinson was not only lead singer and principal songwriter for the Miracles, Motown’s first band, but also wrote and produced hits for a host of other acts from The Temptations and Mary Wells to the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye.

His shimmering falsetto and personality, along with an incredible facility with romantic lyrics, helped turn a struggling small company into an international musical institution.

Robinson is still active as a performer and songwriter, but a new two-disc set celebrates the initial recordings that he made with Motown along with the Miracles. Depend On Me – The Early Recordings (Hip-O-Select) compiles 53 singles, most of them originally issued on the LPs Hi, We’re The Miracles, Cookin’ With The Miracles, I’ll Try Something New, The Fabulous Miracles and Recorded Live On Stage.

There are also five cuts that were either made strictly as singles (“Mighty Good Lovin’,” “The Feelin”), or alternate/bonus cuts (two regional versions of “Shop Around” and “The Only One”).

Besides the monster hit “Shop Around,” which was Motown’s first chart-topper, there’s a wide range of numbers.

Robinson occasionally tried his hand at jazz-tinged pre-rock pieces like “Speak Low,” “On The Street Where You Live” and “I’ve You Under My Skin,” but for the most part he was constantly cranking out magical ballad and sentimental classics.

Every once in a while he would turn the lead chores over to someone else, notably his then wife Claudette (“After All”), who had a beautiful voice but was usually content to provide the harmony. Guitarist Marvin Tarplin’s flickering lines were a constant musical presence, while Pete Moore provided the arrangements and joined Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White and Claudette Robinson underneath Smokey’s feathery, flowing leads.

These are part of the formative tunes that established Motown as not just a great soul and R&B label, but a superb pop organization as well. They also represent the flowering of Smokey Robinson as a consummate performer, producer and songwriter.


Early Michael Jackson

Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection (Hip-O-Select) offers 71 selections from Michael Jackson’s solo albums and output. It’s easy to overlook in the crush of coverage and the onslaught of negative and ugly incidents and dubious behavior that Jackson was such a magnificent singer, particularly during his early years, when the ultra-high voice also had an innocent and pure quality.

The three-disc set begins with Got To Be There, which included his bright cover of “Rockin’ Robin” and stirring versions of “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” plus breakout hits “Got To Be There” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are.”

Yet it was a most unorthodox tune, “Ben,” that stamped Michael Jackson for superstardom as a solo act. The song was culled from the soundtrack for the creepy thriller film Willard about rats running amuck proved a huge hit, even if the overall LP Ben wasn’t nearly as successful.

Indeed, Jackson never achieved with his Motown releases the blockbusters that came via Quincy Jones blockbusters like Off The Wall and Thriller. Still, hearing everything from soft rock and light pop to concept tunes, Motown and doo-wop covers, and a few originals here and there show that it was just a case of finding the right vehicle and Jackson would become a giant. It didn’t happen with these recordings, but they’re still certainly a valuable part of his legacy.


Hi releases

The Memphis-based label Hi Records didn’t enjoy the crossover success of Stax, but it had its own stable of dynamite vocalists and during the ‘70s made a host of fabulous singles and albums.

The Hi catalog is now being reissued by Fat Possum, and seven vintage sessions have recently been reissued.

O.V. Wright’s The Bottom Line, one of his last releases, is the most hard-edged, gospel-tinged release in this current series, though songs like “No Easy Way To Say Goodbye” and “I Don’t Know Why” also have some country flavor. But Wright’s wailing and fire are at their peak on “The Bottom Line,” “I Don’t Do Windows” and torrid covers of “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha” and “Your Good Thing Is About To End.”

Al Green’s vocal dips and twists are in prime form on Call Me and Have A Good Time.

Besides master side trips on Call Me into country (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and gospel (“Jesus Is Waiting”), Green also had a big hit with the title track, and supplied several of his own compositions, most notably “Here I Am (Come and Take Me), which he co-wrote with Teenie Hodges.

The same formula was utilized on Mi>Have A Good Time, though the best numbers were his cover of “Nothing Takes The Place of You” and two tunes he co-wrote with producer Willie Mitchell, “Keep Me Cryin’” and “Happy.”

Though she’s highly respected and quite admired by numerous musicians, Ann Peebles has never had the big pop smashes of some other female soul singers. But the three reissues here If This Is Heaven, Part Time Love and The Handwriting On The Wall chronicle the finest selections from a super vocalist who could do confessionals, powerhouse uptempo numbers or slow, sweltering sagas with equal ease and authority.

“Part Time Love” is probably the best known song on these three discs, but there’s a host of other great ones, from the blistering cover of “Steal Away” on Part Time Love to “Old Man With Young Ideas” and “You’re More Than I Can Stand” on “The Handwriting Is On The Wall” an “If This Is Heaven,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” and “It Must Be Love” on If This Is Heaven.

The final disc Ooh Baby, You Turn Me On was a set of instrumentals that gave ace producer Willie Mitchell, who began his career as a trumpeter, his own showcase.

The songs range from inspired (“Slippin & Sliddin,” “Soul Serenade,” “Toodlin’) to almost easy listening (covers of “Sunny,” “Respect,” “Cleo’s Mood). It’s an erratic, sometimes rewarding and other times almost listless set, but it did reveal the other talents of a legendary soul producer.