Shortly, a caravan of stars will join Smokey Robinson on his brand new album, to perform some of the most-loved songs of the past 50 years with their creator. His duet partners range from modern marquee names such as John Legend and Jessie J to heritage hitmakers such as Elton John and James Taylor.
But a half-century ago, there was The Temptations Sing Smokey.
David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams – The Temptations – were arguably the most sublime interpreters of Smokey’s work. This album is the evidence, offering Kendricks’ feather-light falsetto as doppelganger of Robinson’s own peerless tones, and Ruffin’s honey-and-sandpaper delivery as the epitome of rhythm, blues and soul.
The album is actually rather like a college graduation celebration, beginning with care-free exuberance (“The Way You Do The Things You Do”) and closing with the slow, emotional realisation that the night’s end means parting company with friends who will never again gather like this. And yet, as five voices round on that final, melancholy note, everyone in the room is reminded that “(You Can) Depend On Me.”
The college metaphor extends to the graduation of these five young men, because The Temptations Sing Smokey did mark the Temptations’ transition to the real world. After the commercial failure of their first seven singles for Motown, Smokey Robinson wrote (with fellow Miracle Bobby Rogers) and produced the breakthrough with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” It’s an irresistible sequence of similes – Robinson’s trademark – powered by a swinging band track, topped by Kendricks’ compelling lead.
No wonder this was their first bona fide hit, an R&B No. 1 in 1964 and a pop crossover triumph. Welcome to the future, to the demanding round of hit records and follow-ups, of showcase gigs and sell-out tours, of media demands, irreconcilable itineraries and personal challenges. Welcome to stardom.
Even so, there are marvellous reminders in this album of the Temptations’ origins, of five mellifluous voices, forged in doowop (“Baby, Baby I Need You”) and sometimes an older, unadorned style (“What’s So Good About Good Bye”). The ballad “You’ll Lose A Precious Love” is also a throwback to 1950s street-corners, wherein David Ruffin’s lead tears out the listener’s heart while Melvin Franklin’s impossible bass pleads, “Don’t destroy this precious love.”
Much of this album was recorded at Motown in 1964, as the momentum of record sales gave the group – and Smokey – fresh confidence. Robinson refits several songs that he recorded with the Miracles (“Way Over There,” “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”) and Mary Wells (“You Beat Me To The Punch”), and in all cases, the Temptations shade them a little deeper. With “Who’s Lovin’ You,” none can outshine the Miracles’ anguished original, but Ruffin’s religious take comes close, complete with his glide up the register at the song’s end. This is the version, after all, which inspired Michael Jackson’s astonishing revisit five years later.
And so to the touchstone, the ticket to ride, Smokey’s – and Motown’s – monument for the ages: “My Girl.” He brought the song to New York’s Apollo Theatre, where both The Miracles and The Temptations were performing that October. An iconic photo captures the writer briefing his messengers backstage, with David Ruffin reading what appears to be a lyric sheet. Later, back in Detroit, Robinson assembled all the elements: James Jamerson’s opening bass line, Robert White’s ascending guitar figure, sweeping strings shaped by arranger Paul Riser and, above all, the rich cohesion of The Temptations. Hallelujah!
The stars were aligned and a future of unlimited opportunities beckoned, just like on graduation night.
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