The Ultimate Collection (Motown ‘97) Rating: A
Along with Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson was the heart and soul of early Motown. A peerless songwriter (for his group and many others, most notably The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye) and producer, he was also a terrific singer, lending his impeccable falsetto to songs that exuded class. Smokey’s greatest strength was as a brilliantly incisive and romantic lyricist with a knack for memorable metaphors, and The Miracles (Warren Moore, Bobby Rodgers, Ronnie White, and Claudette Rodgers) provided strong harmony backing, often giving Smokey’s songs a doo-wop and/or (due to the presence of Claudette, Smokey’s future wife and later ex-wife) “girl group” flavor. Notable early hits included the loose and lively “Going To A Go-Go,” the simple yet effective pop rocker “Shop Around,” the live showstopper “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (great opening line: “I don’t like you, but I love you,” plus a great overall vocal from Smokey), the silly, upbeat fun of “Mickey’s Monkey,” and “I Second That Emotion,” which is simply a classic pop song. I’m guessing you know some if not all of these songs, and you certainly should know “Ooo Baby Baby,” a timeless ballad with an especially tender vocal from Smokey, “The Tracks Of My Tears,” perhaps Smokey’s greatest creation (brilliantly affecting lyric: “so take a good look at my face, you'll see my smile looks out of place, look a little closer it's easy to see the tracks of my tears”) which was prominently featured in the movies The Big Chill and Platoon, and “Tears Of A Clown,” an audacious, inventive carnival ditty that’s as playful and clever musically as it is lyrically (thematically it basically echoes “The Tracks Of My Tears”). These songs and quite a few others here contain universal emotions (straightforward song titles include “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage,” "We've Come Too Far For It To End," "What's So Good About Goodbye?," and "(You Can) Depend On Me") that dig deep, making them truly moving creations that transcend the time during which they were recorded. The Ultimate Collection contains other stellar songs as well, including broken hearted ballads (a Smokey specialty) like "Bad Girl" and “Who's Lovin' You,” supremely melodic and singable pop songs such as "Way Over There," “I Like It Like That,” “My Girl Has Gone,” and “Baby, Baby Don't Cry,” as well as the sexy, sighing “More Love," later a Top Ten hit for Kim Carnes (of "Bette Davis Eyes" fame). Perhaps Smokey’s songs could be samey sounding, and this certainly isn’t the grittiest or most rocking music around, but for smooth r&b-based pop songs these are pretty tough to beat. Like all top Motown acts, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles were a singles force to be reckoned with, and these 25 tracks should fit the bill for most fans, as it covers the prime years (1962-1970) and hits the group’s highest highs while delving deep enough to include a few choice b-sides and album cuts. Smokey Robinson went onto a notable solo career in 1972 (the Miracles continued without him with far less success), but most people would agree that he rarely scaled the heights of his earlier work. Pop music doesn’t get much better or more intelligent than a well-written Smokey Robinson song (Bob Dylan, not one who readily hands out praise, called him “America’s greatest living poet,” an overstatement to be sure but one can see why he made it), and having some Smokey is essential to any serious soul/pop/rock collection. Might as well start here; those who want more should invest in either the double cd Anthology or The Thirty Fifth Anniversary Collection, a 4-cd box set.